At the risk of tossing a huge hum-bug over a grand institution during this festive season--yep, I'm referring to that commercial symbol himself, Santa Claus--I have to say this now.
I got caught in the excited crowd of parents and kids. watching the hoo-ha arrival of the bearded man in the red suit. The Mall chose well because this Santa is really good. He's the right size and build without any added padding. He has the genuine full-size white beard covering half his face. He has the twinkliest eyes and the most booming ho-ho-ho's that carried over the entire wing of the shopping mall. The kids were really excited. But as I watched, I got to thinking--adults can be quite hypocritical. Think about it. We teach our kids not to talk to strangers and especially not to sit on strangers' laps and definitely not to take candy from strangers. All of a sudden, at this time of year, it's perfectly fine for little kids to talk to this strange man, sit on his ample lap and take candy from him. Doesn't that sound hypocritical?
I know he's supposed to be that kindly figure that symbolizes part of the festive season. Well, okay--maybe a large part of the festive season in the eyes of a small child. When it's mixed in with Baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men, it's a wonder Santa isn't there along with the Little Drummer Boy.
Not all cultures have a Santa Claus. Italy has a benevolent Christmas witch called "La Befana." While Santa and his reindeers delivers presents to good little children on Christmas Eve, La Befana does her job on January 5th, swooping down chimneys on her broom and leaving a small gift for good children or a lump of coal for naughty ones. France has Le Pere Noel, who rewards good children by leaving his gift in their shoes set by the fireplace. Danish Christmas traditions go back hundreds of years and are closely tied to pagan customs celebrating Jul, Winter Solstice, the passing of Winter into Spring. Because of the season, it has become linked with Christmas and Julemanden or "Christmas Man." Julemanden has little dwarfs or nisser who help him and children leave out porridge or treats to ensure the dwarfs do not become cranky. In Holland, Sinterklaas honours St. Nicholas's life on December 5th and 6th. Traditionally, children receive small gifts on Sinterklaas but Christmas Day is reserved for family and attending church. Germany has "der Weihnachtsmann" or Saint Nicholas who visits the children on December 6th. It is the "Christkindl" or Christ Child who comes Christmas Eve. Legend has Christkindl, riding a mule to deliver his gifts. He enters the homes through a keyhole. Russia has "Father Frost" or Ded Moroz. He is usually accompanied by the "Snow Maiden" and is transported across Russia on a troika drawn by three speeding horses. Japan and China don't have any Santa but they have a Hotei, who is often depicted as a laughing Buddha with a shaved head, big belly and cheerful face. Traditionally, he arrives with the "Seven Gods of Luck" on New Year and carries with him a bottomless sack filled with good fortune.
With all these wonderful Christmas customs from around the world, it is sad to see them bastardized into crass commercialism. I think Santa is too firmly embedded in our North American Christmas, but it would be nice if he wasn't so blatantly involved as a marketing ploy.
I love this season. I find that people seem nicer, kinder and more charitable. I'm not sure if it's a throw-back to our childhood when we've been told to be good so that Santa will leave a present. Or, if we've all been caught up in the hoopla of the familiar scents, sights and sounds of Christmas that has mellowed us. Christmas is the love of family and friends. It is the wonderful baking scents of Christmas breads, mince tarts, butter tarts and shortbreads made with love. It's the smell of the salty,crackling sizzling skin of the turkey or duck or prime rib. It's the laughter and joy of the children. Christmas is the music which seems so perfect now but an annoyance in October. It's all this and more--a mosaic of tradition, love, colours and mood--but whatever it is, I fervently hope we can enjoy it, hold it, savour it and and spread it throughout the following year. It's too good to waste on a few weeks. . .