No War on Christmas, Just a Lot of Canons
As a Mythology & Religion major, I think an awful lot about tradition and ritual; why they change, how they change, and how they are kept alive. And there is no time of year when this is more prevalent than the veritable smorgasbord of winter holidays around this time each year. Here the effects of cultural exchange, cultural diffusion, industrialization, and globalization on tradition and folk culture are clearest. For the anthropologically or historically inclined it’s, well, it’s like Christmas morning.
Yet this time of year is also when tensions over said traditions run highest, if the annual “War on Christmas” tirades, arguments in the media over the ethnic background of Santa Claus, concerns that the mainstream American vision of Santa Claus has eclipsed the German Sinter Klaus (Sinterklaas?), many an article on interfaith or Jewish parenting websites regarding the Christmas tree or Channukkah bush, and my Facebook feed are anything to go by. Having given holiday tours at a museum dedicated to the Shaker religious movement, I have experienced firsthand the difficulty of explaining holiday traditions in their historical context, as many are totally unaware of how their beloved holidays have changed (even, or perhaps especially, just in the last 100 years).
For example, things like “They didn’t have a tree because the Christmas tree wasn’t really a thing at that point” or “Christmas was illegal because the Puritans thought it was anti-Christian” were met with confusion and disbelief. This put me in an awkward position, as it was difficult to accurately represent this community’s approach to Christmas and Thanksgiving without the proper context for the time and place, but I did not want to veer too far off topic into the general history of Christmas or even just Christmas in the United States as 1) the tour was on a tight schedule and that’s not what it was for, and 2) the history of Christmas can be a touchy subject and I did not want anyone getting mad at this museum because I said something off-script that ruffled feathers.
I was able to mostly get around this by throwing in a humorous anecdote about how the Christmas tree caught on in England and the US, but it would have been much easier to explain how Shaker traditions differed from that of non-Shakers if the tour group had been more familiar with what Christmas was actually like in the 18th or 19th century, not the imagined Dickensian Christmas they were projecting back.
Christmas (and many other winter holidays, be they related, entangled, or merely calendar adjacent) has a complicated history spanning multiple continents and traditions from numerous cultures (not to mention a few department stores and the Coca-Cola company), all blended and borrowed and patched together until they’ve become something new entirely. This phenomenon is not unique to Christmas or even holidays in general. One look at fairy tales is enough to see how stories take on a life of their own, changing with the times and places they find themselves carried to. By the same token, one glance at the Brothers Grimm or Disney shows us the double-edged sword of the media’s impact on tradition.
Things like the Brothers Grimm can be powerful tools to preserve culture, as oral traditions and folk traditions have faced many challenges through the years, most notably in the 19th and 20th centuries (as have languages, but that’s another post entirely). Thus, putting the ephemeral oral traditions on paper or film (or even in museums and academic centers, for that matter), can preserve a story long after grandmother or oma or nonna or dadi are no longer around to tell it. However, it also takes a fluid, ever-changing, living tradition and sets it in stone. Thus, the Brothers Grimm and Disney are often criticized for standardizing once varied and vastly diverse traditions.
For a glimpse at how Santa Claus has been similarly standardized in the 20th century (particularly in the US), check out this nifty map of who delivers the gifts in European countries. Never saw the Yule Goat or Christmas Man in those old Christmas specials, eh?
Attempts to preserve or revive traditions can also run the risk of distorting said traditions and their original meanings without proper context or if altered or appropriated for political purposes (be they for good or ill), but, again, that’s really a topic for a much longer post. Forgive me, I have so many thoughts on these issues, as my academic concentration focused a great deal on folk/oral/epic traditions, cultural exchange/diffusion, and the media’s impact thereupon. I apologize if the result is a rambling, incoherent sloshbucket of musings.
So, what are we to do with this tangled mass of traditions and cultural differences and asterisks of conflicting historical information? Holiday traditions are always in flux, with new rituals, activities, and media coming along every year. Some vanish by the wayside. Some are absorbed into our holiday canon(s) and become classics until we no longer remember a Christmas before The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol or Santa Claus or the Christmas tree.
I suppose all we can do is understand that Christmas is a living and immensely varied tradition (or, more accurately, traditions). Our Christmas is not our ancestors’ Christmas, our parents’ Christmas, or even our neighbors’ Christmas. Our traditions are no more correct or incorrect than any other, just different. Well, with certain exceptions. Anyone who complains that the term “X-Mas” is in any way anti-Christian is, in fact, wrong and I hope Santa or Sinterklaas or the Yule Gnome or an Amazon delivery drone brings them a history book and a Greek Rosetta Stone for Christmas.
I encourage anyone interested to learn about other holiday traditions, as well as the history of their own. It’s not only informative (and a time saver on museum holiday tours), but can be a rewarding and rich tradition in and of itself, allowing families, friends, and communities to share cultural and family history. For example, my pre-school had us leave our shoes out to experience a Dutch tradition (three kings on white horses filled them with candy, you see), I learned about St. Lucia’s Day from the activity section in the back of one of the American Girl books, in elementary school a teacher had every student pick a country and give a presentation on (one of) their winter holiday(s) and its customs, and my church had short pageants depicting or explaining a variety of popular winter holidays. One year I was an angel in Bethlehem, another year I played a child in a modern American family celebrating Yule.
One of my fondest Christmas memories was an advent calendar my mother got one year when I was very young. Each day had an illustration and a brief snippet about a different Santa analogue from around the world. It blew my young mind and I couldn’t wait to open the next day and learn about another figure in another culture. There was even an African woman who gave presents to every child in case they were the Christ child (someone alert Megyn Kelly). These traditions in no way diminished my own but rather enriched it, providing context, an understanding of universal themes/needs/values, and allowing me the opportunity to adopt new (or old) ideas into my own personal canon.
Holiday media can work much the same way. Yes, it can change or canonize traditions and stories, but it doesn’t have to, particularly with the increasing amount and diversity of our media. Today there is not one holiday special on one of 8 television channels. The whole of television, the internet, and the entertainment industry is at our fingertips, awaiting your personal holiday nostalgia and needs. Enjoy it, consider it, and adopt/adapt it as you will into your family’s traditions or personal preferences. Like comics or legends, each interpretation, deconstruction, or reinterpretation can add a new layer of meaning, further deepening and enriching the surrounding mythos.
Thus, without further ado, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you ten items of holiday media that are an integral part of my personal Christmas canon. I do celebrate more than one winter holiday, but, for the purposes of this list (and because I had to cut it down to ten), I shall try to keep it Christmas specific. However, feel free to share any and all winter holiday traditions or favorite holiday specials/movies/books/songs/etc in the comments. I’d love to hear about them.
10 THINGS THAT ARE A PART OF MY HOLIDAY CANON
1. Christmas Trolls, written and illustrated by Jan Brett
Written and illustrated by the incomparable Jan Brett (best known for The Mitten), Christmas Trolls is truly the gem in the crown of any children’s book library. Jan Brett’s unique and immediately recognizable style and immensely detailed illustrations will leave readers of any age pouring over the art long after they have finished the story. Christmas Trolls is both a sweet, all-ages tale to read with the kids and a love letter to Scandinavian culture. So grab your Dala horse and snuggle in for some good, old-fashioned mischievous trolling.
2. Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1970)
Not a fan of Elf on the Shelf’s creepy clown stare or NSA vibe? This stop motion classic offers us a young, ginger upstart version of Kris Kringle. Join our hippie hero as he fights the power and undermines the rule of Totally Not Political Commentary German Dictator Burgermeister Meisterburger. After corrupting the youth and teaching redheaded school teacher, Jessica, to let her hair down, Kris is sprung from jail with the help of Jessica, his penguin companion, and the Winter Warlock. This Christmas tale is delightfully telling of the political environment in which it was made and just plain entertaining. Though distinctly told from a Christian perspective, the Winter Warlock and his reindeer retain their pagan roots from “one of the Northern countries”.
3. A Midwinter Night’s Dream – Loreena McKennitt
For those of you unfamiliar with Loreena McKennitt, the woman is a goddess among men. Originally a Celtic artist, her music has become more eclectic through the years, reflecting her world travels. A Midwinter Night’s Dream has a little something for everyone, from boisterous English carols that’ll make you want to go a-wassalling to lovely and lamenting classics to the almost Middle Eastern flair of her rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (which may just be the only Christmas carol you can bellydance to). This reimagined collection of traditional songs is always soothing but never boring.
4. The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
Based on the book by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, this unique take on Santa’s origins is the most unapologetically pagan Christmas special I have ever seen and my all-time favorite (although Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is a very close second). Ever wanted to see a young St. Nick raised by fairies and a horned god, er, antlered forest guardian, in a magical wilderness kingdom worthy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Well, your dream just came true. The story is told in flashbacks as a council of immortals decides the fate of an aging Santa, soon to be visited by the Spirit of Death. It’s a little too pessimistic towards human nature in my opinion and the cat song is not one of the best, but the overall music, tone, and style of the special set The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus apart. If old school fantasy and elemental creature design are your jam, this is the Christmas special for you. The older of the two animated versions is also good and features dragon warfare but lacks the mythic ambiance. It also swaps Ak’s antlers out for wings, likely in an attempt to downplay the more overt pagan iconography. There are also several other adaptations, including an anime and a graphic novel.
5. The Winter Cherries – Odds Bodkin
Odds Bodkin is a storyteller/musician/author who has been entertaining children through live performance, recordings, and books for a generation. I was fortunate enough to see him perform as a child and hear this collection’s titular story live. The Arthurian tale of friendship and charity transports the listener to a Medieval Christmas of fable. You can practically feel the castle hearth and the snow falling outside. Take a step back in time and while away the long, cold night with the ancient but timeless art of traditional storytelling. Though the cassette tape my family bought at Bodkin’s show is probably older than some of you, The Winter Cherries is available for purchase as an MP3 download.
6. The Gift of a Traveler, written by Wendy Matthews, illustrated by Robert Van Nutt
Unfortunately, this book appears to be out of print these days. However, you might still be able to find it used. Much like Christmas Trolls, this tale wraps the reader in the vibrancy and art of another culture. The Gift of a Traveler is well worth a read for both the art and the story itself: a lesson in charity, unexpected kindness that challenges our preconceived judgements, and the true meaning of Christmas.
7. Christmas Eve and Other Stories – The Trans-Siberian Orchestra
The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s numerous Christmas albums are certainly not your grandparent’s Christmas carols. The group’s rock star Beethoven vibe and signature sound are an experience unto themselves, but the band also puts on a damn good show. If you ever get the chance to see them in concert, do, as it is something truly memorable. It was hard to pick only one CD for this list, but the track “Christmas / Sarajevo 12/24” was what introduced me, and the world, to what would become one of my favorite groups of all time. Its haunting quality and historical setting also remind us that Christmas does not always bring peace and happens even amidst dark days. However, the album The Lost Christmas Eve has the song “Wizards in Winter”, which you may remember from this epic Christmas light display. Tough decisions. I say grab both.
8. The Polar Express, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
My copy of this book as a kid was actually a magazine pull-out that could be stapled together (This used to be a thing. Magazines also used to be a thing. And we had to walk 15 miles uphill both ways to get them.). Now an equally acclaimed movie, this simple story, though low in Tom Hankses, resonates in the imagination with its proto-Hogwarts-Express train and bittersweet honesty about the fleeting magic of Christmas that fades as we grow up, though the memories remain.
9. Wolf Christmas, written by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater
Though Christmas is in the title, this book transcends both specific winter holiday and species, instead focusing on the universal, primal joy of enduring the longest (or nearly so) winter night alongside those we love. Family, music, and winter itself are more the characters here in a simple yet spellbinding story that masterfully evokes both image and feeling. I actually discovered this book while serving as a story time reader at the aforementioned museum’s Christmas event. Though the children I had read a more familiar winter-themed book to were lost to short attention spans and loose threads on the rug, a few adults later wandered in and found me alone. After asking what activity this was, they embraced their inner child and the magic of the season, and asked me to read them a story. I selected this book, as I like wolves and the art looked pretty. This time I held the whole room captivated. Thus, I appreciate this book not just for itself, but for the serene moment shared with total strangers that it holds in my memory. And shouldn’t that be the way with holiday traditions?
10. Jingle Spells: Leaky’s Rocking Christmas 2007 – Various Artists
Wait, wait! Stay with me for a moment. I can explain. I know a holiday CD of Harry Potter inspired music (Wizard Rock or Wrock to those in the know) seems downright silly, but I have included this for three reasons: 1) “Christmas with the Weasleys” paints a better picture of the holidays in a cramped but loving house with friends and family and food and frivolity better than many more standard Christmas songs. It’s also just happy and catchy, regardless of the lyrics. 2) The themes of friendship, love, and enduring dark times with courage and laughter in Harry Potter, combined with Christmas’s prominent appearance in the books and movies, as well their Dickensian feel, makes this plenty festive. Hey, even ABC Family shows Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone every year on its 25 Days of Christmas. Also, see above comment on memories mattering as much as content. 3) This post is all about the fluid, complex, and often quirky nature of tradition and how the media influences it. So what better way to illustrate that than a CD that uses a beloved fandom as its inspiration, much in the same way that Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and other franchises have inspired or influenced art, music, and our social rituals (not to mention our Jungian cultural archetypes)? My senior thesis actually dealt with modern fiction serving as a sort of replacement/continuation of earlier storytelling traditions and rituals, fulfilling a similar cultural, societal, and personal need in new but familiar ways. For an interesting look at the idea of fan culture functioning in much the same way as folk culture, I recommend this short video on the matter. The songs on this CD range in quality and content, featuring numbers from Harry and the Potters, The Remus Lupins, and Ministry of Magic. In any case, this could be a perfect stocking stuffer for the Harry Potter fan in your life.
God Jul and Merry Christmas, readers. Enjoy your various festivities. I wish you all health and happiness this holiday season. Waes hael. Or wassail. Or wassal. Whatever works.
Why Christmas rituals make food tastier – The BBC takes a look at ritual and human evolution.
Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions – Yule Mumming, Christmas Trolls, feasts, and gambling. Christmas just ain’t what it used to be…
In Germany, Santa’s Sidekick is a Cloven-Hooved, Child-Whipping Demon – And you thought Elf on the Shelf was scary…
The coming of the Christmas Visitors…Folk legends concerning the attacks on Icelandic farmhouses made by spirits at Christmas – Turns out Christmas is a lot edgier when the long winter’s night can last for 20 hours.
Meet the Thirteen Yule Lads, Iceland’s Own Mischievous Santa Clauses – Can we please get a stop-motion Christmas special about these guys? Somebody get Tim Burton on this.
‘Christmas – Old and New. Quaint Customs of Yuletide.’ – as Reported in 1919 – Some historical perspective on the Christmas traditions of yore.