Observations from the edge

"Y" is for yuletide

by Robert Nanninga
omehow, over the last hundred years, the great melting pot of greed has absorbed the true meaning of the holidays, and stuffed them into Santa's sack, to become a generic gift-giving orgy. Borrowing traits from each of the traditions it sought to eclipse, Christmas has became a hodgepodge of customs all subsumed and coopted by consumerism.
I am writing this on the day after the busiest shopping day of the year, which happens to be the day after Thanksgiving. How do I know that the last Friday in November is the day when retail is king? I saw it on CNN, of course. All day yesterday the Cable News Network was providing a running color commentary, live from an upscale department store in Chicago - a sort of play-by-play for the shopping set. A reporter was asking people what they bought, how much they spent, and if they were planning to spend more this year. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is considered news. What your neighbors are spending this holiday season is more important than the fact that run-away consumption is destroying the planet. Can you say 'landfill'?
Last night on the local news, the ABC affiliate led with a report on local retail. Then, to make sure we knew this was serious journalism and not a commercial for the status quo, the producers snuck in a report on the violent death of an ex-Raider Cheerleader before going back to the shopping frenzy at Fashion Valley. Shopping, dead model, shopping - I'm sure you see the connection. The Yuletide season is no longer a series of religious holidays based on faith and virtue. It has become a gaudy ritual manufactured by the commercial establishment designed to take your money.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away winter festivals had many names and were celebrated according to local customs and beliefs.
December 17th marked the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. During this seven day celebration, slaves were allowed to meet their masters on equal terms as a gesture of goodwill. The only aspect of Saturnalia that continues today is the extravagant decadence that surrounds our modern holiday.
December 6th is the day when the pageant of Saint Nicholas was celebrated. Born in the Greek city of Patara, Hagios Nikolaos grew up to be the Bishop of Myra. His gift-giving role in Christmas rites is probably a result of his fame as a friend to children. He was also known for giving gold coins to the needy. His cult, a group believing that a person could only achieve salvation through frequent sexual intercourse, spread the legend of St. Nick. Kinda puts the jolly fat man in a whole new light. Understandably, the worship of St. Nick spread to Northern Europe, where he absorbed pagan attributes such as riding through the sky with reindeer - and the Elves. Since the reformation, Saint Nicholas has become merged with Father Christmas. It is also interesting to note that St. Nick is considered the patron saint of shopkeepers. A coincidence? I don't think so.
Joulupukki is the name of Father Christmas from Finland, which literally means Yule Buck. Joulupukki originated as a spirit of darkness who wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning, this creature didn't give presents but demanded them in lieu of reeking havoc. The fur-lined coat that Santa Claus wears has its origin here, as does the North Pole as the traditional home of St. Nick. Where else would a man with reindeer live? It is unclear how this pagan demon was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas. Nowadays, Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus. In Scandinavia and Germany, Santa arrives on December 24th and knocks on the door, like any normal person. Only in England and America is he given the impossible task of squeezing his big butt down a chimney. White Anglo Saxon Protestants demand a lot of their cultural icons.
Father Christmas was slow in making his way over to Great Britain. December 21st marks the winter solstice, and it is on this - the shortest day of the year - that Wiccans and the Druids observed the Winter festival. They had no need of fat men entering their homes unannounced. The Winter Solstice celebrates the Goddess giving birth to a son, the God, at Yule. This, by the way, pre-dates Christianity. Pagans have long held the Winter Solstice as a time of divine births. The Christians simply adopted it for their use in 273 C.E. (Common Era).
Since the God is the sun, this marks when the sun is reborn. Thus, the idea of Christmas lights comes from the Pagan tradition of lighting yule fires or candles to welcome the sun's returning light. The only gifts given were to the poor. As this was the day of handouts, asking for money was considered "mumping." Sadly, Yule, one of the most holy of Pagan festivals, has been transformed into a time of no-holds-barred commercialism.
Santa came to America via the Dutch colonists, in the form of Sint Klaas, who then took on his current form in 1893 as a result of the Clement C. Moore poem A Visit from St.Nicholas. After reading the poem about the "chubby and plump, jolly old elf," cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the image that would eventually dominate the holidays.
Through the ensuing years, pieces of the story have been added to improve the marketing of the holiday. The Wiccan Yule Log gave way to the Christmas Tree. Stockings where placed on the chimney with care, in hopes that by morning there would be more presents there. Santa's elves were added to explain who made all the toys, and Mrs. Claus was added so we wouldn't get the wrong idea about St. Nick and the elves.
Santa is a non-denominational sort of guy. Anyone can buy into the Santa myth as long as someone keeps buying. For Christmas, mom and dad get you practical things like underwear and socks. Santa, on the other hand, gets you the new bike you asked for. If the bike doesn't arrive, blame it on the fat man. A hundred years ago a little girl might ask Santa for a doll; nowadays she wants the entire Barbie catalog, Air Nikes, and her own phone. Little boys who were once satisfied with a fishing pole now can't live without the current CD ROM slaughter game, an Uzi squirt gun, and a jersey from every team in the NFL. I bet when future archeologists search for clues to our civilization, all they will find is a mountain of Malibu Barbies and the plastic Corvette she drove in on.
This holiday season, let's work collectively to get the commercial monkey off our backs. Let's tell those corporations who get rich - selling us things we don't need, can't afford, and have no place to put after we are done with them - that the cash cow stops here. As Americans, regardless of our religious beliefs, we need to reclaim this holiday as a spiritual one. If you have to give a gift this year, bake a pie, knit a sweater, or simply read to your children. When you consume things, make sure your purchases help give back to something. Restore the true meaning of the holidays by volunteering at a local shelter. Mark the season by planting a tree, not killing one. Create rituals that give to the planet and the human community not detract from it. But most importantly, gather your loved ones around you and light a candle to the God or Goddess that speaks to you, and just relax.
This is, after all, a time of "Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men," not just stuff, stuff, and more stuff.
Robert Nanninga is an independent video producer, actor, vegan and active member of the Green and environmental community.