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.

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.

Today is not a holiday; tomorrow is

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Mardis GrasI didn’t know what Mardis Gras was until I was twelve years old. You see, before that, my family had lived in The Land Where People Don’t Put Sugar In Their Iced Tea, aka not the South. It’s not that non-Southerners are in general completely ignorant of the existence of Mardis Gras; it’s just that it isn’t a major part of the culture, and so it didn’t happen to be something that had ever come up in my own experiences up to that point. And then we moved to the South, where Mardis Gras is a fairly noteworthy holiday associated with specific traditions and connotations. (I’d rank it somewhere between Saint Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day in cultural prominence) I’m sure that Mardis Gras here is nowhere near as big a deal as it is in New Orleans, but it still is an important enough occasion to be the topic of many facebook statuses, the theme in the cafeteria today, and the reason for various parties. That wasn’t the way things were in the Midwest. Don’t get me wrong; I love the South, (and I prefer my iced tea to be sweetened) but I’m really not a fan of the whole Mardis Gras thing.

Mardis Gras is, by definition, the day before Ash Wednesday. (Although, depending upon the context, Mardis Gras doesn’t necessarily refer only to the one day) “Mardis Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday”, which, along with “Shrove Tuesday”, is an alternate name for the occasion. The original point was that the last day before Lent should be a day of feasting and celebration because of the fasting that would occur when Lent started. That already seems like a kind of silly idea to me. It’s comparable to deliberately eating unhealthily right before starting a diet, but even less logical because a diet is something you do for the sake of bettering your health, not because it’s Lent. (Although I hear a lot of people talking about going on a diet for Lent because they want to lose weight. They’re kind of missing the point; giving something up for Lent is not the same thing as a New Year’s Resolution.) What makes the observance of Mardis Gras even sillier, though, is that there are people who celebrate it who aren’t Christians, don’t observe Lent, and don’t think of Mardis Gras as being religious in any way.

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine's Day

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine’s Day

I do understand the argument that just because an observance had a religious origin doesn’t mean that it is still a completely religious occasion. After all, we observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating secular notions of romantic love and by eating red jello, and we observe Saint Patrick’s Day by celebrating Irish culture and eating green jello. That isn’t sinful, even though those days were originally religious observances, and so I suppose it technically also isn’t sinful to observe the last day before Lent by wearing colored beads and eating whatever color jello we think should be associated with Mardis Gras. (Yellow? Purple? Actually, as far as I know, Mardis Gras isn’t a jello holiday, but perhaps it should be, since it has so much in common with the other jello holidays. Maybe I’d like Mardis Gras better if it was a jello holiday.) Of course, some people would argue that the religious/secular shift goes both ways; they claim that Christmas and Easter weren’t originally religious holidays. Actually, it is more accurate to say that they are religious holidays that happen to coincide with pagan holidays, and that our current culture has a tendency of blending traditions with different histories and ignoring the fact that some of them are Christian and others are pagan. And yes, in the case of Christmas, it’s true that our observance of the holiday probably doesn’t fall very close to the time of year when it actually took place. But that’s something of a tangent because I’m really just talking about Mardis Gras.

Mardis GrasMardis Gras is more or less unique in being a holiday that I dislike; in general, I am in favor of any reason to treat any day as being special, to use it as an excuse to celebrate, and to associate it with enjoyable traditions. Basically, my objection to Mardis Gras is that it takes away from the significance of the beginning of Lent. For all of the fuss that people make over Mardis Gras, Ash Wednesday gets so little attention that some people think it only exists in the Roman Catholic church. (As a Lutheran, I can’t help feeling a little indignant when people ask me if I’m Catholic.) I haven’t heard my classmates talking about Lent, but I’ve heard an awful lot about Mardis Gras and about the Mardis Gras parties that will ironically be held this weekend after Lent has already started. The only reason that I’ve even seen much talk about Lent on the internet is that I know a lot of cool people who post religious things online. Even then, I think I’ve seen a lot more Mardis Gras themed things.

Because I’m a little short on time, I’m not going to continue this blog post in the logical direction (which would be to say something about Lent) and I’m also not going to try to justify the fact that I actually do like Halloween, which is also a secular holiday that was originally observed as the day before a religious holiday. I don’t think I really need to justify that anyway, because this really is just my opinion; I’m not trying to make any kind of moral statement. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about Mardis Gras, it’s just that I’m not used to observing it, so I am a little bit bothered by its cultural prominence. And also, if we’re going to celebrate it, we really ought to assign a certain color of jello to it. I’m voting for yellow.

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!

It’s a Wonderful Life, but not really

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It's a Wonderful Life

Late last night, I told myself that I would celebrate being done with my English senior seminar paper presentation by watching a movie, and I selected It’s a Wonderful Life. While I watched it, I was multi-tasking, and when I say multi-tasking, I mean I was sleeping at the same time. Actually, I did that on purpose, because I seriously needed to be asleep just then. Needless to say, I wasn’t very aware of the movie. (Because I was distracted by my dream in which people kept randomly sticking knives into my car tires, and also, there was a gas station in my little sisters’ bedroom, which would have been very convenient if I could drive, but I couldn’t, because my tires were full of holes, although they were magically fixed a couple times. I have weird dreams.) I’ve seen that movie many times, though, so my inattentiveness to it this time doesn’t prevent me from having things to say about it.

In case anyone reading this isn’t familiar with the movie, I’ll give a quick summary of the plot. On Christmas Eve, presumably in 1946 because that’s when the movie was filmed, a man named George Bailey is considering suicide. An angel named Clarence is assigned to come to help him through his time of trouble. The majority of the movie is the story of George’s life, which Clarence watches before coming to George’s rescue. We see George as a twelve-year-old boy who works in a drugstore, as a young adult who has to give up his plans to travel and to go to college when his father suddenly dies, and as a somewhat less young adult who still works at his father’s Building and Loan and suddenly finds himself in trouble for the loss of money that his Uncle Billy misplaced that morning. He’s just about to jump off of a bridge when Clarence the angel

This one facial expression in particular always really scared me for some reason.

This one facial expression in particular always really scared me for some reason.

interrupts him. While talking to Clarence, George says that he wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence gives him a view of what the world around him would be like if he didn’t exist. What follows is a scene that terrified me when I was little, which shows George running frantically around town and finding out that all of the pleasant people he knows are miserable and bitter, the entire town is owned by the mercenary Mr. Potter, and it isn’t even snowing anymore. (I have never entirely understood why George Bailey’s state of existence affects the weather patterns, but it evidently does.) George changes his mind and decides that he wants to be alive again, and when he returns home, fully existent, he finds that his friends have all chipped in to raise money to help him, and then they all have a lovely Christmas party and everyone is happy.

Rotary Phone

Rotary Phone

One thing I did notice about it this time through is that, in the drugstore near the beginning, Mary and Violet have their hair in 1940s hairstyles, even though that scene took place in 1919. Then I noticed that there was a rotary phone on George Bailey’s father’s desk. For a moment, I felt very proud of myself for catching this anachronism, but then I looked it up, and it turns out that rotary phones came into common usage in 1914. There was in fact no anachronism committed. The moral of this story is that I should stop being a smart-aleck and accept the fact that moviemakers know what they’re doing. The other thing I learned from this was, of course, that rotary phones came into common usage in 1914, a fact which I shall add to the list of random facts that I like to keep in my brain just in case they may someday be relevant to a conversation I’m having.

If this picture has no sentimental connotations to you, then you are in the minority.

On a more serious note, as much as I like It’s a Wonderful Life, I think it’s actually a really depressing movie. The central message is that life is worthwhile because individual people have a positive impact on the world around them, but George Bailey isn’t a good example of that because his life is more influential than most peoples’ lives. I mean, he saved two people’s lives when he was a twelve-year old kid, he single-handedly kept the Building and Loan running and thereby provided affordable housing for a significant portion of the population of his town, and, even though we actually don’t see much of his children in the movie, we see enough of them that we find his family likable and that popular culture associates that specific part of the movie with “The Christmas Spirit”. And he seems to be friends with everyone in town except for Mr. Potter and his daughter’s teacher’s husband. Even though he’s lived in the same place for his entire life, George Bailey has done a lot of important things and had a beneficial impact on a lot of people’s lives. His life really is pretty wonderful, despite the events of that one Christmas Eve. (In fact, that crisis only lasts for a few hours; everything’s fine that morning and everything’s fine again by that night.) Most of us can’t say the same things about our own lives. I bet that if I could see what things would be like if I’d never been born, the world would basically look no different than it does now. I’ve never saved anyone’s life, I don’t run a business that is vital to the prosperity of my town, and I highly doubt that my existence has any impact on the personalities of the people around me, or the weather. (If it did, that would actually be a good reason for me to stop existing, ‘cause I know my sister really wants it to snow this week, and it sure isn’t snowing now.) In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that I have dance rehearsals, dance performances, and two finals between now and Monday, I could probably suddenly disappear without anybody even noticing for a few days, even if my existence wasn’t erased from the past like George Bailey’s was.

If this is all it takes to make your life wonderful again, then you've got things pretty good. Although it sure would help. Just sayin'.

If this is all it takes to make your life wonderful again, then you’ve got things pretty good. Although it sure would help. Just sayin’.

So, yeah. When I watch that movie, instead of thinking how wonderful it is that everyone’s life is special, I think how sad it is that my life isn’t special like George Bailey’s is. And instead of being happy for him that all his problems were solved when his friends gave him all their money, I am sad that in real life, even little problems take more than a fairly obvious plot twist to solve. And I feel no sympathy for someone who wants to commit suicide because of one bad day, when most people in the world have had a lot more than one bad day in their lives.

Oh, what holiday cheer.

How I’m Celebrating New Year’s Eve

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Advent wreathNo, I’m not kidding; it really is New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the church year. Advent is an awesome season. I’ve always thought of it basically as a countdown to Christmas, which kind of sounds like an oversimplification. It works, though, if you remember that Christmas isn’t just a day for gift-giving and singing songs about Baby Jesus; it’s about the incarnation and the amazing extent of God’s grace, that he would send his own Son to exist as a regular person in this sinful world, to live and die just to pay for our sins. Actually, that’s not only the point of Christmas, it’s kind of the point of every day, and people should ideally hear it all the time. (‘Tis good to be Lutheran.) But Christmas is the time of year when it’s emphasized by focusing on the birth of Jesus, and Advent is the time of year when it’s emphasized by focusing on the coming of Christmas. (And also Christ’s second coming) It’s a cool way to start the year.

On the other hand, yes, I am kidding; I’m not really doing anything to celebrate New Year’s Eve tonight. But that’s not because I don’t see it as a holiday worth celebrating. It’s just that I’m really, really busy right now. Not only do I have a lot of schoolwork to do, (because finals start on Thursday and my senior seminar presentation is on Wednesday) but I’m also spending a lot of time at dance class because The Nutcracker is next weekend. Today, I was at the studio for six and a half hours, and when you count the driving time and the time it takes to get ready, it adds up to a pretty significant portion of the day. I’m not complaining about that; I’m excited to get to perform The Nutcracker this year, and ballet is a much more interesting way to spend a Saturday than secluding myself in my dorm to do homework all day. Still, the fact remains that having finals and a major performance in the same week does not allow one to have much free time.

You may perhaps notice that my tumblr username is visible in this screenshot. Feel free to stalk me on tumblr.

You may perhaps notice that my tumblr username is visible in this screenshot. Feel free to stalk me on tumblr.

The point is, I don’t have time to do anything for New Year’s Eve. But that’s okay because I don’t know what I would do anyway. There aren’t many specific holiday traditions associated with the last day before Advent, as there are for holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving or the other New Year’s Eve. So I’m observing this holiday by posting stuff about it online. At midnight, I’m going to post “Happy New Year!” as my facebook status just to see how people respond. I already posted a New Year’s Eve message on tumblr. It immediately got reposted by one person, but nothing further has happened to it. Just for good measure, I also tweeted “Happy New Year’s Eve!”, but I don’t expect to get a reaction from that. I hardly ever use twitter and don’t exactly have a very large following.

Just for the record, I have decided that, at least for the time being, I am somewhat obsessed with the hymn “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People”. Since it is an Advent hymn, it makes sense to mention that now.

 

Manger and CrossComfort, comfort, ye My people,

speak ye peace, thus saith our God;

Comfort those who sit in darkness,

mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load.

Speak ye to Jerusalem

Of the peace that waits for them;

Tell her that her sins I cover

and her warfare now is over.

 

Yea, her sins our God will pardon,

Blotting out each dark misdeed;

All that well deserved His anger

He no more will see or heed.

She hath sufered many a day,

Now her griefs have passed away;

God will change her pining sadness

Into ever-springing gladness.

Relative Degrees of Christmasness

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Today is Black Friday, which means that many Americans who spent yesterday acknowledging how thankful they are will now act like greedy consumers by spending a whole day obsessing over the acquisition of material objects. I realize that I’m being unnecessarily cynical in saying that; there’s nothing immoral about choosing to go shopping on a certain day because of the fact that most stores offer excellent bargains on that day. In fact, I think that the day after Thanksgiving is a good day for the Christmas shopping season to begin in earnest. My objection to the shopping tradition of Black Friday is that it sometimes seems to overshadow Thanksgiving, which doesn’t make any sense. Whether you consider Black Friday shopping to be a special occasion in its own right or a preparation for Christmas, there’s no reason that it should be more noteworthy and facebook-status-worthy than the major holiday the day before.

With that being said, it is now officially getting close to Christmastime. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving is a holiday that really only lasts for a day, or for the weekend at most. Christmas, on the other hand, is a momentous occasion that deserves weeks of preparations, followed by weeks of celebration. I’ve never been in favor of extremely early Christmas decorating or of Christmas store displays in October, but life is too short and years are too long to restrict Christmas to just a few days in December. Personally, I think that it’s cool to observe Christmas in one way or another year round. After all, Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation, and Jesus was incarnate for more than a few days.

But, of course, a holiday celebration isn’t so special if it literally lasts all year. The twenty-fifth of December is still the apex and zenith of all Christmasness. And the twelve days of Christmas are still to be considered more Christmasy than, for example, a random day in the middle of the spring. I therefore propose the point of view that it’s always Christmas, but some times of year are more Christmas than others. According to this way of looking at the calendar, I have helpfully constructed the following diagram that demonstrates the spectrum of Christmasness. I have thus divided the year into seven distinct phases of Christmas, although it should be noted that some of these, particularly the Advent season, also contain a subspectrum of Christmasness according to the exact day or week within the phase. Like most cool things, this diagram has been color-coded. It has not, however, been drawn to scale, nor has it been drawn neatly, for the simple reason that I am lazy.

As seen straight-on

Angled to emphasize the right-hand side

Dark green: The period of time that begins at about sunset on December 24 and ends in the early-to-mid afternoon on December 25

Red: The range of days that begins on December 25 and extends to January 6, that is to say, the twelve days of Christmas plus Epiphany Day

 

Dark Blue: The period of time before Christmas that includes four Sundays and the intervening weekdays and Saturdays, that is to say, the season of Advent

Orange: The period of time beginning a few days before Thanksgiving and extending to the first Sunday of Advent

Light Blue: The range of weeks between the beginning of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, which occurs at different times in different years, with the result that this phase varies in length from year to year

Purple:  A few short phases, usually located in the mid-to-late summer or sometime in October, in which one inexplicably finds oneself desiring to listen to Christmas music, wishing it would snow, and thinking it would be cool to put Christmas lights in one’s room

Light Green: The majority of the time of year between the beginning of Lent and the approach of Thanksgiving