Monday 22 December 2008

Santa's Dark Past

Sweden has traditions, ancient folktales, it has Giants, and goblins, trolls, pixies, strange festivities that date back to a pagan past.
As does Ireland, the culture I hold as my main heritage. Beneath the more modern veneer of Irish Catholicism, lie legends of Cuchulain and Queen Maeve, in which the elvish barrows of the faerie fold rise through the mists, legends in which the dim outline of Gods who once demanded bloody sacrifices can still be made out, though cleverly hidden.

English tradition has little of this. It's cleaning has been complete. Apparently.

I point out to my mother, the reasons are simple. The Anglo-Saxons were here a mere hundred and fifty years before they embraced Christianity. Elements of paganism did continue in their folklore, as it did in most places, but it had little time to impact on the landscape. Sure, it survived in local customs, cleverly hidden, for hundreds of years afterwards, but the reformation came and it was harder than most. Anything remotely superstitious was put paid to, in a way it wasn't elsewhere. Burned as a Catholic, or hanged as a witch, either way, people learned to stop doing anything that seemed it might not accord with scripture.

And only Morris Dancers and Hobby Horses survived. And Maypoles. People forgot that these originally belonged to sinister festivities of human sacrifices where girls danced round giant obelisks.

But Woden come. Woden came to England with the English and they kept him hidden away in their hearts where priests couldn't find him.

In the heart of the Black Country is a town called Wednesbury. Not far away is another called Wednesfield. Woden's Borough and Woden's field. The fortress where his temple once stood, and the field where his devotees sacrificed to him.

It is difficult to really understand what Woden was to the English. The Eddas of the Norse can't really tell us. They tell us what the Scandinavian versions were, centuries afterwards. Not what the Anglo Saxons believed. The Eddas are written by a people concerned about frost giants, where the thunder God Thor dominates. The Anglo-Saxons would not have been so concerned by either.
And it seems they weren't. Woden was their chief God, but he was subtly different to the Odin of the Eddas. The chief God of nature. A Green God. A God of forests. A horned God, seemingly.

And the continual survival of this archetype in the bones of English culture reveals the enduring power of Woden. The Green Man, King of the Forests. This is why one finds so many pubs of that name.
And he finds his way into legend in so many ways. He is the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he is Herne the Hunter. But also, he appeared at one time of year, the one day the peasants got their way.

It was a Christmas tradition, perhaps inspired by the Roman tradition of allowing the slaves to choose a king for the day. At Christmas, the peasants dined as nobles, eating meat and bread, whilst the lord of the manor and the clergy served them. The normal rules of the parish were reversed. Chaos ruled, every normal taboo could be broken. And all this was presided over by a figure decked in green robes. Traditionally fat and bearded.
The Lord of Misrule.

A concession to the peasants. They could have their suspect Green hero run their show.

As one might expect, this tradition got axed during the reformation, like so much. No more Lord of Misrule.
Only- he survived.
Although we do not hear of him for a while, presumably he lived on quietly, because in the eighteenth century when England can breathe a sigh of relief that the Puritans are FINALLY silent, we find that Father Christmas, a large fat, green robed figure is a major part of the ceremony.
Quite clearly, he is a continuation of the Lord of Misrule, merely less chaotic. And he doesn't pour beer down the throats of peasants, he's more restrained.

It was in America that he merged with St Nicholas- or Santa Claus. Because the Dutch believed it was St Nick who gave presents to their children. So the Dutch had a name for the present giver, the English Americans had an image of what the present giver looked like.
So the fat, bearded, green robed present giver became Santa Claus.

So- when did he stop being green?

When did he finally decide to stop being green and dress in a bright dashing red?

In the twentieth century.

Coca Cola did that. Coca Cola decided to dress him in THEIR colours when they decided to market Coca Cola as the Christmas drink.

So yes, Santa has a long chain of ancestors. Father Christmas, the Lord of Misrule, The Green Man- The Germanic God Woden.

So maybe we should be grateful that Santa isn't a traditionalist himself. We don't want him going back to HIS roots this Christmas.

It might scare the children.


Anonymous said...

Now is the basic question: When did red become the new green? Oh. It was worth a shot...

Anonymous said...

And so few people ever understand that Christmas is only here in the place of Yule.

It's the spirit of the season that matters.

So feel that spirit and live it up with your friends.

Merry Christmas, Crushed. Your writings add much to the lives of those who read them.

Anonymous said...

Pagan festivals had meat on their bones. In those days.

Anonymous said...

I love the various green man legends. Somehow I never made the Santa connection.

Anonymous said...

The guy looks like my old next door neighbour but anyway...

just called round to wish you a very Merry one indeed + a superior 2009!!

Anonymous said...

Some of us still follow the old ways and always will my friend.

Heres a drink to Bacchus !! And to Pan... Good post.