You know Jesus was an important dude when his birthday is the single greatest consumer event in history.
A day which, as much as the GNP, is the current barometer of a country's fiscal health.
Despite bumper stickers to the contrary (usually on cars with fake-wood panelling filled with lotsa kids), Jesus is not “The Reason for the Season.”
With chains like Walmart and Tesco now being instructed to put up holiday displays in September, it's obvious consumer debt, pine-tree deforestation and Super Nintendo are what the season is all about.
It is astounding how a solemn day of worship has so quickly metamorphosed into rabid consumer frenzy, and Santa Claus is a big part of it.
However, Santa and Jesus were not always such contrasting figures. To understand who Santa is, we must travel back to a time (around 50 A.D.) when Christianity was a profoundly supernatural religion full of active spirits, devil possessions and magic powers. Santa Claus is really Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Turkish Bishop and the patron saint of sailors and pawnbrokers.
While not considered “Jolly,” Ol' Saint Nick did have the power over life and death (having brought numerous sailors back from the dead), could perform exorcisms and, according to legend, was born standing up. The good saint's gift giving rep originates from a single incident in which he gave a destitute man gold coins to prevent him from selling his daughters into prostitution.
He was considered a benefactor of children mostly because of a famous scene in which he reconstituted three youths who had been cut into pieces and sold as meat by a mad innkeeper (the image is all over European churches, with some even describing their saviour as “Sinter Claes”).
It takes many hundred of years of an historical game of 'he said/she said' and an extensive advertising campaign by Coca-Cola before the solemn bald Turkish saint morphs into a laughing magical fat guy from the North Pole.
The facts are fuzzy as far as how it actually happened. It is speculated that in the 1600s the image of Saint Nick and a benevolent reindeer-riding Nordic legend named Sinta Claes merged forevermore.
As centuries elapsed, gift giving on both Saint Nicholas Day (mostly candy in the shoes) and Christmas (traditionally in the form of small practical 'notions' like pens) were consolidated, with only old-world and Central European Catholics still celebrating Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th.
The nations of Europe each developed their own variations on Santa Claus. In Germany, the same country that once advised parents to pay an ugly old villager to wash their child's genitals and teach “the proper fear of sex,” Santa has an evil side-kick called Knecht Ruprecht.
To this day in rural villages, good German children score gifts from Kris Kringle (from the German “Krist kindlein”—literally “Christ child”), while bad children are stuffed in a sack, dragged through town and whipped by a deformed villager dressed as Knect Ruprecht (“Devil Stable Boy”).
Holland similarly has Black Pete, who, while not played by a cripple, makes up for it on the cultural insensitivity scale by wearing black-face. Christmas in Sweden is a free-for-all of Santas wearing crowns of candles, crowding streets, each vying for the gifts of hard-liquor they receive from appreciative parents.
Here in the Czech Republic, Santa usually cruises down to earth in a funky Bishop's costume (long white priest's vestments, white miter emblazoned with gold cross and a golden staff), guided by a Good Angel on the eve of St. Nicolas day (svaty Mikulas), where they meet up with the Devil, who stops torturing dead tram drivers long enough to pay visits to the local kiddies.
Nick carries with him a book of sins that he consults in relation to each child; too many bad marks and the child is pronounced bad, just a few and the kid is alright.
Bad boys and girls get coal or potatoes, good ones get candy and small presents. A visit to the pubs that night will find the judgemental trios multiplying by the tens, each drunkenly regaling the night's stories.
Just as immigrants to the New World had their names changed as they passed through the gates of Ellis Island, so was Santa culturally castrated as he made the leap across the Great Pond.
The punishing horse whip of Knect Ruprecht or France's Pelze Noel was replaced by a lump of coal—at best, quite practical, at worst, hardly akin to a public beating.
Widespread acceptance of the Santa Klaus myth in North America only began around the turn of the last century, thanks to a Coca-Cola ad campaign changing his image from that of a small elf-like creature into a poster boy for consumption, joviality and mirth. As the cult of Santa took hold, numerous clergy members, child psychiatrists and social critics took protest.
H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw thought he was evil. A 1939 bill to congress banning Saint Nick's use in advertising failed. In 1950, a Michigan bank that erected a billboard warning that “There is no Santa Claus! WORK! EARN! SAVE!” was destroyed by angry parents.
Today, efforts to wipe out Santa have been completely drowned out by the ring of holiday cash registers, but a general air of intense cynicism lingers.
Gone are the days of innumerable film and record versions of Clement Clarke Moore's gentle A Visit From Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. “'Twas the Night Before Christmas”).
Like clowns, today's images of Santa are now often manacing. Heavy Metal bands like King Diamond have added a murderous Kris Kringle to their catalogue of album and t-shirt art. Starting with Joan Collins as a devious wife being stalked by an axe-wielding St. Nick in 1972's Tales From The Crypt, there has been a whole peculiar sub-genre of killer Santa movies.
Silent Night, Deadly Night, whose evil Santa ads sandwiched in between holiday prime-time programming caused housewives to picket theatres, has spawned five direct-to-video sequels.
Proto-yuppie Tim Robbins was mugged by a bell-ringing Santa in 1990's Jacob's Ladder.
Best of all is Christmas Evil (“He'll Sleigh You!”), a.k.a. Terror In Toyland, an obscure 1980 effort which John Waters called “the greatest holiday film ever made.“
It centres around a repressed New Yorker who loves Christmas so much, he dresses up as Santa and murders all those who lack the proper holiday spirit. This film walks the right line between horror and camp, and is chock-full of giggles and priceless holiday songs (“Daddy's Drinking Up Our Xmas” and James Brown's “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto”).
The killer Claus is played by Brandon Maggart, a former Sesame Street cast member and daddy to the newest entry in the Alainis Morrisette adult alternative sweepstakes; Fiona Apple. Santa has even shown his face (or other anatomical parts) in the hardcore porn world.
Don Holliday's infamous Holliday Gay was one of the first books, followed in the 70s by paperbacks with titles like Makin' it with Santa (department store Santa scores with shoppers), Babes in Toyland (Saint Nick gives little boys what they really want for Xmas) and on the video front, the self-explanatory Here Cums Santa Claus.
Quite a long way from his origins as a revered catholic saint.
Santa Claus has come to represent nothing so much as the time and place where he exists. In a time where life was hard and belief in a higher power the only thing that kept you going, Saint Nicholas shared stained glass windows with Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
As struggling immigrants became prosperous, middle-class Americans, out of touch with the daily reminders of death and disease, Santa Claus shared their dreams of a better life through newer and greater possessions.
As we go into the new millennium, and as nations struggle to find replacements for the shattered foundations of society—faith, family and community—Santa taunts us as a reminder of an innocence seemingly lost forever.
It remains to be seen whether a twenty-first century cyberchild can suspend disbelief and embrace such an archaic figure, or whether Santa is destined to become no different than Paul Bunyon and Johnny Appleseed, distant real-life figures now doomed to the status of historical curios.
But don't judge ol' Santa too harshly, you'd be a little wifty too if you lived ass-deep in the snow with a bunch of freaked out elves and only came once a year...
A little known Christmas "Fact"
Not long ago and far away, Santa was getting ready for his annual trip… but there were problems everywhere. Four of his elves got sick, and the trainee elves did not produce the toys as fast as the regular ones, so Santa was beginning to feel the pressure of being behind schedule.
Then Mrs. Claus told Santa that her mother was coming to visit. This stressed Santa even more. When he went to harness the reindeer, he found that three of them were about to give birth and two had jumped the fence and were out, heaven knows where. More Stress.
Then when he began to load the sleigh, one of the boards cracked and the toy bag fell to the ground and scattered the toys. So, frustrated, Santa went into the house for a cup of coffee and a shot of whisky. When he went to the cupboard, he found the elves had hidden the booze and there was nothing to drink.
In his frustration, he dropped the coffee pot and it broke into hundreds of little pieces all over the kitchen floor. He went to get the broom and found that the mice had eaten the straw it was made from.
Just then the doorbell rang and Santa swore on his way to the door. He opened the door and there was a little angel with a great big Christmas tree. The angel said "Where would you like me to put this tree Santa?“
And that my friends, is how the little angel came to be on top of the Christmas tree...