Friday, November 27, 2009
In the olden days, people didn't have electric lights. So the change in the number of daylight hours was a really big deal for people who lived far from the equator. Additionally, what you could eat depended on the season. Harvest coffers were full in the late Fall, and the best time to slaughter animals for fresh meat was early Winter.
Obviously, when the days finally started getting longer again, it was time for a celebration and a feast! It was time to deck the halls with what lights and colors you could find, in honor of the warmth and light to come. It was also time to enjoy some of the best food and ale you'd have all year -- and share it liberally with the neighbors -- before saving the rest saving the rest away to keep you through the Winter months.
There was no mass communication or rapid transit, so the legends and precise dates and customs of Yuletide varied from town to town, just as languages and dialects varied across the countryside and from one land to the next. But there were a number of elements that were standard fare:
* Feasting and drinking,
* expectation of charity -- the "haves" of a community were expected to share the feast and ale with the have-nots, upon request or for a symbolic price such as a song,
* lights and colorful decorations,
* a late-night vigil or party,
* masks and role-play (choosing a king of the feast),
* other normally-frowned-on behavior, such as gambling,
* stories and legends.
Despite how far removed we are from those days, vestiges of all of these customs have been preserved -- spread across the entire holiday season in Halloween, Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's, Epiphany, and others.
Now, here's my question: Am I nuts to think that the real story of these customs is more interesting than some random, just-so stories?
Obviously, I'm thinking of the Rankin-Bass special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town -- one of the canon of TV specials that were so central to the Christmas traditions of my childhood. I have no memory of ever being disappointed by the idea that Santa Claus isn't real. Yet I remember being a bit disappointed when I realized that the children's questions -- posed in this special -- are legitimate questions with interesting answers, but the real answers have nothing whatsoever to do with the answers given in this special.
The impact of Clement Clarke Moore's poem ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) in shaping the "Santa Claus" legend is interesting. Ditto for the contributions of Thomas Nast, and even advertising campaigns by Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward.
That beef aside, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is a fun little program. Burgermeister Meisterburger steals the show with his song-and-dance about how he hates toys and is outlawing them. He's not quite Heat Miser and Snow Miser, but he has a lot of good lines. (Actually, he looks a lot like Heat Miser, now that I think of it...)
Jessica, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, isn't nearly as interesting as I remember her -- along with her early-70's ballad about her grand epiphany that her place is beside her man. Maybe I'm just getting picky in my old age.
Of course, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town isn't the only Rankin-Bass special about a made-up Santa origin story. Fifteen years later they came up with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. (I discovered this just last year, through a comment on my blog.) Naturally, this second Santa-Genesis story is totally incompatible with the first.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has a far more Paganesque feel to it than the earlier story. I give it points for the explanation of how Santa speaks so many languages, plus its attempt at illustrating the cruel injustices of the world. Like all of the Rankin-Bass specials, this one is kind of weird and trippy.
On some level, though, I feel like it's not quite as charming as the light, insouciant Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Is it just a question of childhood memories and nostalgia coloring my opinion?
Do the rest of you have any opinions on which Santa origin story is best? And why?