Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Urban Myth of Santa Claus

Long ago, I wrote a comedic essay on the parallels between Santa Claus and Satan.  I was surprised to find quite a few things in common, though I was really only joking.  I finished the piece "...and the North Pole is as cold as hell!"

Back then, I didn't even know that "Nick" or "Old Nick" is also another word for The Devil in some parts of the world.  It is also the root of the name for several types of fairies in different regions (neck, nykk, nissie, nixsie, nyx, etc.  This itself may have come from the Roman "nymph".)  When we accept that many of our Christmas traditions have pagan roots, it's easy to see where all the confusion might have come from.

I've studied a lot of world mythologies this year.  And in doing so, I have taken a step back from my own culture's mythologies and seen it anew.  To us, we are a rational culture which has abandoned actual belief in strange tales of gnomes with funny names who spin straw into gold and gods with hammers who strike lightning out of the sky.  What silly nonsense!  Yet we have a large number of our own myths, that when viewed from outside, are just as silly.  When it comes to Christmas, those myths are borrowed from the same kinds of people who believed in giants and gods who live on Mt. Olympus.  And we find we are no different.

Think about it.  We cut down a tree and put it in the living room and place a star on top.  We hang socks from the fireplace.  Then we place cookies and milk out all night for a fat man in a red suit, who will come down the chimney at midnight and fill the socks with treats, then pull brightly colored packages (made by elves) out of his sack and place them under the tree.  But only for children he has judged worthy.  Then he will climb back up the chimney, hop on a flying snow-craft pulled by a team of reindeer, and fly back to his home in the North Pole.

If you hadn't grown up with that story, you would laugh, and say, "People really believed that crap?"  And yet parents tell the tale to their children as if it were fact, take their children to the "marketplace" to sit on his lap, then stay up on Christmas night to enact the ritual.  We put statues and images of Santa and all his followers all over our houses and marketplaces and sing songs about him.  Revealing the secret to children is taboo.

Have we really changed all that much?  In the future, when antiquities scholars will tell of our God and our Demigods, Santa will be highest on that list, akin to Thor in his second-place status next to Odin.  He will be the god associated with giving, kindness, children, winter, snow, the cardinal direction of "north", and the color "red".  The Easter Bunny and cupid and leprechauns and ghosts will be right up there, too, and academics will debate whether we held them as gods or animistic spirits.  For all our science, we haven't really left our myths behind.

Everything about the Santa myth is a fairytale.  With actual fairies.  It's so ingrained in our culture that we often miss it.  But all the elements are there:
  • Magic.
  • Elves.
  • Flying.
  • Leaving out food to appease him.
  • Inexplicable gift giving (remember the shoemakers elves?)
  • Time dilation to get around the world in one night.
Fairies themselves were a pagan belief, existing long before Christianity.  In an effort to get people to stop worshiping false gods, the Catholic church literally demonized the fae folk, turning them into devils, the very minions of Satan.  Hence, when studying fairytales, I've often seen "devil" being synonymous with "elf".  The original horned gods (often with the cloven hoofs of goats) were Pan, Puck, and the satyr.  But the devil himself, once the imageless antithesis of God, was given a makeover to resemble these formerly-benign gods, to remind people where their loyalties should lie.

Given the great distances back then, words evolved over time.  The nixies became nykks which became "Nick" (the devil), which became "to nick something" (meaning to steal).  Saint Nicholas' name is most likely a coincidence, but he was actually from Turkey waaaay back in 270CE.  He didn't wear a fur lined coat at all, but he did give things away, year round.  Most notably, he saved women from prostitution by giving them dowries and prevented children from being butchered by cannibals by raising them from the dead.  Not a very familiar image when thinking of Father Christmas...

But we are pretty sure that the Germanic peoples associated Saint Nick with the god Odin for some reason.  In Odin we see a more familiar figure: one who was celebrated at the pagan winter holiday of Yule with the practice of leaving carrots outside in boots for his flying horse to eat.  In exchange he left treats for the children.

It is easy to imagine the Church trying to re-label the pagan nykks as devils, and their god Odin as the devil, and them hearing the name Saint Nicholas, and then deciding it was ok to celebrate him during Yule, and since he was a "Nick", and so was Odin, and they both gave things away, then it was all one and the same.

Maybe.  That last bit was just a wild guess, but in seeing how Roman nymphs evolved into European fairies in the first place, it's easy to imagine how these things can happen.

We can read recently-written stories about vampires and werewolves who wander among us, but few, if any of those will achieve the status of myth: beliefs about how the world is, or how we'd like it to be, that are passed along from parent to child, slowly evolving through the ages, until no one can quite remember just exactly where it came from.  When we think of urban fantasy, we can't forget that the old stories are just as alive today as they always were; the living, breathing spirit in the body of our culture.

1 comment:

  1. I heard about this Urban Myth of Santa Claus. Our instructor told us about it when I was in Antarctica I like such stories about Santa Claus and Satan.