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The Santa-free zone?! November 10, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s not even Thanksgiving, and Santa’s already hogging the headlines. Every year, like all of you, our friend Ben witnesses the struggle between those who would like to preserve the magic and/or the religious aspect of Christmas versus those who view it as an opportunity to fill their coffers for another year. “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” billboards crop up around here almost as fast as the “See Santa at the mall!” ads. But going so far as to ban Santa entirely, as a German group, The Bonifatiuswerk of German Catholics, is proposing, strikes our friend Ben as positively Scroogelike.

I was stupefied to see a blog post yesterday, courtesy of our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, called “Do we need a ‘Santa-Free’ zone?” The post, by Kathy Lauer-Williams, reports on the push by this German group to do away with the Jolly Old Elf entirely, replacing him with the austere but compassionate St. Nicholas, 3rd- and 4th-century Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, who was the inspiration for Santa. Forget “Ho, ho, ho!” and fireside cookies and milk. Forget a sleighful of toys pulled by reindeer. Forget Mrs. Claus, elves, Rudolph, and the whole North Pole thing.

Our friend Ben assumes that most people know that the transformation of the Bishop of Myra into the Jolly Old Elf was the work of Clement Clarke Moore and his 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (originally called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”). In the poem, the saintly bishop, who was known for secretly giving gifts to parishioners in need (most notably filling poor girls’ shoes with gold so they’d have a dowry and could get married), was transformed into a tiny, plump, red-cheeked, jolly fellow wrapped in furs, who arrived in a sleigh pulled by airborne reindeer, dropped down families’ chimneys on Christmas Eve, and filled their stockings and the space under their Christmas trees with toys.

Say what? Furs? Tiny? ‘Fraid so. Today’s Santa owes his incarnation to the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the big, hearty guy with the glistening white beard and pointy hat, the red velvet suit with white ermine trim, and the glossy black boots back in the 1860s. But though Nast and Moore were both Americans, we can’t shoulder all the blame. Instead, let’s blame it on Queen Victoria.

After all, it was Vicky who popularized the German idea of a Christmas celebration, including presents under a trimmed evergreen tree, after marrying her beloved Prince Albert. Christmas became a child-centric holiday of sweets and gifts, of magic and joy, the world of “The Nutcracker Suite.” Cards and cornucopias of treats and sugar plums and sweetmeats became the standard. In the U.S., where times were harder, stockings stuffed with nuts and an orange in the toe—a coveted luxury—and a few handmade toys were the norm. A candy cane of sugar and peppermint was a great treat, a new pair of mittens or skates a real luxury. 

Silence Dogood and I have a copy of a version of Tasha Tudor’s “The Night Before Christmas” in which she depicts Santa as Moore intended, tiny, swathed in furs, red-cheeked, enveloped in pipe smoke. We cherish it, as much for the animals who are having their own celebration on every page as for the depiction of Santa. But we have no problem with today’s corpulent, red-suited version, either. Jolly, joyful, and generous sum up our views of who Santa ought to be.

Okay, we find it annoying—even horrifying—to see Christmas stuff and visits from Santa advertised before it’s even Hallowe’en. Yes, it’s hard for kids to believe when there’s a Santa at every strip mall. But many of those Santas are freezing their behinds off to raise money for charities like The Salvation Army. Our friend Ben and Silence are sure that St. Nicholas would approve, as would our Lord, the Reason for the Season. It’s up to parents to keep kids away from the department-store Santas. And let’s not forget, even those Santas have found seasonal employment at least during the endless recession. Rather than shutting them down, maybe we should be congratulating them for finding a way to stay off food stamps and welfare.

But here’s the part that really shocked our friend Ben: The blog post claimed that the evil force behind today’s Santa phenomenon was… Coca-Cola! Coke featured Santa in its ads around Christmastime in the 1930s and 1940s. Coke’s colors are red and white. The blogger proclaims, “Is it a coincidence that red and white also are Coca-Cola’s colors?”

Well, probably. Maybe the Coke ad moguls were pleased by the coincidence, but they were probably more inspired by a clever ad campaign to link Santa to their famous beverage. Gee, with all that work to do in such a time-valued manner, surely Santa would appreciate a cold, carbonated shot of caffeine and sugar! (Our friend Ben is not sure if cocaine had been deleted from Coke’s ads at that point, but I’d guess so. “The ideal brain food” had been deemed too decadent in the face of two World Wars and the Great Depression.)    

Getting Santa as a frontman for your product would sure be cheaper than, say, Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan. And coming from the South, as Silence Dogood and I do, where Coke is king and Pepsi is revolting, this attack on Coke seems especially grating.

Let’s leave Santa alone, shall we, and take responsibility for keeping the sacred in our Christmases instead of proclaiming ourselves victims: “We’re fat because of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts!” “TV is sapping our strength!” Oh, please. We’re educated adults who can make our own decisions. We can stay away from the fast-food joints and the remote. We can celebrate Santa without making him a byword for overconsumption. We can enjoy Christmas as a holiday—a time for ceremony as well as celebration—rather than using it as yet another reason for division.

For most of us, Christmas is the best-loved time in all the year, a time when every family’s traditions are celebrated, when each house sparkles with lights and candles, when families come together for festive food, carols, worship, and Christmas stories, be they readings from the Gospel of Luke and Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or beloved Christmas movies. “Joy” is the word that sums up everything about Christmas. Joy to the world and to each one of us. Surely there’s a place for Santa, the embodiment of joy, in our Christmases? The world would be a bleaker, more joyless and even more diet-driven (“You can lose weight over the holidays! Click here to learn how!”) place without him.

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A whole different Santa Claus. December 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were happily browsing at our local bookstore one night this week when our friend Delilah ran up to us. “You have to read this!” she said, waving a book in our faces. “It’s hysterical!”

The book, it turned out, was Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas, by Chet Williamson and James Rice. Now, we live in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Pennsylvania German (“Dutch” is a corruption of “Deitsch,” the dialect word for “Deutsch,” German) is still spoken, and you can still hear Dutchified English at local farmers’ markets and flea markets. “The yogurt cheese is all,” a woman will explain in a lilting accent to a disappointed customer, who has no need for a translation, as we did on first moving here: “it’s all been sold,” “it’s all gone.”

Having now been here a good many years, we could appreciate the droll humor of the book, in which Der Belsnickel, the Pennsylvania Dutch version of Santa Claus, arrives at the farmstead “chust” after the family has “outened the lights,” dressed as an elderly Amishman and riding on an old-time plow drawn by eight bemused-looking cows. (That would be “caaaaaahhh-us” in Penna. Dutch.)

FYI, this book is part of a series that includes Cajun Night Before Christmas, Texas Night Before Christmas, Gullah Night Before Christmas, Redneck Night Before Christmas, Sailor’s Night Before Christmas, and even Firefighter’s Night Before Christmas, so there’s no need to feel left out. And there’s a Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas Coloring Book, too, so the kids can color in the charmingly amusing illustrations for themselves.

Having not seen any of the others, our friend Ben can’t say how Santa is portrayed in them. As far as I know, in America, anyway, Der Belsnickel is the only actual Santa variant. (In Europe, good St. Nicholas, Sinterclaas, and others sometimes take the place of the Santa we know and love.) But seeing the Belsnickel in the gentle parody of the beloved classic reminded me of another Belsnickel-related incident that had happened mere weeks before.

Silence and our friend Ben were at the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, PA for their annual Christmas crafts show and sale, featuring traditional Penna. Dutch crafts. We were with a group of friends when one held up a primitive handmade cookie cutter. “A woman asked me if this was supposed to be a reindeer!” she exclaimed. Everyone (except Silence and yours truly, who stood there staring at the cookie cutter in bemusement) roared with laughter. “Couldn’t she even recognize Der Belsnickel?!” someone gasped. Everyone laughed uproariously. Hmmm. It sure looked sort of reindeer-like to me and Silence.

All this reminded our friend Ben that perhaps it was time to look into the tradition of Der Belsnickel more closely. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the crusty old character:

“Belsnickel is the fur-clad Santa of the Palatinate (Pfalz) region of northwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Wurttemberg. In Pennsylvania Dutch communities, it is also a mythical creature who visits children at Christmas time. If they have not been good, they will find coal and/or switches in their stockings. The Belsnickel was a scary creature not well loved except by parents wanting to keep their children in line.”

An excerpt from the Historical Review Press website has more to say: “To Pennsylvanian children of the 19th Century, the giver of Christmas gifts was not a benevolent old gentleman who dropped down a chimney to fill waiting stockings, but a menacing creature called the Belsnickel. Usually a neighboring farmer dressed in outlandish costume, Belsnickel brought goodies for well-behaved girls and boys, and carried a whip or sticks to punish the naughty. His visit was designed to strike terror into the hearts of the most recalcitrant, as he rattled his sticks over the window panes before bursting in the door.

“Customs varied from community to community, but the enormous role the Belsnickel played in Christmas celebrations in evidenced by the many cookie cutters, chocolate molds, dolls, papier-mache figurines, scrapbook cut outs, and postcards that survive from the era…. Usually American Belsnickels wore masks and carried whips to fighten the children. If a shaggy bearskin coat or skunk skin cap was available, so much the better, for they fulfilled the name, which translates ‘Nicholas in furs’. Grown ups remembering their own childhood were often amused by the figure, but children, vulnerable in their boundless belief, were genuinely frightened.”   

The article goes on to say that the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, with its portrayal of Santa Claus as a plump, hearty, jolly figure, rang the death knell over Der Belsnickel, who held on until the end of the Nineteenth Century but then faded into folklore in the face of the more benevolent Santa. However, you can still find him depicted in folk art and antiques, especially here in Pennsylvania Dutch country. And yes, he still tends to be skinny—the anorexic opposite of the “jolly old elf” whose ample belly shook when he laughed—still carries a big bundle of switches, and still looks really mean. But then again, maybe he’s just hungry!