The real meaning of christmas
We often hear the phrase “the real meaning of Christmas” as if there were only one, and that one uncontested. It generally seems to imply that some innocent, possibly spiritual, event has been corrupted by greed or commercialism or non-stop partying.
We don’t really know the origin of Christmas. We don’t know the origin of Santa. We do know that their origin isn’t Christian but that earlier traditions became Christianised. It was common for Christianity to take pagan gods and rename them as saints, we in Ireland are all familiar with St. Brigid for example. There’s no reason from the gospels to associate the birth of Jesus with this time of year. Both gospels that mention the birth of Jesus give wildly contradictory accounts and means of getting Jesus of Nazareth born in the more propitious (for Jewish scripture) Bethleham which was in Judea rather than in Galilee. This was awkward as everybody seems to have agreed that Jesus was an Aramaic speaking Galilean rather than a Hebrew speaking Judean. The whole set of images associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Judea two thousand years ago: snow, mistletoe, a red Siberian psychedelic mushroom shaman… Hang on, the last one didn’t take you by surprise did it? One of the stories given for the traditional red and white image of Santa is that it is a shamanistic costume based on the fly agaric mushroom. The truth is we really don’t know for sure the origin of the traditional Santa image. It doesn’t come from Coca Cola advertisements though however much they might have used Santa in their promotion. The notion that he was originally green has some merit in that some early American depictions of Santa did have him in green. And as with Halloween our version of Santa Claus is our old traditions sold back to us after being transformed in the United States. Sinterklaas the Dutch St. Nicholas was merged with the English Father Christmas to make Santa Claus — the first recorded mention of those words is from the 18th Century in the US. That this melding of German, Dutch, and English traditions happened in the US is entirely appropriate. It’s why Dutch will frequently tell us that we give presents on the wrong day. We in the English speaking world have so obviously appropriated their tradition that our version of it strikes them as being very wrong. They of course also adopted earlier traditions and older gods to the new times. One of the most prominent older gods that was folded into the Christmas traditions was Odin associated with the festival of Yule. He left presents in boots much as later St. Nicholas was claimed to have.
It seems to me an awful pity that we neglected to take Santa Claus’s reverse the great Krampus when we appropriated other European traditions. Krampus is a goat headed demon from Austrian and Southern German Christmastime. While the name Krampus is associated with the wild hunt and therefore in the same kind of traditions as Odin and Yule he is usually nowadays a companion to St. Nicholas –a Christian bishop / saint from Turkey and a goat headed demon from Germany is one of those wonderful conjunctions that history throws together but which makes no sense at all. In these traditions it isn’t so much Santa who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice but rather the much more frightening Krampus. He will leave the naughty children a piece of coal, beat them with a switch, and one supposes for the most incorrigibly naughty only, throw them in the basket on his back and cart them off to hell. These days the demon survives mostly in the form of young men (and now women) drinking schnapps and dressing up and “frightening” the kids with their costumes and by rattling chains. It is celebrated in neighbouring villages on different days so that they get to go out to several parties, get hammered on schnapps and shuffle round the town waking everybody up. In other words yet another excuse to party around Christmas. Because that is one of the real meanings of Christmas.
By getting rid of Krampus and his role in the punishment of children we have made Santa Claus into a potentially evil creature. Or at least one sending out mixed messages to children. If he knows what you’ve been up to, if he has global reach in his transport network and information gathering is it any wonder children frequently react to their first encounter with Santa with as much horror as they do clowns? He is used as a threat to make children behave, to defer the pleasure they are currently having in the hope of getting better presents in the future. “He knows if you’ve been good or bad” like some kind of creepy transnational stalker: Mark Zuckerberg in a fat suit perhaps? Except he also gives presents rather than selling your personal information on to strangers. And he doesn’t get you fired from your job for time wasting. So basically not that like Mark Zuckerberg at all.
But why does there need to be a bad side to Father Christmas, an evil twin to his merry present giving? Christmas is at its heart a celebration of the fact that we have managed to work with our environment to provide for ourselves and we have a surplus which we can use to have a feast in the darkest days of the winter to remind us that the bounty will be back again. It’s a pat on the back to ourselves part way through the long hard winter of the Northern world. Every feast is haunted by the spectre of famine, the fear that we will have consumed too much. Every party, every unbridled celebration, carries with it the fear of going too far in unbuttoning and letting go. This is a major part of what Christianity tapped into in our psyche. It seems to me to be the major religion most devoted to deferred pleasure. Don’t enjoy yourself now and you can have an eternal party after you are dead. While recognising pleasure as your goal Christianity haunts it with the fear of eternal pain as your reward for experiencing it. The only pleasure that is worthwhile is that which is incapable of being experienced: pleasure after death. This bifurcation finds an expression in the dual nature of Santa Claus and Krampus (or just Santa Claus in his dual role as an agent of punishment and fear as well as giver of gifts). Krampus as a member of the wild hunt of the winter is an expression of a legitimate pagan fear: winter brings death and starvation and deprivation. It’s cold up North and if you haven’t prepared well, or the elements just get too bad, you will die. As a spectre haunting the gift giving of Christmas which has been folded in to Santa Claus he merely brings a good measure of Christian guilt to what should be the unbridled joy of the carnival of Christmas.
The complaints of the devaluation of the true meaning of Christmas are, I think, based on a false premise: that Christmas is not a fleshy, pagan, messy, guilt free carnival. It is and it should be. Let Krampus be separated from Santa again and remove guilt from Santa’s remit. There are many different Christmases and they now include a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus but none of them is more legitimate. When you are a child you get to experience the wonder of gifts and the notion that there is mysterious infinite love offered to you, because there is. As you get older the joy in feasting and of partying comes more to the fore and stays with you as you get to experience the joy of being santa, of being indulgent in your generosity as well as in your consumption of treats. It is particularly illogical in these recessionary times to be made to feel guilty for consumption: the embrace of austerity as if self-denial were a moral response to the economic problems of the world that could purge the indulgences of the past is killing our economies and any possibility of growth and recovery. St. Nicholas himself would probably approve of excessive spending, he was after all the patron saint of pawnbrokers.
The real meanings of Christmas include, but are not limited to: present giving, a carnival, a chance to party, a time for families to get together and fight at the table, a mid-winter stimulus for shops, a chance to get extra shifts to save some money up for a ski holiday after the exams. What it isn’t and shouldn’t be is an excuse for zipped up morality and looking down ones nose at others for having a good time. Separate your guilt from your pleasure, your Krampus from your Santa. And then take your Krampus out for a party.