A History of Santa Claus

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My favorite holiday has always been Christmas, and I think I’m in the majority in that regard. The ubiquity of Christmas decorations and Christmas music testifies to that. If you live in Western culture and you’ve ever gone shopping, driven through downtown streets, watched television, or turned on a radio in the month of December, you know exactly what I mean. Christmas-related symbols such as the nativity scene, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, are universally recognizable, if not quite universally used.

Miracle on 34thA relatively recent Pew survey says that 96% of American Christians and 81% of American non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Many of those Christmas-celebrating non-Christians argue that Christmas isn’t a specifically Christian holiday, since it has its origins in pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. And they’re not wrong. Although Christmas is a religious event celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual date of Christmas Day and some of our favorite Christmas traditions are secular. I personally find it important to focus on the religious aspect of Christmas, but I am not opposed to following and enjoying the non-religious cultural traditions associated with Christmas. The most prominent of those traditions are those associated with Santa Claus. For the fun of it, and in observance of Saint Nicholas’s Day yesterday (December 6) I decided to do a little research on Santa’s history. This is what I found.

Santa’s Name

Saint NicholasThe name Santa Claus, which was first used in 1773, is a variant on Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, who was known in his own lifetime as Nikolaos of Myra. Nikolaos was born on March 15, 270 AD, to a well-off Christian Greek family living in a region of the Roman Empire that is part of modern Turkey. He was a bishop who is best known for his role in the First Council of Nicaea. There, he and other church leaders rejected the heresy of Arius, who taught that God the Son (that is, Jesus) is a creation of God the Father, rather than being co-eternal with God the Father as stated in the Nicene Creed. Legend has it that Nikolaos punched Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea.

He also was known for giving gifts in secret. Supposedly, he would throw toys into children’s windows and leave coins in children’s shoes, which much later gave rise to the idea of Christmas stockings. The most famous story of the saint’s generosity tells of Nikolaos throwing purses full of gold into the house of a poor man who could not afford the dowries for his three daughters. Originally, the story stated that he threw the gold in through the window, but later versions referred to a chimney, although chimneys as we know them didn’t actually exist until the 13th century. In some tellings, Nikolaos tossed loose coins rather than a whole purse down the chimney, and they landed in the daughters’ stockings.

Saint Nicholas forensics

A modern forensic reconstruction of what Saint Nicholas probably looked like, based upon his heritage

After his death in 343, it became traditional to observe Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6 by giving gifts. (For the record, Saint Nicholas’ life and death preceded the split between denominations and the establishment of the canonization process used by the Roman Catholic church.) It is believed that it was the sixteenth-century Reformation that transferred holiday gift-giving from early December to Christmas, largely at Martin Luther’s suggestion, in order to put the emphasis of the celebrations on Jesus. In fact, Santa’s alternate name, Kris Kringle, actually comes from the German Kristkindl, (“Christ Child”) which refers to Jesus himself.

Although Saint Nicholas was not by any means forgotten by history, his legacy was best preserved and his saint’s day most enthusiastically celebrated in Holland. St. Nicholas’s Day never was widely celebrated in America, yet St. Nicholas himself became a significant figure in American folklore in the early nineteenth century. The founding of the New York Historical Society sparked an interest in New York City’s largely Dutch heritage. Washington Irving’s humorous story Knickerbocker’s History of New York, written in 1809, followed by the New York Historical Society’s St. Nicholas Day dinner in 1810, brought St. Nicholas legends to the forefront of American Christmas traditions. Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a Dutch stereotype, while the New York Historical Society went for historical accuracy.

Santa’s Beard

Odin

This is either Odin, Santa Claus, or Gandalf.

Nikolaos of Myra is usually pictured with a beard, as was typical of men of Greek heritage. Since he lived to be 73 years old, it is safe to say that his beard was white for at least part of his life. However, folklorists note that many aspects of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, actually come from Norse mythology.

In particular, Santa is inspired by Jul, a persona assumed by the god Odin, also known as Woden. It is from Jul’s name that we get the words Yule and Yuletide, which was a pagan winter festival celebrated in much of Europe that later became blended with Christmas. Like Saint Nicholas, Odin was associated with gift-giving, and his gifts often came into people’s houses via the smokehole in the roof. The western European image of Father Christmas is a blend of the Saxon pagan figure of King Winter and the Viking depiction of Jul. Both Odin and King Winter  are always depicted with a long white beard. The round belly also comes from Odin and/or Thor. Stay tuned, there’s more on Odin coming later.

Santa’s Red Suit

This one is actually not so mysterious. The real Saint Nicholas’s bishop robe really was red. The white fur trim came from Father Christmas, who was originally the French, Christianized version of King Winter, but later found his way back into English culture. (An ancient British precursor to Father Christmas, who was actually associated with springtime, wore a green cloak, and the Norse character Jul/Odin usually wore blue.)

Merry Old Santa Claus

Merry Old Santa Claus

Essentially, Santa’s attire as we know it today is a blend of Saint Nicholas’s and Father Christmas’s costumes, but throughout history, Santa’s suit has appeared in many variations. Artist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was key to the codification of Santa’s appearance, especially thanks to his 1881 drawing “Merry Old Santa Claus” for Harper’s Weekly. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover artwork from the 1920s was also significant. And once Coca Cola started using Santa Claus in advertisements in the early 1930s, Santa’s appearance was basically set in stone.

Flying Reindeer

Stories of Saint Nicholas often depict him riding a white horse, while Odin was said to ride an eight-legged gray horse named Sleipnir. However, Santa’s mode of transportation probably was inherited from Thor, who rode in a flying chariot pulled by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr. (“Teeth-barer” and “teeth-grinder”) Since reindeer really were domesticated and used for pulling sleighs in eighteenth-century Scandinavia, and since non-Scandinavians came to view reindeer as mysterious creatures of the far North, it makes sense that TNight before Christmashor’s flying goats evolved into Santa’s flying reindeer.

It wasn’t until 1821 that Santa’s reindeer make an appearance in a known literary source. (Although Irving’s aforementioned Knickerbocker’s History of New York refers to a flying wagon that Santa uses to deliver his gifts) The lines “Old Santeclaus with much delight/ His reindeer drives this frosty night/ O’er chimneytops and tracks of snow/ to bring his yearly gifts to you” appear in an anonymously authored booklet with the not-so-catchy title A New Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children’s Friend.
The reindeer are first given names in the famous 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas, originally published anonymously but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. (In recent decades, the poem has become better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) It’s worth noting that Donner and Blitzen were originally named Dunder and Blixem, Dutch for “thunder” and “lightning”, which calls Thor to mind. Rudolph was added in 1949 when Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on a story by Robert L. May.

Milk and Cookies for Santa

milk and cookiesThe feel-good tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa seems to stem back to a Norse custom of leaving hay out for Odin’s horse Sleipner during Yuletide, in case Odin would pass by that way while on a hunting trip. When those Norse stories blended with the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions, it became the saint’s horse who was supposed to eat the hay. It was also said that Santa Claus would snack on the apples and cookies that were used to decorate Christmas trees before ornaments caught on in the 1890s. (For the record, Christmas trees were a purely German phenomenon prior to Queen Victoria, who brought the tradition to England. When her family was photographed by a Christmas tree in 1846, Christmas trees instantaneously became popular in Great Britain and North America.) The modern version of Santa’s milk and cookies probably came about during the Great Depression, when parents used it as a way to teach their children a lesson about sharing.

Letters to Santa

There is one known letter to the actual Saint Nicholas from about 1200, which reads, “St. Nicholas, patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds.” Although that sounds surprisingly similar to modern-day letters to Santa, the idea didn’t really catch on for another few centuries.

letter to SantaIn the 1800s, some parents would write letters supposedly from Santa Claus, giving their children instructions about their behavior. Fanny Longfellow, wife of the famous poet, wrote in 1853, “You have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit. Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you, God is always near.”

It was only a matter of time before children thought to write letters back, especially since the postal system became faster and cheaper after the Civil War. Although some newspapers received and printed some of the letters, most of them were destroyed until 1913, when charity groups, volunteers, and even postal employees began responding to letters.

The Elves

Elves have played a role in European folklore for such a long time that it’s impossible to pinpoint the first elf stories. The nature of elves varies greatly depending upon the geographic context and time period of the source. They have been depicted as being similar to (or even synonymous with) fairies, demons, nymphs, gnomes, and dwarves. The idea of elves as miniature people with pointy ears, green clothes and hats,  and jolly dispositions comes from the Victorian era.

Knecht RuprechtSome seventeenth-century stories gave their versions of Santa Claus a sidekick, (although usually just one, rather than an entire race) such as the Scandinavian Tomte, Netherland’s Black Peter, or Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht, all of whom are less friendly and good-natured than the modern Christmas elves. Knecht Ruprecht, for example, was a fairly creepy figure who wore a brown robe with a pointed hood, walked with a limp, and beat children with a bag of ashes if they did not pray, which is probably the origin of the idea that bad children get coal in their stockings.

Santa Godeys

From Godey’s Lady’s Book

The elves really established themselves in Santa’s image in the nineteenth century. First, Moore’s 1823 poem called Santa himself “a right jolly old elf.” Then, in 1850, eighteen-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who would later write Little Women, wrote a long poem called “Christmas Elves”, although it was never published. Another poem, “The Wonders of Santa Claus” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1857, referred to elves “working with all their might”, and by the 1870s, the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book showed elves in their modern role, making toys for Santa Claus to deliver.

The North Pole

By the early 1800s, Santa Claus was associated with the far North, probably because it’s perpetually winter in that part of the world. The aforementioned artist Thomas Nast is credited with giving Santa Claus a home, as well as imagining Santa’s legendary workshop. At that time, explorers had not yet ventured to the North Pole, so that region had the added adventure of being steeped in mystery. In the 1920s, it was said that Santa actually lived in Finnish Lapland, because reindeer can’t graze at the North Pole, but popular culture has decided that it prefers the concept of Santa’s North Pole workshop.

Mrs. Claus

Santa_and_mrs_clausSanta’s wife is a relatively recent addition to Santa’s story. The first mention that such a person is supposed to exist was a short story written by James Rees in 1849. More details were added in subsequent stories and poems, most notably Katherine Lee Bates’ poem “Goody Santa Claus” from 1889. Goody was a title for the woman of the house that dated back to the middle ages, which is when Bates imagines Santa beginning his career. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Claus has appeared in many tellings of the Santa story, and is generally depicted as an elderly, heavyset, grandmotherly lady who loves to make Christmas cookies. Different versions of the story give her different first names.

And that, in a nutshell, is the history of Santa Claus legends. Some aspects of Santa’s story and image have continued to change; for example, Santa’s presence in malls and department stores was a new development in the 1930s, and the Elf on the Shelf practice is only ten years old. But some of the most interesting parts of the Santa Claus legend have been around for centuries.

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Christmas Movies

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When I little, there were certain movies that my family made sure to see every single year around Christmastime. Many of them were cartoons, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but they also included others like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Of course, as the years went by and my siblings and I got older and our schedules got more complicated, it became harder and harder to find time to watch all of those movies in just a few weeks, especially because it is obviously impossible to allow Christmas movies to interfere with other important things like Star Trek night.

Then, in the past few years, there have been other movies that I have come to associate with Christmas. Of those, Elf is the only one that is specifically a Christmas movie. The others are only Christmas movies to my mind because of personal connotations, so I have left them off of this list. (Even Jesus Christ Superstar and Passion of the Christ, despite the fact that it is valid and theologically meaningful to associate the non-nativity events of Jesus’ life with Christmas) There are a few other movies that I had planned to include, but left off for various reasons. For example, I only have seen A Christmas Story once, and don’t remember it well enough to say much about it, and I personally don’t associate Sleepless in Seattle or Meet Me in St. Louis with Christmas even though a significant section of each one takes place on Christmas.

With all of that being said, I have a list of eleven movies that I specifically associate with Christmas, that are typically categorized as Christmas movies, and that I have seen many times. I realize that pretty much any holiday-movie-lover will be able to think of several important ones that I left off of my list. But nonetheless, I would like to observe the continuance of this Christmas season (It’s still Christmas until Epiphany, y’all!) by stating my opinion of these eleven Christmas movies.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (animated TV short from 1965)

A Charlie Brown ChristmasThis classic Christmas cartoon is a prime example of the anti-commercialization message that is so prominent in holiday movies. That message has become so common and so clichéd that it is almost a new form of commercialization, one that is used to sell movies and other forms of art rather than toys and the like. But that shouldn’t be held against this particular movie, which I think is more sincere than many true-meaning-of-Christmas stories. So, yeah, I like this movie.

A Christmas Carol (movie from 1951 starring Alastair Sim)

There are quite a number of different movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but this is one of the earlier ones and it’s the one that depicts the ghost of Christmas future most creepily and it’s the one that includes Patrick Macnee in a small role, and Patrick Macnee went on to be John Steed in the awesome 1960s British show The Avengers, so yes, this is the best movie adaption of A Christmas Carol. Also, it’s my understanding that it’s a fairly close remake of the 1935 movie Scrooge, which I believe is the original movie version.

Elf (movie from 2003 starring Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, and Mary Steenurgen)

ElfI actually hadn’t seen Elf until just a couple years ago, by which time it was already considered a holiday classic, at least among people approximately my age. (Technically, 10 years plus a couple months isn’t old enough to be a classic, but pop culture ages very quickly among frequent internet users.) The basic plotline is that Buddy, a human who has been raised as an elf, travels to New York to meet his real father and attempts (with little success) to function in human culture. It’s not the most original movie idea ever, but it’s one that is practically guaranteed to be funny. Humans love seeing their lifestyle parodied by viewing it through the eyes of a character who is likable, but not the brightest banana in the bunch. I think that Elf is an entertaining movie and deserves its position as a beloved Christmas film, although it should perhaps be pointed out that there’s not much that can be said about it from an intellectual perspective. But in that respect, it certainly isn’t any worse than the plethora of Christmas-themed chick flicks and animated Christmas movies. Elf deserves some recognition for the fact that it is an entertaining, feel-good Christmas movie that falls into neither of those categories, even though it actually does include a romantic subplot and the characters are about as cartoonish as a character in a non-animated movie can be.  Also, it has an incredible cast. I mean, Mary Steenburgen is from Back to the Future III, y’all.

Frosty the Snowman (animated TV short from 1969)

As far as I can recall, this was only among my favorites for one or two Christmases. It features memorable characters who are fun to quote and it has a hilarious antagonist, which are the most important criterion for evaluating the coolness of an animated movie, but the plot didn’t particularly appeal to me. And it’s way too sad. Christmas-themed television is supposed to be happy, and cool characters aren’t supposed to die on Christmas. Are you listening, Steven Moffat?

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated TV short from 1966)

GrinchIt is with great regret and sorrow that I admit that I didn’t see this particular movie this Christmas season. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a very important movie. Pretty much every little piece of it is entertainingly quotable, and it contains two songs that deserve a place among everyone’s Christmas music. Granted, one of them is mostly gibberish and the other one is only Christmasy when you consider it in the context of the story as a whole. But seriously, if this movie isn’t a part of your Christmas nostalgia, you have missed out on something that everyone should have.

It’s a Wonderful Life (movie from 1947 starring James Stewart and Donna Reed)

This is probably the most famous of all Christmas movies. I get the impression that very few people have a neutral opinion of this movie; you either definitely like it or definitely dislike it. I definitely like it, although when I think about it, I can’t explain why. A lot of people think that it’s heartwarming and that it expresses a positive message about the value of each individual person, but I think it’s actually pretty depressing and discouraging. (If you want to read a bit of a ramble about why I think that, take a look at this blot post from last year) A lot of people think of it as a quintessential Christmas movie, but the storyline doesn’t actually require the story to take place on Christmas. If it didn’t involve a holiday, it wouldn’t have been as popular, but the basic plot would have been the same, so I don’t see that as a reason to like this movie specifically. I suppose it wins some bonus points for the likability of most of the characters and the believability of their lives. And part of my personal penchant for this movie probably comes from the fantastical and almost science-fiction-like nature of the alternate-world part, even though the characters don’t describe it as an alternate world. Those factors do give it some basis for its reputation, but I still can’t exactly explain what sets it so far ahead of so many other great movies.

On a completely random note, I’ve always been intrigued by that bit at the end, where George tells Mary that she has no idea what happened to him, and she starts to say the same thing back to him. After watching this movie twenty gazillion times over the course of my life, I have had to conclude that she is simply referring to the fact that she has found out that the entire population of the town is glad to do whatever they can to help George in his time of need. But I want to think that she, like George, has had some abnormal and supernatural experience, and that the moviemakers deliberately left it up to our imagination to figure out what exactly happened to her.

Little Drummer Boy (animated TV short from 1968)

This one wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine. When I was younger, this was one that I was usually willing to miss if necessary. It’s a fairly short animated movie that leads up to a depiction of the scenario in the song. To be honest, I don’t even remember much of the plot except that I seem to recall that it’s actually pretty emotional; I think the little drummer boy was orphaned and enslaved, or something like that.

Miracle on 34th Street (movie from 1947 starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwen, and Natalie Wood)

Miracle on 34th streetI always have thought of this as a Thanksgiving movie rather than a Christmas movie, but it’s about Santa Claus and it ends on Christmas day, so we’ll count it as a Christmas movie for the purpose of this list. I enjoy it largely because I like the characters, especially Susan. But it’s really an awfully hokey movie. The basic point of the movie is to communicate the value of belief and imagination, but it links the two to such an extent that it equates not believing in Santa Claus with having a pessimistic attitude and an unhealthy inability to trust people. Of course, as in watching every movie, the viewers are supposed to suspend their disbelief and imagine that all of the characters are real, which, in this case, includes Santa Claus. Within this story, Santa Claus is a real person even though most adults don’t believe in his existence. But still, I would argue that either in real life or in a relatively lifelike fictional setting, a person can be practical and unimaginative without being cynical.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (animated TV movie from 1964)

This is a delightful movie except that it has bad music. That Silver and Gold song that the snowman sings is incredibly boring and adds absolutely nothing to the plot. A Holly Jolly Christmas is one of the most annoying Christmas songs of all time. I think it came in at #4 the year that my sisters and I actually made a top ten list of annoying Christmas songs, and it might have come even higher than that if I’d been making the list myself. Aside from the title song, those are the only two I even remember, so the others must not have been anything special, either. The best thing about this movie, of course, is the Abominable Snowman. That needs no explanation; Abominable Snowmen are automatically cool.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town (animated TV movie from 1970)

It’s been quite a number of years since I’ve seen this one, but I recall that when I was little, it was one of my very favorites. It describes Kris Kringle’s early life, and offers a backstory for various aspects of the Santa Claus tradition. Also, the Winter Warlock was almost as cool as the Abominable Snowman. (There’s something about the genre of children’s Christmas television that automatically leads to awesome antagonists) And Burgermeister Meisterburger was pretty entertaining, too.

White Christmas (movie from 1954 starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen)

White ChristmasThe first time I saw White Christmas was probably around 2004 or 2005, and it doesn’t carry the same nostalgic connotations for me that it does for a lot of people. I’ve still only seen it a few times. My opinion is that it’s a fairly good movie that is fairly enjoyable, but it doesn’t especially stand out as a particularly great movie, either within the genre of Christmas movies or the genre of musicals. (Even though it does have Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye is cool, y’all. Also, I really like Vera-Ellen in this movie and I presume that I would enjoy seeing her in her other movies, too.) Probably my favorite part of it is the song and dance The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing near the beginning. And that part of the movie has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

He Knows If You’ve Been Bad or Good: A Story for Christmas

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Note: Although this blog post is written in first person, it is fictional and not autobiographical. Neither the characters nor the events are real.

 Christmas candle

My memories of childhood Christmases are fairly typical and maybe even a bit cliché. I was obsessed with snow, and it was a major disappointment if the grass was visible on Christmas day. My family loved Christmas music and Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies. Our tree had far too many ornaments to actually look tasteful, but we always thought it was beautiful anyway. Every year, my sister and brother and I would try our best to be good and would live in fear of Santa Claus’s judgment. By the day before Christmas, the suspense level had mounted to the point that we didn’t hear a word of the Christmas Eve service, despite the fact that our parents tried their best, year after year, to teach us that Jesus was the point of Christmas. And then, every Christmas morning, there would be presents under the tree and candy in our stockings. Despite the inevitable lapses of good behavior, we somehow seemed to always end up on Santa’s nice list. At least, that was the way it happened for the first few Christmases of my life. But then, there was the year when we didn’t make the cut.

In retrospect, I recall that we had gone overboard in our Santa obsession that year. Mom and Dad had been feeding us “true-meaning-of-Christmas” messages in the form of corny holiday movies and serious talks about Jesus, but we couldn’t help focusing on the all-important goal of being on Santa’s nice list. We didn’t deliberately disregard those lessons, but it’s a little hard to concentrate on abstract notions of joy and love and peace when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll get those toys you want. After all, both Jesus and The Christmas Spirit were around year after year without our active involvement, but those Christmas gifts from Santa required ongoing effort and dedication from us. Naturally, we couldn’t help focusing on the one aspect of Christmas that depended completely upon our behavior.

One of the biggest mistakes that I remember from that year happened about two weeks before Christmas. We were having company for dinner, and Mom had asked me to keep an eye on Susan and Davy so that she could devote her full attention to the fancy meal that she was preparing. The three of us closed ourselves up in the bedroom that Susan and I shared and sat quietly on my bed with a stack of books. We were determined to stay out of the way until dinnertime and to thereby impress Santa Claus with our obedience and dedication to goodness.

All went well for a while. When Mom checked on us, she found me reading aloud from a picture book, with one younger sibling at each elbow. “There you are,” she said, smiling at the adorableness of the scene. “You’re doing such a good job reading, Gloria. Thank you kids for being good and staying out of my hair.” And she was gone again, leaving all three of us proud of our behavior, and leaving me proud of my reading ability.

But I didn’t have quite enough reading skill to keep it up for long, and Susan and Davy didn’t have the patience to sit still and listen to me. The next thing we knew, the floor was covered with crayons and colored pencils and paper and we were busily making Christmas cards, oblivious to how messy the room had suddenly become.

“I need scissors,” Davy announced. “Gloria, can you get me scissors?” I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to reach the shelf in the kitchen where the scissors were kept. I should have said no. At that time, my parents had a strict rule against scissors in the bedrooms, which had been instituted a year and a half earlier when I had cut my own hair. Besides that, fetching the scissors was going to be a dangerous mission. I was going to have to invent a reason for going into the kitchen even though I knew that Mom wanted to be alone in there, and then sneak the scissors away without letting her notice. I knew it was wrong to break the rule, but as it so happened, I needed the scissors, too, and the temptation was irresistible.

“Mom,” I said as I entered the kitchen, “Susan wants a drink of water.” I stealthily approached the shelf of interest and eyed my target.

“I don’t want you taking water into your room,” said Mom. “Tell her to come here and I’ll give her some water myself.”

My hand slowly crept across the shelf. I was safe from Mom’s gaze; her head was down as she chopped an unidentified vegetable that I hoped I would be able to remove from my own food when the time came.

“She doesn’t want to come because we’re busy coloring,” I explained. My fingers reached the scissors, and I skillfully snatched them and had them safely concealed behind my back in a split second.

“Well, she can just wait until dinnertime then,” said Mom.

“Okay, I’ll tell her that,” I replied. And thus, I made my exit and returned to the bedroom, scissors in hand.

At that precise moment, Santa Claus wasn’t specifically on my mind anymore, but I still found enough kindness within me to let my brother use the scissors first. He made a couple seemingly random snips in his work and then graciously handed them to me. My project was a little more complex. My older cousin had recently taught me to make paper snowflakes by folding a circular piece of paper into a wedge shape and cutting little bits out of the edges. I was determined to master this art myself. It proved to be more difficult than I had remembered. The first challenge was figuring out how to cut a piece of paper into a circle, and when I finally succeeded in getting one that was good enough to use, I couldn’t get it neatly folded. Once I had more or less mastered that step, I thought I had gotten the hang of making paper snowflakes, but my first two attempts ended with a snowflake that came out in multiple pieces. It took every bit of patience that I had to keep trying until I finally produced a snowflake that resembled my cousin’s work.

With pride and a sense of accomplishment, I held my snowflake aloft for my siblings to admire. Clearly, this work was worthy of a mother’s approval, so I brushed the paper scraps off of my lap and got up to bring my snowflake to her, completely forgetting that I had already committed a misdeed by taking the scissors without permission. At that moment, the error of my ways suddenly became much more serious. As the scraps of paper fluttered to the floor, they were accompanied by little pieces of dark fabric. With horror, I realized that I had unknowingly cut pieces out of my pants.

Davy and Susan stared at me in utter shock. This was the naughtiest thing that any of the three of us could remember ever having done. Destruction of clothing seemed to our immature minds to be an unforgivable vice, and there was simply nothing to be said that would adequately express the gravity of this situation. I did the only thing I could. I quickly changed into a similar pair of pants, rolled the damaged ones up into a tiny ball, and hid them in the back of the closet.

If Mom and Dad noticed that I had changed, they didn’t question or comment on it. The original pants stayed safely hidden for a long time, and I actually don’t know what eventually happened to them. At any rate, I never did get in trouble for cutting them. We did get in trouble for making a huge mess and for sneaking scissors into the bedroom, but that seemed like a minor point compared to the pants incident. As far as we were concerned, events turned out in our favor. But, for the two weeks that followed, we couldn’t shake the fear that Santa Claus knew more than Mom and Dad, and that we had gotten ourselves in serious trouble with him.

Then there was the matter that arose at the children’s Christmas program in church several days later. I can’t entirely explain why we acted the way we did that day. It didn’t help that we had been given cookies and candy in Sunday School prior to church, and were consequently all in a rambunctious mood. Stage fright may have also played a role, because that was the first year that I had been given something to memorize and recite in front of the entire congregation, and it was a stressful situation. But I think that the biggest factor in that day’s trouble was the plain and simple fact that we hated Cassie.

Cassie was in my Sunday School class. I hated her partly because she sometimes teased me, but mostly because she was Mary in the Christmas play and I wasn’t. Davy hated Cassie because she had hit him once, or so he claimed. Nobody else could ever remember when that had happened. Susan hated Cassie because she was a very devoted little sister and dutifully hated anyone that Davy and I hated.

The service was about to start, and all the kids were huddled together in a group at the back of the church. We were supposed to be forming two lines to march down the aisle singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”, but it is a plain and simple fact of nature that children are incapable of organizing themselves into lines without the assistance of adults who know where each child is supposed to go. I knew that I was supposed to go behind Tommy and in front of Cassie, because we were in height order. That was the way we had always practiced it and that was the way that the grownups had told us to do it. But for some reason, that wasn’t the way Cassie remembered it.

“You’re behind me,” I whispered at her. My whisper came out too loud and attracted the attention of all of the other kids, but the grownups took no notice. Several of our Sunday School classmates quickly took sides. My friends insisted that I came before Cassie, Cassie’s friends insisted that Cassie came before me, and everyone else insisted that we were being too loud and had to shut up now because church was starting.

It was crowded, and there was no way I could reposition myself in front of Cassie. I focused a dirty look at the back of her head, covered with the envied light blue cloth. The hymn started and the disorganized group of children began moving forward, but I didn’t sing. I was busy trying to formulate a plot for getting into the right spot at the front of the church, despite being in the wrong place in this formation that was supposed to be a line. We passed the pew where my parents were sitting, and they each gave me a look that said that they knew what was going on and were disappointed in me for acting grumpy and childish when I was supposed to be singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

When we got to the front of the church, the Sunday School teachers faced the consequences of failing to ensure that our lines were neat. As they tried to herd us into the pews at the front of the church, the grownups in the pews behind us laughed at the cuteness of our disorder. The little kids stood there idly, looking utterly baffled and lost, while the older kids hissed directions at each other under their breath. And Cassie stood there, looking so prim and proper as she waited to make her way into the pew that I wanted to yank her Mary headpiece right out of her hair.

But I didn’t. Davy did. I didn’t see him coming up behind me, and I didn’t see his hand reach for Cassie’s costume. But the next thing I knew, Cassie was shrieking and holding her hands to her head as if she’d been physically hurt, and Davy was standing next to me, giving me a triumphant look as he held the piece of blue fabric. Despite the surprised and amused reaction of the entire congregation behind us, we shared a moment of sibling comradeship. As far as everyone else was concerned, Davy had just done something childish and stupid because he was a little boy in an unruly mood. But from my perspective, he had just done something noble and unselfish in my defense.

Actually, we didn’t get in trouble for that at all. The adults all thought it was pretty funny, and the incident was more or less forgiven and forgotten as soon as the blue fabric was back on Cassie’s head. Even Cassie herself didn’t have anything to say about it after the fact. But Davy and I both knew that misbehaving in church was a serious offense. Later that evening, we discussed the question of whether or not Santa Claus would hold that against us. We wanted to believe that Santa Claus understood that we had to do something to respond to Cassie’s hatefulness, but it seemed unlikely that this was an adequate excuse for being mean to her in front of the entire congregation.

As Christmas day got closer, the pressure to be on Santa’s nice list increased. But, as any kid knows, it is simply impossible to avoid being rambunctious when it’s almost Christmas. There is simply too much energy to burn off, and that’s really all I can say to justify the time when Susan and I were playing catch in the living room. Susan started it, but I was older and supposedly knew better.

As any grownup would have predicted, the ball went off course a number of times. The game should have ended when an ornament got knocked off the tree, but as luck would have it, the ornament didn’t break. Susan gaped at it with her mouth wide open in a silent gasp. She had perfected the art of overly dramatic facial expressions, which served to enhance her natural cuteness. In this particular case, cuteness was not the objective; she was genuinely shocked at the misdeed we had just committed. But I simply picked up the ornament and put it back on the tree. And then I threw the ball back to Susan.

Only a minute or two later, something worse happened. The ball hit the fancy lamp on the little end table next to the sofa. It wobbled back and forth a couple times, while I stupidly stood motionless instead of running to catch it. Then it toppled off the table in slow motion, hit the floor, and dramatically broke into a million pieces. It would have been a spectacular sight if it wasn’t for the fact that breaking a lamp was, as far as we knew at that time, one of the most horrible things that a person could do. And there was absolutely nothing we could do to fix it or to avoid the parental wrath that was sure to ensue.

Instinct kicked in, and I grabbed Susan and hid behind the Christmas tree with her. I was old enough to know that hiding solved nothing, and if I had been thinking logically, I would have known that the safest course of action would have been to quietly sneak away and hope that Mom and Dad would find no evidence to tell them who had committed this crime. After all, they had three children and a dog, so it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that they would have no idea who to blame and would end up blaming no one. But I wasn’t thinking along those lines at that moment, and it seemed logical to hide behind the tree and wait to see what would happen.

Susan snuggled up against me, evidently feeling reassured to have a partner in her wrongdoing. “Do you think Santa Claus saw that?” she asked me.

“Santa Claus knows it was a mistake,” I told her, and hoped that was true.

We didn’t have to wait long before Mom walked into the room and found the broken lamp. “All right, who did this?” she yelled at anyone within earshot. There was a brief silence before she added, “I see you two back there. Come on out.”

There was no way to deny what we had done, so we came out. “We’re sorry,” I mumbled. “It was an accident.” Susan echoed my words.

“I forgive you, but you need to be more careful,” Mom said. “I can’t have you breaking things. Now go away until I get this mess cleaned up. I don’t want you stepping on anything sharp.”

She sounded angry, but she wasn’t punishing us. Susan and I scurried away, grateful to escape from that debacle so easily, and no more was said about it. But it was one more thing to add to the list of reasons that we were scared of how Santa Claus would judge us this year.

In spite of that, we really were relatively good kids. Those three incidents were really the only times we got in trouble for the entire month preceding Christmas that year. There were a few arguments that got a little out of hand, including one time that Davy bit me, and there were a few cases of staying up late without permission or sneaking disliked food to the dog. There were even a couple tantrums. But in general, our good behavior outweighed the occasional bouts of naughtiness. At least, that’s what we thought, and we were pretty sure it was what our parents thought, too. We could only hope that Santa Claus agreed.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad called us together into the living room. They looked so serious that we knew something was wrong. Dad held up a handwritten letter on elegant stationary and shook his head sadly.

“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but we got a letter from Santa Claus today, and he said that you aren’t on the nice list this year.”

Even amid the stunned silence, an ambiance of grief suddenly filled the room. Susan started to sniff. “Let me see that,” I demanded.

He wasn’t bluffing. “To the parents of Gloria, Davy, and Susan,” the letter said in perfectly neat handwriting “I regret to inform you that your children have not met my official standards for goodness this year. Because of their behavior, we are unable to put them on the nice list. Sincerely, Santa Claus.” It looked legitimate. If the handwriting was in fact my mother’s, I didn’t notice, and if she was struggling to keep a straight face as I read the letter aloud, I wasn’t aware of that.

Davy let out a wail of sheer despair, and Susan burst into tears. I stared speechlessly at the paper in my hands and thought back to various wrong things I’d done and hated myself for every one of them.

“But we tried so hard to be good,” I said.

“I know,” said Mom. “I guess you just weren’t good enough.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Dad, “but you know there’s nothing we can do about it. Now you all need to go and get changed for church.”

It seemed horribly cruel for them to bring us to church on Christmas Eve when we had nothing to be excited about the next day. We had to sing Christmas hymns without any feelings of joy and we had to listen to the pastor preach about how Jesus is God’s ultimate gift when we were saddened by the knowledge that we weren’t getting any other gifts that year. After the service, people cheerfully wished us a merry Christmas, and Mom and Dad responded with an equal degree of Christmas joy, but the three of us kids were quiet and somber. We came back home and went to bed without all of the chaos and exuberant excitement that normally characterized Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad put us to bed and wished us a good night and a merry Christmas with so much affection that it was slightly comforting, but there was nothing they could say or do to heal the heartbreak of a Christmas without gifts. That night, I fell asleep to the sound of my little sister sobbing quietly, in a way completely uncharacteristic of children that young.

Most years, on Christmas morning, the three of us woke up absurdly early and dragged Mom and Dad out of bed to start our Christmas celebration long before it was daytime by any reasonable standard. But that Christmas, the digital clock on my dresser said 7:38 when Susan woke me up to ask for help with a zipper. I helped her and got dressed myself, and then Davy joined us as we went downstairs to see if Mom had made anything special for breakfast, like she usually did on Christmas. At least that would be one nice thing about today.

“Good morning, you sleepyheads!” said Mom. “Merry Christmas! You certainly took your time getting up today!”

We looked around the living room in amazement. There were presents under the tree. Mom and Dad sat on the sofa, where they had apparently been waiting for us for a while now. They looked happy and excited and impatient to get started with Christmas morning. But how could there be presents under the tree?

“I thought Santa said we were naughty,” Davy said.

“You have been naughty,” said Mom. “You’re naughty every year. Sometimes you’re very good, but that doesn’t make up for all the times you misbehave. But you know what? Christmas gifts aren’t a reward for being good. We give you Christmas gifts because we love you, and we forgive you when you misbehave.”

“After all,” Dad added, “does God only give gifts to people on His nice list? Are any of us even good enough to be on God’s nice list? Or did he give Jesus as a gift to everyone, even though we’re all sinners? We aren’t going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by punishing you for not always being good. It’s better to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by letting you see that you can’t earn gifts. You haven’t earned these Christmas presents and you haven’t earned the forgiveness and salvation that comes from Jesus. But you get to have them anyway.”

That was the Christmas that I stopped believing in Santa Claus and learned that the presents under the tree came from my parents. But more importantly, it’s the year that I realized what’s wrong with the legend of Santa Claus. Now that I think back on the Christmases of my childhood, the Santa Claus tradition strikes me as being ironic and sad. Why would we celebrate Jesus’ incarnation, which is the ultimate example of an undeserved gift, by teaching children to believe in a moralistic system whereby gifts are a direct result of good behavior? Christmas is a time to rejoice in the knowledge that God gives us gifts even though we don’t deserve them. The most important gift of all comes through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Santa Claus might be a fun little story that is harmless when it’s used for entertainment, but the moralistic message of Santa Claus is completely overshadowed by the salvific message about Jesus Christ. And since none of us deserve to be on any kind of a nice list, that’s extremely good news.

 

 

A Public Service Announcement: It’s Still Christmas!

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Christmas TreeWe have reached that time of year when people take down their Christmas lights, pack up their Christmas trees, stop singing Christmas songs, and begin to wish it was springtime. This puzzles me. It’s still Christmas, people! Christmas begins on December 25 (Or, rather, late on December 24, depending upon how you look at it) and lasts for twelve days. Today, December 29, is only the fifth day of Christmas, and Christmas doesn’t end until January 5. After that, January 6 is Epiphany. The Epiphany season is kind of like Christmas and lasts until Ash Wednesday or Septuagesima Sunday. [Note: I have here deleted several hundred words on the topic of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays because I realized that these words were irrelevant here. Maybe I should save them for a separate blog post on Septuagesima Sunday.]

I personally am in favor of leaving Christmas decorations up and listening to Christmas music into February. If you’d prefer to take down your decorations sometime in the first couple days of Epiphany, though, that’s fine with me. That’s the way my parents have always done it, with the exception of a couple decorations that stay up until Candlemas. (Candlemas is on February 2) It is not okay with me, however, if you take your Christmas decorations down before Epiphany. Until Epiphany, it is still Christmas.

Nativity SceneI can offer you several reasons for this insistence upon extended Christmas celebration by directing you to this older blog post. But why would anyone want Christmas to end so soon anyway? We spend weeks preparing for Christmas, looking forward to Christmas, and obsessing about Christmas. Why would you want it to end after just a day or two? I personally have never found the pre-Christmas season to be too terribly stressful, but even I think that it’s more fun and more relaxing to sit around enjoying Christmas after the 25th than to try to cram all of your mandatory Christmas celebration into the last week or two before Christmas Day. It’s no wonder that some people think Christmas is more stress than it’s worth; we have to fit so much joy and happiness into such a short time that we don’t have the opportunity to enjoy our joy and happiness. In my opinion, joy and happiness aren’t real unless you are capable of enjoying them. That’s just one more reason to keep observing Christmas for the entire Christmas season.

This is my current facebook profile picture because it's pretty and it's Christmasy and it shows snow.

This is my current facebook profile picture because it’s pretty and it’s Christmasy and it shows snow.

Merry Christmas, y’all!

The riveting tale of my White Christmas

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Behold, the great Arkansas blizzard of 2012!

Behold, the great Arkansas blizzard of 2012!

Good King Wenceslas , who looked out on the feast of Stephen, which, incidentally, is December 26

Good King Wenceslas , who looked out on the feast of Stephen, which, incidentally, is December 26

When I woke up on the morning of December 26, I noticed two things: There was snow on the ground outside and the power was out. Neither of these things surprised me, for they both had been true the night before. When I had fallen asleep on Christmas night, the snow had still been falling, and it was accompanied by heavy winds and unusually colored lightning. That morning, though, the storm had ended and the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

When I woke up on the morning of December 27, I noticed three things, and they were all the same: cold, cold, cold. These things did not surprise me, for they were a direct result of the aforementioned things from the previous day. The snow was still laying round about, deep and crisp and even, and the power was still out. Due to the loss of furnace power, the temperature in the house had gradually decreased throughout the previous day and a half. According to the thermometer, it was in the low fifties. According to the sensation in my hands and feet, it was negative a gajillion degrees. According to the pragmatic sectors of my brain, it was cold. And there was no coffee, ‘cause the coffee maker runs on electricity.

In true pioneer spirit, we sat around and lamented our lack of internet access and our inability to charge our various electronic devices. Also, I made these lovely protest signs.]

In true pioneer spirit, we sat around and lamented our lack of internet access and our inability to charge our various electronic devices. Also, I made these lovely protest signs.

A few hours later, we fled the house. That is, the trip had already been planned in advance, and our time of departure was fairly close to what it would have been without the effects of the aforementioned things. Our anticipation to see extended family mingled with anticipation to experience warmth and functional light switches.

Sadly, I will presumably not be in my house when the power comes back on, which ruins my plan to celebrate that occasion with a facebook status saying, “Behold, the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light!”

Letter to Santa Claus

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Santa Claus

Dear Santa Claus,

I never really believed in you. As far as I can recall, I always knew that the presents under the tree and even the Christmas stockings came from my parents, just like Thanksgiving dinner and Easter baskets. But I used to believe in all the things you stand for; and I don’t mean that stuff about joy and peace. I mean the idea that happiness comes from the acquisition of material objects, and that Christmas is about getting whatever toys one wants that particular year. Your name gets associated with joy and peace, but that isn’t really the point of you; it isn’t what your image really means in this society.

Christmas TreeIt’s a bit cliché to complain about the commercialization of Christmas, but the point is valid. Stores start stocking Christmas merchandise and advertising their Christmas sales long before Christmas. People feel a need to start thinking about Christmas shopping long before they’re in the mood for Christmas joy and peace. They are preparing for the coming of Santa Claus rather than the coming of Jesus, not only in Advent, but for several of the preceding weeks as well. Any corny Christmas movie will claim that Santa is separate from this commercialism, that he laments it himself, but that’s an utterly pointless discernment. When these movies make that point, they are merely replacing superficial consumerist values with abstract “Christmas Spirit” values. Santa Claus, I hold you partially responsible for both the commercialization of Christmas and the corniness of Christmas. Your message is not one of joy, unless joy is getting a desired toy. Your message is not one of peace, unless peace is getting a Christmas vacation. And you can’t give me what I really want, for Christmas or otherwise, unless what I really want is some trivial material object.

JesusSanta Claus, you brought me some degree of joy when I was little and you filled my family’s living room with toys, and if I have outgrown that childhood Christmas joy, it’s not because of cynicism or a lack of Christmas spirit. It’s because I no longer think that happiness comes from having new dolls or the latest book in a series I like.  I still appreciate and enjoy the aesthetic awesomeness of a lighted Christmas tree with wrapped presents under it, and I still think there’s something exciting about the very nature of gift-giving. And, of course, I like getting new stuff. Getting new stuff is cool. But that’s not the real point of Christmas. In fact, fruitcake and Christmas cookies aren’t the real point, either. As hard as it is for me to admit, even Christmas music and Doctor Who Christmas specials aren’t the real point. Almost any Christmas movie will tell you that the true meaning of Christmas has to do with love and joy and peace and goodwill towards your fellow human beings, but those are all abstract ideas, even if you add a few sentimental things about family. Those are the traits of a happy Santa-Claus-Christmas. Santa Claus offers a trite and superficial kind of Christmas joy. The meaningful and significant kind of Christmas joy doesn’t come from a white-haired man in a red suit with fluffy white trim; it comes from a man who was born in Bethlehem about two thousand years ago. He didn’t come bringing candy that was quickly eaten or toys that were quickly broken; he came bringing forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. No offense, Santa Claus, but you just can’t compete with that.

Magdalena

P.S. With all that being said, I have been very good this year, and I wouldn’t actually mind if you brought me a whole lot of awesome stuff and if you made my car work again. Thanks, Santa.

Christmas letter

Let the Fruitcake Jokes Begin

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Last Year's Fruitcake

Last Year’s Fruitcake

I have a confession to make. A couple days ago, I made a fruitcake. Two fruitcakes, actually. I got a bowl and I filled it with flour, brown sugar, white sugar, baking powder, baking soda, various spices, corn syrup, melted butter, eggs, a little milk, some almond extract, chopped apples, chopped walnuts, and assorted candied fruits, all in relatively arbitrary quantities. Then I poured the whole conglomeration into two greased bread pans and stuck them in a hot oven for a while. Voila, fruitcake. Lest ye think that I am a heinous evildoer for inflicting fruitcake upon an already troubled world, I shall explain my motives.

This Year's Fruitcake

This Year’s Fruitcake

1. I was making supper. Most of the family was out at a Christmas party, so there were just a few of us there to eat supper, and I was therefore supposed to do something quick and simple. The benefit of quick-and-simple cooking, obviously, is that it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, but the downside is that it just isn’t fun. Real cooking is when you have multiple pots on the stove, cutting boards on the counter, and mixing bowls in your hand. Real cooking means juggling several different elements of the meal, constantly doing math in your head, and carefully timing every move you make so that nothing burns and everything is ready at more or less the same time. The fact of the matter is that, after three and a half years in college without access to a kitchen, I am no longer proficient at that kind of cooking, and quick-and-simple is the only kind of meal that’s likely to turn out well. But it’s just so boring to only have one pot on the stove, so it was necessary that I have some other project taking place on the counter.

2. We still had candied fruit from last year. I was actually a little skeptical that it was still good to use, but my mother said it would be fine, and, as far as I can tell, she was right about that. At any rate, we certainly couldn’t let that candied fruit go to waste, could we? Of course, last year’s fruitcake was the reason that we had leftover candied fruit, and at the time, I bought it especially for a fruitcake, so I couldn’t have used this motive to justify last year’s fruitcake.

3. Fruitcake jokes are, as a general rule, hilarious. I don’t know why, but they are. I have heard that Johnny Carson is the exemplary fruitcake-joke-maker, and that his theory states that there is only one fruitcake in the world that just keeps getting passed around and around as a Christmas gift and never eaten. Just like that fruitcake, fruitcake jokes are exactly the same every time, but they’re always funny.

4. I like fruitcake. Yes, really. Apparently, so do other people in my family, because my fruitcakes do get eaten.

So there you have it. I admit that I made a fruitcake, and furthermore, I think I’m going to do it again later this week.

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