One of the charms of any feast day that lasts over the centuries is its intermingling with other mythologies. When you feel too sorry for Santa Klaus and all his work on christmas eve, you can rest easy. he has dozens of comrades, some well known, some less so. time and space allow me to touch only on a few here, but they are a few i'm very fond of.
One, though his identity has been appropriated by Santa claus over the years, is the German Kris Kringle. but chris was originally a far worthier saint than our jolly red giant, or even than the good Dutch bishop sinter klaas who comes by ship from spain to the netherlands. Kris kringle translates to Christ Child; the boy we worship is himself the giver of gifts to the rest of us. which makes sense, when you remember that in christian mythology the reason the boy was born was to give us the greatest gift of all--his life, in redemption for our sins.
the gift givers have never been an all-boys' club. in the cold Scandinavian countries, it is Saint Lucia who brings light to us, quite literally--she wears a crown of lit candles as she makes her rounds. two interesting, obviously interconnected female givers , are the russian babushka and the northern italian bafana, though bafana seems to be the older of the two. in each case, she was approached by the three kings taking a shelter break from their star-following, and offered them hospitality. in turn, they suggested shes come with them to meet the new child- king of the world. but she was too busy with her housework, and decided to wait. by the time she was ready, they were long gone and the star had disappeared. so every year, she travels the world with gifts for the christ-child, and, failing to find him, gives the gifts to other children.
i like the idea of the woman punished for taking housework too seriously and who gets a marvelous fling around the world once a year. but more, i like the idea that different peoples from different countries and backgrounds have Incorporated the idea that children deserve gifts and special treatment once a year at least. and that these ideas began long before consumerism took them over, out of a notion of pure love for a pure, poor child. if the world survives its frantic rush to self destruction, i hope these gift givers survive with it. we will need all the comfort and joy possible.
Christmas, as we know, is infamous for escalating the level of depression among americans. it heightens loneliness, despair, and fear with its insistence that we all be jolly and love our neighbors and chuckle like a 1940s film santa. it excludes non-christians, throwing them a hanukkah bone and ignoring that hanukkah is a minor jewish holiday, not the year's biggest one. it tortures parents without the wherewithal to buy their kids the goodies advertised since october, all, as is the nature of advertising, promising a degree of fulfillment once imaged only in tales of the heavenly afterlife. it even promises snow on christmas day, a rarely met promise but a pretty one.
these are the negative christmas sadnesses. the further we can get from them, the better off we who are christmas lovers will be. but there is another side to christmas sadness that we need to embrace, without which our happiness is, at best, a little shallow. the feeling, and the rejection of it, are strikingly present in a popular song from 1944, which first appeared in a pleasantly fluffy film called Meet Me in Saint Louis. Judy Garland plays a turn-of-the-20th-century teenager in love with the boy next store. all is well until her father gets a better job, far away, and the family must move from its beloved home and friends, and from garland's beau. and it's almost christmas. so she sings, with all the garland wistfulness, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In this version, she gamely tells us that 'next year all our troubles will be out of sight," and that 'someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,' and that 'until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." Unfortunately, singers like frank sinatra and later barbra streisand got hold of the song and merried it up. in these later versions, from now on our troubles will be out of sight, through the years we all will be together, and there will be no more muddling through, just hanging stars on the highest boughs. anything negative just gets pushed aside like broken glass ornament.
but we need the sadness of christmas, as well as its joy; indeed, the absence of the former taints the latter. some other popular songs admit this: 'i'll have a blue christmas without you' [which my mother played frequently in the early 1970s when my brother was in vietnam]; 'i'll be home for christmas,' which sounds very happy until the last line, 'if only in my dreams.' then there is the 20th century folk hymn, 'i wonder as i wander...why jesus the savior was born for to die.' and that cracks it. the exalted central myth of christmas is the story of death mingled with life. that gorgeous babe in the manger exists solely for the purpose of dying, horribly, 33 years later. and we, celebrating that birth, are equally mortal. we are surrounded by the void of our beloved dead, our absent loved ones, our unmet dreams, and our own ultimate mortality.
dickens knew this. those who read a christmas carol and see only a treacly happy story miss the point. the happiness is there, all right. but so is the loss--all of it. marley makes that clear when he shows scrooge the suffering poor and the ghosts trying, too late, to help them. we cannot but know that tiny tim's survival comes out only through one man's personal conversion combined with a conveniently curable illness. scrooge had destroyed many lives along the way to his conversion, not least of all his own. [watch the quick-changing expressions on the face of alistair sim in the greatest film version of the book, and see decades of loss mingle with current joy.]
the secret to a full christmas lies in embracing the whole of the season, of the day. as dickens says in one of his essays, we must invite our beloved dead to join us, in the hope if not the faith that we will one day be reunited with them. we must sigh for our losses. and we must do the grand work of creating happiness, enough to carry us through the cold winter to come: the winter we will likely survive but possibly die from; the happiness we hold through chill fingers as it tries to escape us; the joy of that noble mother who dared to rejoice in her child's birth and death.
i wish i had an easy answer here .my love for all things dutch and my moral compass seem to be in some sort of collision, added to which is that the racism of 'schwartze piet' is very different from the racism that imbues american culture. the new york times article on the subject does a large disservice by implying that the origin of piet's blackness is believed in nederland to be the dust covering chimney sweeps. it's less innocent than that and at the same time less ghastly than our racism. [this doesn't let the dutch off the hook, by the way. the main difference between their slavery and ours is that we dragged our slaves home from africa, while the western european slaveowners stayed on their conquered land and maintained slavery there. the dutch were especially cruel to escaped slaves who were captured, and, victims themselves of the spanish inquisition, meted out tortures the pope would have found impressive.]
but black piet isn't a descendant of those slaves. he is, rather, a moor. their santa claus is much truer to his origin than our coca-cola boy. he's sinterklaas, as in saint nicholas, a genuine [though thin, ascetic looking] bishop who lived in the middle ages. his kindness to the poor evidently transformed after his death into the giving of presents to good children. in once-Spanish-colonized nederland, he remains spanish, and comes over on a ship to holland. schwartze piet is his servant, not slave, and dresses in an approximation of the medieval moors, just as sinterklaas dresses in an approximation [bright red, however] of a medieval bishop's garb. piet is definitely black, and definitely inferior to santa--but no more than any worker for a good but demanding boss would be. over the years, piet has been cloned, so in the children's books i use to practice my dutch, there are often a bunch of piets, each with control over his own department. and though they will give coal rather than goodies to bad kids, they give nuts and fruits and nice presents to the good ones on st. Nickolaus day, dec.5.
as a political figure, then black piet is less a figure of racism than a reflection of the cycle of war, invasion, imperialism, colonization, and its nasty accouterments. the moors invade spain; the spanish invade the netherlands, the netherlands invade africa and the new world, and round and round it goes. maybe it's nice that the spanish inquisitors gets turned into a kindly saint who gives gifts to children, while the moors who invaded spain hang around to help the spanish guy out. but i'm an american, and the sight of the comic little black figure can only make me cringe. it will be interesting when i go back to nederland next month to talk to my friends there. what does that african figure mean to them? how much is it a necessary part of their culture? and does it matter that the good saint figure comes from the land that colonized the dutch? what would be left of their Christmas mythology if parts of it were changed; what happens to their reputation as the west's most tolerant nation if they aren't changed?