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.
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.”
“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?”
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:
And I can’t really only share only one song. Here are the Marleys (as played by Statler and Waldorf):
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.
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:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70e-PW1vofw
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.
This New Zealand retelling of the Christmas story is also delightful, but slightly different tonally:
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