Notes from 2017 – The war on what???

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Piety and commercialism, two unlovely attributes, are rampant at this time of year, so it’s time for my annual Christmas history post. If you search on “Christmas” here, you’ll find some interesting info on things like the Ghostly Christmas tree ship (Christmas Tree Facts and Legends), my grinchly rant on “Holiday music,” and most poignantly, the Christmas Truce, when to the chagrin of the generals, peace broke out on the western front on Dec. 25, 1914.

One thing you won’t find are notes on a “war on Christmas,” since there isn’t one. No one out here in the world cares whether you say “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” But if you look back in history, you’ll find a number of instances of Christians waging war on Christmas. Consider that:

–Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, wrote that “only sinners like Herod and Pharaoh celebrate their birthdays.”

–Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas until the ninth century reign of Charlemagne.

–During the middle ages, the Feast of Epiphany was more important than Christmas, which didn’t really emerge as a feast until 1377, when Richard II held a months long blowout with his nobles. Twenty-eight oxen and 300 sheep were slaughtered for the event, which according to chroniclers, featured “drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling.” Early Christmas carols were sung, but they were bawdy.

–In 1645, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England, and the Mayflower pilgrims outlawed it in Boston from 1658-1681.

–The New York City Police Department was formed after a Christmas riot in 1828. We read on that “The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season.”

–The “one percent” of the day responded with a campaign to transform a holiday long known for outlandish behavior into a commercial, family centered time, drafting the work of Thomas Nast, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and others for the task.

–Victorian sensibilities focused on family and children, and it was only then, in 1870 that Christmas become a legal holiday in America. We’ve been led to believe we celebrate this day as it has been done for centuries, but that simply isn’t so (Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas).

I have no complaints about Christmas as a spiritual holiday, and it’s a great time to remember family and friends, but I do my best to ignore the cultural trappings. I boycott stores that force employees to work on Thanksgiving. I celebrate “Buy Nothing Day,” instead of Black Friday.

I will end with an observation I once heard an Art History professor share on the iconography of Santa Claus.

Glance at the Thomas Nast illustration at the start of this post. If you saw this guy in your living room, you’d either unlock your gun safe or call 911. He’s looking for your liquor cabinet and fridge, as he carries a sack of loot boosted from the neighbors!

Now look at the “Jolly Old Elf” in this modern representation below – white hair and beard but a child’s nose! This is an infantilized Santa Claus! It may help to get parents of very young children out to Toys R Us, but I don’t think it does much good for the maturity level of the culture…

Happy Solstice everyone!

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

Daily Prompt: Memories of Holidays Past

What is your very favorite holiday? Recount the specific memory or memories that have made that holiday special to you.

3d - 400 - christmas_edited-1

Here is a story my father loved to tell. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when we’d take a Christmas tree to his assisted living place, he’d tell us about the electric trains.

One year he ran short of track on Christmas eve, so he hopped in the chevy and drove through the snow to a hobby shop in downtown Poughkeepsie that was open until midnight.  The place was filled with other fathers on similar missions:  picking up extra track, boxcars, and engines.  Trains were the thing that year.  That little store overflowed with camaraderie, humor, and joy.  Fifty years later, his eyes lit up when told this story.  I think it embodied the Christmas spirit for him, as he embodied the joy of giving for me.

As a depression kid, money was scarce while he was growing up.  One year someone gave him a silver dollar on his birthday.  His grandmother said he should put it in the church collection plate.  He did, but when he reached in to get change, his grandma slapped his hand, knocking the plate to the floor.  Undaunted, my dad crawled under the pews and recovered every penny, but made sure to collect his ninety cents change.

Prosperity finally came.  After a stint in the navy as a radar technician, he went to work for IBM, and after that, if anyone asked for a dollar, he’d offer them two.  After he got sick, I had the chance to return some of those favors, in both large ways and small.

The first winter he was up here, we happened to drive past a train store.  “Wanna check it out?” I asked.  He did, and we found a 19th century train that called his name.  We took it back to his apartment, and I set it up on his kitchen table.  Mary took him shopping for those Christmas village buildings which matched the scale of the train.  He talked about it so much to the other residents that sometimes when were visiting, they’d knock on his door and ask to see the trains.

Mary recently asked I if hated Christmas – a reasonable question, given the tone of my comments on Black Friday and what passes for “holiday music” in stores.  I don’t hate Christmas.  I do hate the machinery of media and advertising that cynical interests use to paint a mirage of joy that can be ours if only we buy enough stuff.

I learned from my father that stuff isn’t the problem.  Grasping for stuff, out of greed or a fear that I need it to be ok is the problem.  My father taught me that stuff can be a medium of generosity, and generosity lies at the core of what Christmas is truly about.

The Yule Lads: Icelandic Christmas folklore.

The Yule Lads

In most Christian countries, Christmas was slower to catch on than other major church holidays.  The clergy may have been wary of pagan solstice celebrations which happened at the same time of year and included serious revelry.  Some early Christmas festivities mimicked the custom.  They were banned in 17th century England, and American Puritans outlawed them too.

According to Brian Pilkington, author of The Yule Lads, Iceland was ahead of the curve. A 16th century law stated that “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.”

Icelandic winters are long and dark, with fewer than five hours of daylight at this time of the year.  Imagination tends to fill the darkness with what we fear, and Pilkington’s book describes “the lads” that kept Icelandic children awake at night.  The gentlemen pictured on the cover are not our shopping mall Santas!

The matriarch of the clan was the ogress, Gryla, who loved to eat stewed children.  It couldn’t be just any kid though.  It had to be one who was “naughty, lazy, or rude.”  In one 13th century account, Gryla had 15 tails, and tied to each was a sack full of naughty children.  It was not “the most wonderful time of the year” if you were young!  The Icelandic word for icicle is “grylukerti” which means “Gryla’s candle.”

Gryla. CC-by-SA-2.5

Gryla had three husbands and 80 children, though legend now boils it down to 13 sons who visit the homes of children on successive nights from Dec. 12 – 25.  Time and the law have taken the edge off the Yule Lads, for a 1746 decree said “The foolish custom, which has been practiced here and there about the country, of scaring children with Yuletide lads or ghosts, shall be abolished.”  By the 19th century, the Lads had morphed from cannibals into rascals and petty thieves, who even began to leave gifts for good children who left their shoes on a window ledge.

The first to arrive was Stekkjarstaur, the “Sheep Worrier.”  He would visit the the sheep cot and try to suck milk from the ewes.  That doesn’t work in December and led author, Brian Pilkington to suggest that Sheep Worrier’s IQ is “somewhat less than three digits.”  These days  he heads for the fridge to get his milk.  If a child has been good, Stekkjarstaur leaves a sugary sweet.  Bad children get a potato.

Next comes Giljagaur, aka, “Gully Gawk” who travels through gullies and ravines, also in search of milk, but he looks for cow barns and inattentive milkmaids.  “Stubby” arrives the third night, as short as his name suggests.  He likes to raid the kitchen, as do the brothers that follow, “Spoon Licker,” “Pot Licker,” and “Bowl Licker.”  In their present forms all they do is mischief, but food thieves were no joke in earlier times.  For northern farming families, the time between Christmas and the spring thaw in April or May could be times of famine if food or fodder for livestock ran short.

The next lad to show up is Hurdaskellir, or “Door Slammer,” one of only two of Gryla’s sons who isn’t out to fill his belly.  Imagine loud bangs in the dead of night and you know how he gets his jollies.

And as if the sons of Gryla were not bad enough, children also had to contend with Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, a huge feral creature who hunts children on Christmas Eve instead of mice. Like the lads, the cat discriminates in choosing his victims, eating only those who have not received a new item of clothing for Christmas. Pilkington says that “Until fairly recently in Iceland, all clothing came directly from sheep. The wool had to be washed, combed, and spun before it was painstakingly crafted into a garment. It was a long, arduous process.”  Fear of the Cat induced lazy children to do their part!

This is a fun book and a fine counterbalance to the usual TV holiday movies.  You can picture families gathered around the fire as the wind howls outside, thinking as we do when hearing a good ghost story, “This can’t be true…can it?”  Something within the listeners then and within us now loves to be scared, to confront monsters and vanquish them in imagination.  On that score, Gryla & Sons and the Yule Cat satisfy!

A click on the book cover at the top of this post will take you a site where you can order The Yule Lads.

All quiet on the holiday front

The chief of security at one of the largest area malls reported that this year’s Black Friday was the smoothest in 13 years.  He didn’t speculate on why that was true, so here’s a poll.  Pick whichever explanation(s) seem most plausible:

  1. The population has grown more civil.
  2. More people are shopping online.
  3. After all that’s happened this year, including the election, we’re too numb to respond to the usual holiday trappings.

Yesterday, I thanked the waitress at a local waffle place for the lack of “holiday” music.  “I know,” she said.  “Isn’t it great?  I’m hoping management keeps it up.”

I distinguish between Christmas music, which I enjoy at this time of year, and Holiday music.

People reading this blog in other countries may not be clear on the distinction.  Because of our nation’s diversity, in the public sphere, both at work and in stores, we say “Happy Holiday’s” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  The intent is not to offend people of other faiths.  The result is largely to trivialize the whole thing.  If you’ve ever gotten a song like “Little Saint Nick,” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” stuck in your mind, you know what I mean.

For helping spark the trend toward silence or simply generic music in stores, I present my 2012 Corporate Hero award to Shoppers Drug Mart, a popular Canadian pharmacy chain.  They started playing Holiday music the day after Halloween, but received so many complaints that they pulled the plug “until further notice.”

One comment on their Facebook page read, “Starting this music so early takes the sacredness and meaning out of what should be such a beautiful season.”  That sums up “the Holidays” in their entirety.

Luke’s gospel tells us that after the shepherds saw the baby Jesus, they ran off to Bethlehem to tell everyone, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”  Lk 2:19.

Pondering things in our heart is how an event becomes an experience.  It’s how we come to appreciate things, even simple acts like buying a gift or having waffles with a friend.

I never begrudge our merchants the chance to make a living at this time of year, and I appreciate them even more for pulling the plug on noxious music so I can treasure more of these things in my heart.