Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
– Joseph Campbell
Given the televised ubiquity of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, most Americans are familiar with Linus van Pelt’s famous recitation of Luke 2:1-14, the Lord’s annunciation to the Shepherds: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Linus offered those vaunted lines in answer to the question of what Christmas is all about.
But the thing is, Linus was wrong.
Indeed, in echoing the hoary old “reason for the Season,” Linus falls into a common American trap, whereby the true, rich sources of Christmas’s multiple meanings are veiled behind a simplistic, expedient, ravenous Christian theology that effectively obscures the very meanings it lays claim to.
So in order to truly understand Christmas, we must lift this veil, and gaze directly upon our subject in all it’s sweet, innocent glory. In so doing, we find ourselves face to face with one of the stranger characters ever allowed into the American home.
And by Santa Claus, I am referring to the American species, being a jolly, overweight alcoholic who lives at the North Pole with a band of possibly enslaved elves, and travels the world on Christmas Eve to descend through our chimneys and deliver presents to good boys and girls.
Our foundational understanding of the meanings of Christmas are filtered through Santa, even if we don’t believe. So, If we are to understand the true meaning of Christmas, we must first understand this concatenation of historical bric-a-brac, mythological fluff, and theosophical pixie dust, considering some of his roles in turn.
l. THE KING IN THE NORTH
Any understanding of who is Santa Claus must reckon first with his connection to the North, as seen from the historical vantage of those who knew the North best: the Tungusic tribes of Northern Siberia. Living lives closely bound to nature, at latitudes that made her a most difficult partner, the Tungus tribes knew intimately the terror of the long, dark, frigid Siberian winters. And this terror began with the death of the oldest known article of human worship, the Sun.
The extreme Northerliness of these nomadic tribes meant that they suffered the Sun’s annual fall acutely. It was as if they could still feel that primitive, pre-verbal fear, that if the sun keeps getting lower and lower, it might disappear completely, plunging humanity into an eternal night of frigid blackness, for ever and ever!
With the stakes that high, it made sense to please the sun-gods, which these tribes did during the rituals of solstice, whereby the sun’s fall is finally arrested, light is reborn, warmth and community are restored, and Death is averted.
As quasi-religious rituals, these Solstice ceremonies were led by the senior spiritual authorities of their tribes, the Shaman. In fact, the word, Shaman, is from the Evenki Tungusic language, and translates roughly to the word “Seer,” or “Knower.”
Another curious phenomenon of these Tungusic peoples was their reliance on a curious animal as their beasts of burden: The Reindeer. Tungusic tribes used Reindeer for meat, for milk, for hides, and — most importantly — for transportation.
This is a photo from 1901, collected in the work of the great Prussian antropolgist, Georg Adoph Errman, who travelled the Siberian frontier in the early 1800.
And here is an illustration, taken from an interview collected by Errman, in which the tribesman described how the animals were used to pull sledges in the winter months:
(…are you beginning to feel me, here?)
For these tribes, the reindeer was a holy animal. Another bond that the Tungusic shaman shared with the Reindeer is a love for one of the few stimulants available in those Northern climates, the fly Agaric mushroom.
These small red-and-white mushrooms grow among the pine trees of the Siberian forests, are beloved by reindeer, and highly psychoactive. As such, they were reserved primarily for the privileged ritual use of the village Shaman, who availed himself liberally of their magical properties during the highest of the high rituals, Solstice.
These tribes typically celebrated the solstice in large semi-communal arctic yurts, which were pitched for the depths of winter, and moved again in the spring.
One key feature of these yurts was the smoke hole, or “chimney” at the structure’s peak, which, during the snowiest depths of winter, often doubled as a door, elevated as it was above the snowpack and drifts that so often occluded the lower levels.
So, our idea of North here finds it’s principal interpreter in the person of the Shaman presiding over his solstice rituals in the frigid heart of a Siberian winter, descending through the chimney, fresh from the Grateful Dead parking lot of the yurt’s roof, where perhaps he and his reindeer just shared a flight of Fly Agaric mushrooms.
Clearly, Santa’s ancestors taught much of what he knows.
II. THE CELEBRANT
Another fruitful window into Santa’s meanings can be that framing the antics of the celebrant. Santa’s famous jollyness, his social gregariousness (EVERY single HOUSE!), and his joyful consumption of alcohol all make him a clear relative of the greatest mythological celebrant we know: Pan.
But perhaps the spirit of the celebrant with which Christmas most directly nods to the past is in its relation to the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.
A solstice festival devoted to the pleasures of this world, Saturnalia celebrated with gift giving, drinking, feasting, and all kinds of nookie. It was the highest of the Roman holidays, and was staged for a full 5 days commencing on the Solstice and culminating on December 25.
Now, ifrafting itself onto popular local traditions has long been a hallmark of Christianity (see the Origin of the Virgin of Guadaloupe), perhaps that tradition finds its origin here, with this first and most spectacular act of cultural appropriation in Western history, being that time in AD383 when Pope Julius the 1st, in a shameful attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Saturnalia, authorized December 25th as Jesus’ birthday.
From Saturnalia, one can draw a direct line to the emphasis on celebration, feasting, drinking, and cheer that dominate Santa’s world. And for all it’s attempt to colonize Saturnalia with Christian concerns, it seems that Pope Julius underestimated the social strength of his adversary: You can take Christ out of Christmas much more easily than you can the celebration.
III. THE DENDROLATRIST
Santa is depicted as a tree hugger throughout his long history, As such, he is allied with the great pantheon of Trees throughout history: The tree of Life; the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; the beloved trees of the German druids.
Most importantly, he is allied with the great Yggdrassail, the Norse tree of heaven and Earth, This tree, at which the gods are said to gather daily, is also allied with the Shamanic traditions of Lapland, in which trees are said to span the worlds.
Yggdrassail is closely associated with Odin, the Norse god who once hung himself from it’s branches to gain knowledge of good and evil via the sacrifice. This special relationship is subject of another famous Solstice celebration, held in Odin’s name: Yule.
During Yule, a specially cut log, meant to burn for several days, was dragged inside a communal hall, to fuel a riot of feasting and toasting. Also typical of Yule was the practice of festooning these communal buildings with living greenery, in a foretaste of the full-blown Christmas tree.
IV. SAINT NICK
While Santa’s distant ancestors are to be found in the Northern traditions of Paganism and Norse mythology, his more direct predecessor is an utterly different creature.
A historic figure, Nicholas of Myra lived on the Southern Mediterannean coast of what is now Turkey in the 4th century AD, and is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant theives, pawnbrokers, students, and, of course Children.
Among the miracles St. Nicholas performed is that of resurrecting the children pickled in Brine, depicted here. The children had been victims of an unscrupulous butcher, who intended to pass them off as ham during a famine.
Another tale locates the Stocking tradition, as it tells of how St. Nick intervened upon his neighbors, who’s patriarch, facing destitution, had instructed his three daughters to prepare for a life of prostitution by washing their stockings for the next day’s debut. According to many tellings, St. Nick threw money through the window — some tales say it was a chimney — of their house that night, whereupon it landed in the stockings.
Veneration of Saint Nick reached its apotheosis in Holland, where it took root in a popular communal feast celebrated on St. Nicholas’ name day, the 6th of December. And it is in this ritualistic celebration that Saint Nicholas begins to directly embody the attributes of Santa Claus, travelling as he does from rooftop to rooftop, rewarding children with presents; and vacating the bad ones through a partnership with Krampus, the famed Dark Spirit of Christmas. Embodied as the racist trope “Zwarte Piete,” this dark, malevolent spirit of Christmas stands in contrast to the light of St. Nick, chastising bad children where Nick rewards good ones, and embodying the chaos, darkness and fear that are the shadow of Saint Nick’s annual celebration of order, lightness, and joy.
V. SINTER KLASS IN THE NEW WORLD
Sinterklaas was a Dutch folk cosmology hit. He easily made the move across the Atlantic to the New World with the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. The ubiquity of the Saint among that early colony was dutifully narrated by Washington Iriving’s Deitrich Knickerbocker alias in his History of New York. in 1809. Irving even describes Saint Nick’s carved image at the prow of the West India Trading Company’s Goede Vrouw ship, which bore the original Dutch settlers to the New World. This description, along with a scattering of other references to the impish, pipe-smoking Saint, planted the seed of Santa firmly in New World soil.
Irving’s good friend, Clement Clark Moore, who was married to a Van Cordtlandt, als o knew the Dutch traditions of Sinterklaas. Moore penned his famous poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, in 1823, capturing indelibly the first full fledged expression of Santa Claus.
Midwifed into visual consistency with the definitive help of famed Germman-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, Santa Claus made the scene in a special Post-Civil War edition of Harper’s in 1863, and soon became a beloved annual staple of that paper. Nast continued to refine his character, adding girth, jollity, and all manner of detail about Santa’’s North Pole home, his list of good and bad children, his all-seeing telescope, and his reindeer.
Perhaps the best-known of Nast’s images is this 1881 sketch of the rotund celebrant from the North Pole, smoking his pipe, preparing to make his presents known.
VI. SANTA SATAN
Moore’s poem was first bound together with illustrations of Saint Nick in a stand-alone pamphlet in 1848–coincidentally, the publication date of another great pamphlet, the Communist Manifesto. And just as Karl Marx’s great broadside has given rise to a whole constellation of social actions, ethical behaviors, and commercial complications, so Moore’s Christmas confection has grown up into an obese, overwrought, and capital-intensive American phenomenon in its own right.
Leaving aside for now the twinned destinies of these two portly, white-bearded contemplators of commodities, we must yet acknowledge one final masterstroke in the framing of the Santa Claus myth for American tastes. As this past weekend’s “Santa Con” event in New York provided ample evidence, one of the articles of faith embraced by all avatars of Santa is the color of his robes.
Yet the ubiquitous red and white garments of Saint Nick stem not, as is wrongly assumed, from Nast’s illustrations (Nast worked primarily in Black and White), nor even from the habits of the Dutch (Sinter Klaas often sports robes of green or tan), but rather from the efforts of the archetypal American company, Coca-Cola.
While Santa had been clad in red long before Coke had its way with him, it was the Coca Cola company’s dizzying, feverish branding of Santa Claus at the height of the Great Depression that finalized our collective image of him as a fat (some would say obese), jolly (some would say alcoholic), red-suited old man.
Coca Cola’s energetic branding efforts had been necessitated by the stripping of cocaine from their magic formula in the 1920s, and the consequent tanking in sales among the adult crowd that had come to rely on the drink to “lift the spirits.” In one poignant image, the famous Coca-Cola Cocaine Elf can be seen all but passing the torch to his Santanic successor, who presents a decidedly more alcoholic demeanor.
This image, along with countless other full-color Coca-Cola ads, blanketed the newspaper trade throughout the great depression, often with the company itself sponsoring the expensive color-process newspriting of these holiday ads in exchange for pigment-level control of the colors, ensuring the Coca-cola red of Santa’s famous suit.
Coca Cola’s is merely the first of many, many wholesale kidnappings of Santa’s image by corporate interests. After all, a socially omnivorous, intimately accepted purveyor of casual commodities is a high-quality mascot for any 20th-century commercial enterprise. And so, in an inflationary America, bent on turning its Sauronic eye of free-flowing capital on any locus of social energy, Santa, the noble myth of antiquity, that metaphor for connection and presence and joy, finds himself besieged afresh with each passing year, this time from endless commercial interests who would flog this humble god to sell cigarettes, booze, candy, and even the new iPhone 4S.
And it is here that we come full circle with the God of Christmas. For, if we are to hazard a guess at the meaning of Santa Claus, having mapped his mytho-historical DNA so thoroughly, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the overwhelming white noise put out in his name, by this new veil of crass commercialism. We must not confuse all the presents for presence.
To truly understand what Christmas is all about, we must recall this spirit of Santa Claus in its ideal form; we must turn from the shadows we are worshipping to see the real thing. And that real thing is that original, enduring, paganic image of the Solstice celebrant, whose exhortation to joy, to charity, and to presence, has been preserved down through the ages, in various avatars and mythological vessels, to serve that great social purpose and remind us, in the face of death, of the true value of life.
In the end, this is the great, ever-flowing mystery of the holidays that Santa guides us to see. Santa articulates the elemental social value of giving of oneself to one’s fellow man, of building the bonds of family and community through acts of charity. This is what Christmas is all about. It is about huddling together in the cold, whether metaphoric or literal, and giving presence to this human family, as broadly defined as possible. It is about recognizing ourselves reflected in those all around us, in all our random, perilous good fortune to be sharing the same space for a minute or two.
And that is all the presence we need.