7 Christmas Traditions (12/21/12)

— 1 —

Since the next Quick Takes will take place after Christmas, I thought it would be a nice time to share some holiday traditions from my family and some from elsewhere.  For example, this tradition was found by a friend of mine who was reading David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

Residents of the squatter community of Christiana, Denmark have a Christmastide ritual where they dress in Santa suits, take toys from department stores and distribute them to children on the street, just so everyone can relish the images of the cops beating down Santa and snatching the toys back from crying children.

— 2 —

And in fact, violent beatings involving Santa Claus are a part of my own family’s tradition as well.  When we have time, we like to read David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries out loud (passing the book to the next reader whenever we’re laughing too hard to talk).  But sometimes, if everyone is tired, we can read a shorter Sedaris story (“Six to Eight Black Men“) instead.  Here’s an excerpt:

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

“A switch?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”

“Saint Nicholas would kick you?”

“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”

“And the six to eight black men?”

“Them, too.”

— 3 —

But the most important part of our holiday tradition is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is absolutely excellent.  Michael Caine is Scrooge!  And here’s how he’s introduced:

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And I can’t really only share only one song.  Here are the Marleys (as played by Statler and Waldorf):

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— 4 —

Muppet Christmas Carol has been a part of my family’s Christmases for as long as I can remember, but some things are so awesome that they kind of demand a place in your holiday immediately.  This year, Randall Monroe of xkcd put together some figures on where the Wise Men could have ended up if they’d followed a particular star.  This requires some wacky assumptions:

If we allow a little theological confusion and assume the wise men can walk on water, they’ll eventually wind up going in an endless circle, 30 kilometers in diameter, around the South Pole.

But let’s be a little more realistic; the wise men are hardly going to walk toward the star while it’s behind the Earth. Let’s assume that they only walk toward the star when it’s in the sky and the Sun has set.

— 5 —

As you might guess, given how much of this blog is devoted to musical theatre, my family doesn’t only have one classical Christmas musical movie.  The second is Mrs. Santa Claus which stars Angela Lansbury as Santa’s wife.  Around the turn of the century, she gets frustrated that Santa neglects her for his work, and she heads off to New York City, to give him time to miss her.  While she’s away, she plays yenta, helps organize a factory slowdown, and marches in a suffragette protest.  Here’s her introduction to the neighborhood:

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— 6 —

One of my favorite Discworld novels makes excellent use of Christmas traditions and tropes.  Here’s how Hogfather opens (I really, really recommend it):

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. They wonder aloud how the snowplow driver gets to work, or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spelling of the words. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, raveling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began …

Something began when the Guild of Assassins enrolled Mister Teatime, who saw things differently from other people, and one of the ways that he saw things differently from other people was in seeing other people as things (later, Lord Downey of the Guild said, “We took pity on him because he’d lost both parents at an early age. I think that, on reflection, we should have wondered a bit more about that”).

But it was much earlier even than that when most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving*), and then wondered where the stories went.

* That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.

— 7 —

This New Zealand retelling of the Christmas story is also delightful, but slightly different tonally:

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About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • Mark

    Hogfather is probably my favourite Discworld book. I’ve read about five or six of them. Mr. Teatime is a great villain and I love the description of the tooth fairy’s realm.
    I’ve never heard of Mrs. Santa Claus. I was just thinking the other day, how most Christmas movies seemed to focus on a male figure (Santa, an elf, Jack frost) so it’s good to be made aware of an exception to that.

    One of my favourite kind of seasonal tales for this time of year is The snow queen by Hans Christian Andersen. It doesn’t mention Christmas specifically but it’s all about love winning over the forces of cold and evil.

    • Kristen inDallas

      I 2nd the Hogfather recommendation! Also great in that series (though not at all related to Christmas) are The Truth, Nightwatch, and Soul Music. Those four are my favorites (out of about 20 so far)

      • leahlibresco

        The truth has got its boots on!

    • leahlibresco

      Blog readers should note that it’s pronounced “Teh-ah-tim-eh”

  • jenesaispas

    The Muppets is my favourite version of A Christmas Carol, I don’t mean to be annoying but what are your thoughts on the morality of watching illegally uploaded videos on e.g. youtube?

    Great nativity :D you’ve prompted me to have look around and nativity plays don’t seem that popular in the rest of the world, but I have found a German one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDwC7-1wM7w

    • leahlibresco

      I only pirate something if I can’t find a way to pay for it. Thus, I buy the Muppet DVD, but pirate the soundtrack, since, back in high school, I couldn’t find anyone selling it.

      ETA: I guess you might have been asking about using the videos in the post. I think linking to a clip is an inducement to try the whole thing yourself. I don’t link to the whole movie.

      • grok87

        Thanks-Just bought and watched the Muppets Christmas Carol and it is indeed excellent.
        Apparently its been remastered as part of celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original movie!

        Fozzie Bear as “Old Fezziwig” (“Fozziewig”!)- what inspired casting- how can you go wrong…

      • jenesaispas

        Thanks for getting back to me, I felt bad saying it. I suppose copyright owners would take movie clips on youtube as being free advertising.

  • http://cecilia-maria.com ceciliamaria

    The Muppets’ Christmas Carol is my FAVORITE and I just realized that I forgot to pack the DVD when I left this morning for my future in-law’s. At least Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is streaming on Netflix and that’s my second favorite. I guess I’ll have to watch the Muppets after Christmas…

  • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

    Hmm, looks to me that Santa Claus being beaten or himself beating “nasty” children comes from anti-Catholic propaganda in mostly Protestant countries. Saint Nikolaus was a Catholic bishop, after all.
    In her book about the Trapp Family Singers, baroness Maria von Trapp wrote that the coming of Santa Claus at Christmas was not an Austrian tradition, but she instated in the family a tradition from elsewhere in Europe. It included a black character (a little demon if I recall) and Santa handing to those who had not been good a whip as a symbol, but there was no question of a whipping.

    • jenesaispas

      That’s interesting.

  • Rachel K

    Hooray, Muppets Christmas Carol! We’re looking forward to introducing our two-year-old to it tonight. In college, my husband and his roommates started the tradition of watching Nightmare Before Christmas every Halloween and Muppets Christmas Carol every Christmas, and we’ve managed to keep it up most years.

  • http://luckylad.insolentlad.com Stephen Brooke

    Santa’s dark demon helper-with-naughty-children is known as Krampus in some jurisdictions. There’s a tee available (alas, sold out this soon to his yearly visit) with his image at http://shirt.woot.com/offers/greetings-from-krampus along with some of his story.

    • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

      Thanks for the information, now I remember the name Krampus.
      I found a website with a more Catholic view of Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus and it looks like I was right to suppose that the Protestant and Norse did tamper with the veneration of saint Nicholas because they were unable to eradicate it.
      http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/patron-saint/

  • grok87

    Thanks for the pointer toward Christiana (Denmark). Sounds like things have settled down there more recently
    http://thevillager.com/villager_401/notebook.html
    “Enjoying an alternative Christmas Eve in Christiania

    By Laurie Mittelmann

    Enter this bustling, smoky auditorium on Christmas Eve and a scruffy man wearing a verdant green suit, a floppy velvet hat and a satin tie will shake your hand and kiss you on the cheek.

    He’ll say, in Danish, “Happy Christmas Tree Day, though we don’t have a Christmas tree.”

    Thomas Leth, a 29-year-old freelance photographer, came in and quickly found what he was looking for — a family away from his family to share warmth and intimacy with on the holiday. He had arrived in the heart of Christiania, a neighborhood of squatters in the center of Copenhagen where a community founded on reclaimed land, impromptu street theater and plain, old freewheeling can’t help but welcome strangers.”

  • deiseach

    Me being Irish, I have to contribute a poem :-) And this being the last Sunday in Advent, here is a poem entitled “Advent”, written in 1942 by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67):

    Advent

    We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
    Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
    But here in the Advent-darkened room
    Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
    Of penance will charm back the luxury
    Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
    The knowledge we stole but could not use.

    And the newness that was in every stale thing
    When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
    Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
    Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
    Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
    You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
    And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

    O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
    For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
    We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
    Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
    And we’ll hear it among decent men too
    Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
    Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
    Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
    God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
    The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
    Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
    We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
    Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
    And Christ comes with a January flower.

    • grok87

      @deiseach,
      thanks- I like it. I didn’t know about Patrick Kavanagh- seems like an interesting poet.
      cheers,
      grok

      • deiseach

        There has never been any shortage of poets in this country ;-)

        Probably (outside of the poems on the English curriculum for schools), his best-known poem is “On Raglan Road” in the version set to the tune “The Dawning of the Day” and sung by the late Luke Kelly of The Dubliners.

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