originally published December 22, 2013
While shopping for a pair of Christmas socks for my personal cheese carver at the mall yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the straggling line of drooling children awaiting their turn on Santa’s lap. The expressions on their parents’ faces was one of zombified exhaustion and haunted anticipation that their kids will beg the old man for something they had neglected to buy.
I was reminded of when I stopped believing in Santa; it was about five minutes after I started asking questions. “He comes down the chimney,” they told me. But I spent every Christmas eve at my grandmother’s house, and she had no fireplace. “Oh,” they said.” “Well, he slips under the door then.”
Bullshit. Had my family been better liars I might have kept up with the fantasy a little longer. Maybe the flaws inherent in the Santa legend itself need to be addressed. Had Santa’s concoctors infused a bit of Gene Rodenberry-type imagination into the tale (“Lieutenant-Commander Blitzen beams Santa into every living room..”), they might have sold me. But Santa is a locally-brewed phenomenon – maybe one of the legends or traditions performed elsewhere has it right.
Saint Nicholas is the celebrity gift-giver throughout most of Europe, dropping his goodies almost three weeks before Santa makes his run here. His sidekick is a guy named Zwarte Piet, or literally ‘Black Pete’. He showed up in an 1850 book published by Jan Schenkman, an Amsterdam school teacher, as Saint Nick’s humble servant. Over the years the slave-boy got a name: Pete. Traditionally he is portrayed by a person in blackface.
Late in the 20th century, as blackface came to be seen as generally un-cool by most of western society, rumblings about altering Zwarte Piet’s appearance were heard. But with 92% of the Dutch populace believing him to be a non-racist character, no significant change is likely to happen.
I’m not entirely certain how a goofy black slave who labors for a plump, well-fed white master can be viewed as anything but racist, but then I’ve been told I’m somewhat less than awash with the Christmas spirit.
Scandinavian Santa is similar to ours, but somewhat more diminutive and surly. Tomte (also called the Nisse in Norway and Denmark) is no taller than three feet, and he lives secretly in each house, acting as its guardian. He’ll protect children and animals and even help out with chores, but if you insult him, he’ll play tricks on you and possibly kill your livestock. Tomte / Nisse doesn’t like rudeness – swear, mistreat animals or urinate in the barn and you might find yourself at the receiving end of one of his cruel pranks.
When Christianity elbowed its way into Scandinavian life, the Tomte faced the possibility of being relegated to pre-Christian heathen status. In the 1840s the Nisse became known as the bearer of Christmas presents – a tradition that scooted around the nations that had traditionally embraced the tale. Now he lives in a nearby forest – not quite in the house but not so far away as the North Pole – and he uses the front door, not the chimney for entry. Not bad. I like a Santa with sinister origins.
Looking for a good mash-up of Christmas tradition and Satanic imagery? Look no further than the Yule Goat, a symbol of Scandinavian winter gift-giving that predates even the notion of the Tomte. The goat is a symbol of the Norse god Thor (though it’d never make it as a CGI-heavy action flick). Since the eleventh century men would dress up in goat costumes, accompanied by a Saint Nicholas figure, which symbolized St. Nick’s victory over the devil.
Santa battling the devil. Now there’s a movie I’d pay to watch.
As the Tomte legend became more popular, the Yule Goat settled into the background. In the early part of the 19th century he was the giver of Christmas gifts, but now he doesn’t show up anywhere but as an ornament for the tree. Sometimes towns and cities will construct a large straw goat in his honor, but according to my research, and here I’m quoting directly from the source, “these goats tend to be illegally set on fire before Christmas.” I suppose that’s understandable.
In Japan, while Santa Kuroosu or Santa-san may bring you gifts on Christmas morning, the real giver of holiday joy is none other than Colonel Sanders. In 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken (that’s KFC to you neophytes) launched a campaign to equate Christmas dinner with their product. The holiday wasn’t really a huge deal there at the time, and finding a full turkey or chicken wasn’t an easy feat.
Nearly forty years have passed, and the tradition that began as a fun indulgence is now intricately woven into their culture, right alongside large-eyed anime and tentacle porn. Other fast food joints have tried to keep pace – McDonalds has put out the iCon Box featuring chicken strips, chicken nuggets, fries and a cell phone strap. But when the 25th rolls around Ronald McDonald won’t touch the crumbs of KFC’s sales in Japan.
Much of the Latin American world honors El Niño Dios, or the Child God, a.k.a. Jesus, or Santa as the Christmas gift-giver. Chile calls him Viejito Pascuero, or “Old Man Christmas”. In the Dominican Republic kids get gifts from the Three Kings, but they have to hang on until the Epiphany on January 6. That’s almost two more weeks of shopping time, though I bet stores start advertising as ridiculously early as they do here.
But if you’re looking for a real holiday celebration in South America, you’ll want to spend Christmas in Venezuela. In Caracas, kids go to bed with a piece of string tied around their toe, the other end tossed outside the window. Then when everyone gets up for early morning mass, they strap on roller skates and zip through the town to church, tugging on any strings that are still dangling above. Sounds perfectly safe, doesn’t it?
Streets are closed in Caracas on Christmas day until 8:00am. Cars can stay put – Christmas morning is for roller skating and nothing else. I can dig that. Roller skates and fried chicken – those are traditions I can get behind. I’m not sure if Jesus would be into the roller skating thing if he were here… I think he’d rock it on a skateboard though.