Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Christmas Passed

This was a great Christmas, I got a whole matching set of great pots and pans in RED and matching utensils and a waffle maker. And gift certificates to a giant craft supply store, and lots of nice cards. There was much feasting, too much.

There is still a little post holiday tristesse. From my earliest memories, Christmas was fraught with ghosts. Not the Christmassy Dickens ghosts, more like Santa Ghosts: Rosy, tinsel draped visions of sugarplums, fabulous toys, cozy meals and family moments of love and joy. Must have been at someone else’s house. Why, as a child did it never seem enough? Why does it still make me vaguely nervous?

I am just old enough to have grown up largely without television, and grew up in a household that still does not have a TV, except one hidden away in the basement as a sop to the children or in the housekeeper’s room. It is tempting to blame the advertising world, and especially the TV, for the gnawing sense that something is missing in Christmas, but I suspect the problem goes deeper than that.

Saint Nicholas (c.280-343) himself was a bishop in Smyrna, Turkey. He is credited with bringing back to life some children who were put in a pot to be made into the Turkish equivalent of corned beef. The practice of present giving came from a story about a poor man’s three daughters. Since lacking a dowry made girls unmarriageable and therefore doomed to prostitution, the good bishop tossed three sacks of gold coins in the window to provide dowries. These three sacks are now the three gold balls of pawnbrokers, St Nicholas is their patron saint. (Ironic, since much of the US is now deep in hock to pay for Christmas) His feast day, Dec 6, often involved candy for children, and perhaps a piece of coal or a switch if they were naughty. His Dutch name, Sinter Klaas, was brought to New York and became Santa Claus. Washington Irving, in his History of New York, published in 1809 under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, described the arrival of the saint on horseback, including laying his finger aside of his nose. As a child, I used to wonder why he was picking his nose.

Things really took off after 1823 with the publication of the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas by writer Clement Clarke Moore. Now we have the reindeer, and snow, and, worst of all, the sleigh full of toys. Toys? Candy isn’t enough? In addition, the new festival of greed has been moved to Christmas Day. Irresistible to capitalism., here is a bottomless pit of demand, which devours everything in sight and cries for more.

" The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercially more interesting Santa Claus, which took several ages in Europe and America, has recently been reenacted in the Saint's home town, the city of Demre. This modern Turkish city is built on the ruins of ancient Myra. As St. Nicholas is the most important Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A solemn bronze statue of the Saint by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, donated by the Russian government in 2000, had been given a prominent place on the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, mayor Suleyman Topcu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted the central statue to be more familiar to visitors from all over the world. Protests from the Russian government against the disgrace were only successful to the extent that the Russian statue returned, without its original high pedestal, in a corner near the church."
Wikipedia, Saint Nicholas

"The American image of Santa Claus was further elaborated by illustrator Thomas Nast, who depicted a rotund Santa for Christmas issues of Harper's magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s. Nast added such details as Santa's workshop at the North Pole and Santa's list of the good and bad children of the world. A human-sized version of Santa Claus, rather than the elf of Moore's poem, was depicted in a series of illustrations for Coca-Cola advertisements introduced in 1931. In modern versions of the Santa Claus legend, only his toy-shop workers are elves. Rudolph, the ninth reindeer, with a red and shiny nose, was invented in 1939 by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company."

And of course, we don’t really know when Jesus was born anyway, we sort of hitched him to an ancient existing party, the winter solstice on Dec 21. This nice pagan event was a big noisy party on the shortest day of the year, with fire in various forms, evergreens, and feasting. All to get through the shortest day. Will the sun come back to the full height of a summer noon? Will spring come? Will we have enough food for ourselves and our beasts?

I really like the idea of a feast, I like to eat and I like to cook. A big tasty meal is a universal sacrament, enough to scare away all kinds of bad dark things. The presents I like to give are people’s favorite foods. Of course you have to ask and then remember, but that seems easier than store bought presents, especially since you can give the same thing over and over.

I remember in one of the Little House on the Prairie stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that Pa went to town for something, not shopping, maybe collecting money owed him, and a blizzard came in. He barely made it home with his life, without the money, and in the pockets of his buffalo fur coat he brought the girls’ only presents, which I remember as two oranges. Actually, Ma had made dolls I think (while running a frontier household with no running water on a wood burning stove). At any rate the oranges, or maybe it was two peppermint sticks, were the BEST presents, and of course having Pa home safe. Hard to believe today.

What are we to do with the small, ungrateful wretch (me) that never has enough presents or the right presents? Shots fired over a video game in short supply? I don’t like diamonds, never did. I don’t want them for Christmas, or my birthday either. So how come the “Every kiss begins with Kay” song on the TV makes me so wistful?

What was I looking for in those packages so lovely and festive? Why did I feel, after everything was opened a disappointment? Not that what I got was no good, maybe the possibilities were better than the reality.

I wish I could magic myself into a Silent Night….all is calm, all is bright, kind of HO HO HO about the whole thing. Actually, I feel much better now that it is over.

Happy New Year, calm and bright.


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