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The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

santa-claus

Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world.  In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost).  As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era.  As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness.   Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.  Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam).  Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous.  Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole.  All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa:  he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus.  Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics.  A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.

6211237891_44fb56db16

Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife.  Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning my position as bishop” -Santa

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning from my office as bishop” -Santa

Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding.   He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt).  Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.

A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist).  Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts.  The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?

norad-santa

Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable.   Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity.   The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.

austrianorn-wmaster

This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order).  At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead.  Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys).  So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?

Pagan-Yule-spirit

The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity.  In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs.  Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity.   Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice).  Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles.  Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.

Wotan

Wotan

At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir.   Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king.  He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”.  He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him.  If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed).  If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons.   Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities.  Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.

Santa?

Santa?

Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint.  Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous.  Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe.  In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus.  In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons.  In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors.  Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.

Nikolaus & Krampus

Nikolaus & Krampus

Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica).  For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green.  Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions.  However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability.  Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe.  Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.  You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.

What is even going on here?

What is even going on here?

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