Friday, November 27, 2009

Santa's invented origins, courtesy of Rankin-Bass!

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?


mathmom said...

Hi Chanson! I was betting on Frosty the Snowman as this year's movie. Maybe next year? =)

In reading this post I was reminded of a post in the Nurtureshock blog about researchers who ask what it takes to make a good legend for preschoolers to believe:
The whole blog is pretty good, if you are interested in research about children (as opposed to parenting theories with not much backing them up).

Oh, and my grandfather actually appeared as Santa in ads at Christmastime for shops---I think even for Coke. This may have made the whole issue more confusing for me...

B. Spinoza said...

"Am I nuts to think that the real story of these customs is more interesting than some random, just-so stories?"

I don't think you're crazy. I found your explanation fascinating

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

I considered Frosty. Actually, the local used-record shop had a cheap copy of it (which I didn't buy since I was buying a bunch of other stuff). Maybe I'll go back and get it if it's still there. But next year's special will be Rudolphe. :D

That "Candy Witch" experiment is fascinating!

Thanks B. Spinoza!!!

I got the general ideas of that little history from the book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum (which I discussed in a post here). It's a amazingly fascinating book if you're interested in how customs evolve.

Unknown said...

I've always been fond of the story of Saint Nicholas, a Turkish nobleman who deflowered hundreds (if not thousands) of young ladies and then gave them gold coins so they would have enough of a dowry for the husband to ignore her, well, experience.

As for the cartoons, I was always a fan of the old caroon Grinch, narrated by Karloff. The Santa myths left me flat.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bill!!!

I love the Grinch cartoon! That's the second special I wrote about. See The Grinch and the true meaning of Christmas.

Stephen said...

Err, you've conflated the fall harvest festival (which is what Thanksgiving is a survival of) with the new year's festival of deep winter (or the winter solstice or janus day or saturlina) which is where Christmas got placed.

Bill, I much prefer the story of St. Nickolas, the Greek Orthodox bishop who eventually gave away all of his possessions and when he died turned out to have only a hair shirt and his vestments left, instead of becoming rich in office.

That is an actual Greek Orthodox saint's story, and the original St. Nick.

King Aardvark said...

Personally, I've never understood why we can't just tell kids that make-believe is fun (actually we already do) and that Santa is a fun collective make-believe (which we don't tell them). Adults still have fun with all the Santa stuff; I have no idea why we have to pussy-foot around it.

Re: Origins, I think the real St. Nick rose from the dead as the jovial giftgiver after his grave was doused in a Coca-Cola accident, leading him to be sugary and caffinated enough to fly around the world and add a couple hundred lbs.

King Aardvark said...

Btw, last year I watched Rudolph and was completely floored by the overt sexism in it. It's still an iconic show, I just wish its viewpoints could stand the test of time better.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

That's part of the point of this post -- that there wasn't always one consistent "fall harvest festival" and one consistent "mid-winter festival." Different people in different times and places would have different festivals depending on the climate and agriculture of the region -- and depending on the particular local customs and traditions.

Many places in Europe had some sort of celebration of the dead in the fall (which corresponds to Halloween), and possibly a harvest festival or a beer festival or something which may or may not have been connected with the festival of lights and slaughtering of animals in early winter. Note that in the Catholic countries there was a whole calendar of saints' days -- which existed in large part to assimilate all of the different local/regional seasonal feasts. And there were a family of different festival practices (many of which I've listed above), which would be connected with different feasts depending on the place, and bits of them from all over Europe have been preserved in our modern holidays in interesting ways.

The variety of different local holidays stood in stark contrast to our current set of fixed, homogeneous set of holiday traditions that we have today. Grasping that there wasn't just one homogeneous harvest festival or even one homogeneous winter festival is one of the most interesting parts of reading the real history/evolution of our traditions. For example trick-or-treating and caroling (wassailing) trace back to essentially the same custom -- even though they have different modern trappings and have become fixed on totally different spots in our modern calendar. Similarly, the tradition of gambling has been preserved in the Hanukkah dreidel, but it was also an element of early American Christmas festivities (coming from Europe), which is part of the reason why the Puritans outlawed Christmas.

Hey King Aardvark!!!

Exactly. And your origin story is better than what Rankin-Bass came up with. ;^)

p.s. It's true about the sexism, but I hardly noticed it because a lot of programs from that time period are like that...