Ho, Ho, Ho! Father Christmas

Diarmuid Breatnach

We now approach the festival called Christmas. A Christian festival, apparently, celebrating the birth of Christ, the baby Jesus.

Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head

The stars in the sky
Look down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

Such a sweet, holy image.

But actually, when we look around us, it seems more like a festival of the pagan gods: Bacchus, the god of alcohol and of Mammon, the god of wealth. Bacchus, because in non-Moslem countries, drinking of alcohol will be for most a big component of the festival. Whiskey, brandy, wine and beer will be bought to stock up the house. Alcohol will be drunk at Christmas parties (including office parties, where for months afterwards some people will regret what they did or said – or even what they didn’t do or say).

Alcohol will be not just drunk but also put into some of the traditional food and even poured over it.

Then Mammon. Well, you can see the retail businesses stocking up for weeks or even months ahead of the festival which, after all, was only supposed to be a one or at most a two-day event. Giving and receiving gifts has now become part of the festival and in most cases, gifts have to be bought. Which is a really big gift to the retail businesses and thence, really a sacrifice to Mammon.

In the Christian gospels of both Matthew and Luke, it is written that one “cannot serve both Mammon and God” — which goes to show how little they understood capitalism, where Mammon IS God. A theologian of the Fourth Century saw Mammon as a personification of Beelzebub, which in his time was another name for Satan or the Devil.

Interestingly, Protestant Christianity, which some credit as having invented capitalism, at the same time regarded Mammon, or said they did, as “one of the Seven Princes of Hell”.

Cartoon depiction of Mammon, God of Wealth
(Image sourced: Internet)
Sculpture representation of Bacchus, God of Alcohol, in California winery, USA
(Image sourced: Internet)

SANTA

          Now, Santa Claus is also a big part of the Christmas festival, especially in western countries, a much more acceptable face than that of greedy Mammon and alcoholic Bacchus, right?

But originally, the Christians saw him a representation of St. Nicholas, 4th Century Bishop of the Greek city of Myra, a location now in Turkey. He was he patron saint of archers, repentant thieves, sailors and prostitutes. The prostitutes probably had to be repentant ones, of course! The sailors, who probably had at least as much recourse to prostitutes as had any other calling, were apparently not required to be repentant – to be in danger on the sea was enough.

But St. Nicholas was also the patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and brewers, so we can see how close he was getting there to the modern spirit of Christmas.

GERMAN TRAPPINGS

          Now, the Christmas Tree, der tannenbaum, so much a part of the symbolism of modern western Christmas, came to us from Germany, as did the sled and the reindeer. The reindeer are not autochthonous or endemic in historic times to Germany, so they must have been brought in their myths from Scandinavia from where originally, the Germanic tribes came from. In turn, the Christmas Tree, Yule Log, reindeer and sled were exported from Germany to England in the reign of Queen Victoria, by her consort Prince Albert, who was German. And since the English ruled all of us in Victoria and Albert’s time, the Christmas Tree came to us too, to the cities first and then slowly spreading through the rural areas.

A representation of St. Nicholas (before he got the red suit makeover) looking more like a pagan god of the woods.
(Image sourced: Internet)

***

When you think about it, this German-English worship of the tree was a bit ironic, since the English had wiped out most of our forests already and were still cutting down our remaining trees in Queen Victoria’s time.

***

And Victoria, through Albert, gave us the Santa Clause we know and love today. A jolly man, well fed, white beard, twinkly eyes, dressed all in red with white trim ….

IN RED?

          Now, wait a minute! It turns out he wasn’t always dressed in red. Originally, he was dressed in a brown, or green cloak. He was, originally among the Germanic people, a god of the forests – hence the evergreen Christmas tree. And like any sensible woodsman, he dressed in appropriate colours, brown or green. Neither Albert nor Victoria ever represented him as dressed in red. So how did it become so that we are incapable of seeing him today in any other colour than red? Well, it turns out that Coca Cola is the responsible party.

Yes, although it was the cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870s United States who first portrayed Santa in a red suit with a belt but it was Coca Cola, in their advertising campaign of 1931 and onwards who made his clothes red world-wide. Coca Cola is a drink served cold and almost undrinkable when warm and who needs a cold drink in cold weather? I guess Coca Cola needed a warm image to make it still attractive in winter. So therefore the warm, jolly man dressed in red, with a bottle of Coca Cola in his hand.

1931, Santa Clause first appears in red, in Coca Cola advertisement, USA.
(Image source: Internet)

Coca Cola brand is worth about $74 billion dollars today, far ahead of any other cold drinks product. Which I guess brings us back to …. yes, Mammon.

You can mix the drink with a number of alcoholic beverages too, so tipping a nod – and a glass – to Bacchus.

Now, the German Santa Claus, this originally woodland god, is also thought to have been something like Thor, a god of fire and lightning. So can it be any coincidence that two of his reindeer are called Donner and Blitzen, i.e “Thunder” and “Lightning”? Of course not!

A starry night over desert hills, like the Nativity scene but without the Guiding Star.
(Photo source: Internet)

INVISIBLE

          Although we see the image of Santa Claus everywhere and even pretend Santa Clauses all over our city streets, everyone knows that nobody sees the real Santa Claus. Children have to be asleep when he arrives to distribute his presents and somehow adults don’t see him either.

Which I suppose is a good thing …. I mean if you found an intruder in your house at night, not to mention near your children, you’d be liable to whack him with a hurley (that’s an Irish cultural reference) …. or a baseball bat (that’s a U S cultural reference) …. or stab him with a sharp kitchen knife (that’s an international cultural reference).

It was bad enough when somehow that portly – not to say fat – man could somehow come down your chimney and go up again, without waking anyone … but now he can get in your house or flat even when you don’t have a chimney.

Which is at least creepy, if not downright scary.

Let’s lighten the mood and sing together:

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out
Who’s naughty or nice

Santa Claus is comin’ to town
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Yes, lovely, lovely.

You better be good, you better be nice, I’m not telling you twice” — Is it just me, or is that not downright threatening? And he knows when we’re sleeping or awake? He has our children under surveillance? In some kind of list?

HO! HO! HO! IN MORALITY PLAYS

          Morality Plays were a genre of theatrical performances of the medieval and Tudor eras in which a character was tempted by a personification of Vice. Now Vice (not unlike a lot of police Vice Squads), was often seen as the epitome of evil, corruption and greed – in other words, the Devil. The playwrights tended to portray the Devil as somewhat of a comical character, perhaps to keep their audiences entertained (or to disarm them). So the character who played the Devil would announce his arrival with a stage laugh: “Ho, Ho, Ho!”

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Nowadays, we tend to see the Devil portrayed in black but in earlier times, he was more often seen as coloured in red. The colour in which Coca Cola just happens to have dressed Santa too.

The German or Nordic Santa was originally a god of fire also, while even the modern Santa drives a magical chariot pulled by horned beasts and he is portrayed all in red. Traditionally, the Devil is seen as residing in Hell, a supposed place of eternal flames below ground. What does Santa Claus give to children who have not been good? A lump of coal! In other words, a mineral from underground that can burn to make fire.

NICHOLAS

          Santa Claus is supposed to be modeled on St. Nicholas …. and what is the popular abbreviated version of Nicholas, i.e the nickname? Yes, Nick.

And the common name for the Devil, Mammon, Beelzebub, Satan ….. Old Nick!

We need to wake up!

HO, HO, HO!

End.

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