Friday, December 23, 2016

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

It's that Yuletide time of year again. Previously, I have spoken a bit about Christmas memories, some of my favorite TV Specials, some of my favorite Christmas Movies, and of course, various adaptations of the amazing perennial classic A Christmas Carol. But one key, central figure to the entire Christmas mythos that I have not yet truly breached, is that of the most iconic character associated with the holiday: Santa Claus himself.

Yes, you read that right. It may well be that the modern incarnation of "Christmas", is based on the Christian myth of the birth of Jesus Christ, their messiah. Even the word itself, derives from "Christ-Mass", meaning a religious observation of the "miracle birth". But the fact remains, that not only is a vast portion of the world population (meaning billions) not Christian of any denomination, but even biblical scholars state that if Christ existed as a real person, based on historical evidence, he was very likely not born anywhere near December 25th at all. Thus, with the 20th Century rise of the more secular (and also sadly commercial) presentation of Christmas as a world-wide holiday, the popular figure of Santa Claus is in fact more iconic with the day, regardless of the etymology of the name.

A more classical image of Santa.

Of course, much like the modern Christmas holiday itself, the modern image of Santa Claus is, at least as far as historians and anthropologists are concerned, himself an amalgamation, a mish-mash of various elements drawn from many sources. The typical root association is with the historical figure of "Saint Nicholas", a Greek who lived in the 4th Century, who among other things, grew in infamy for his penchant of giving gifts and general generosity, especially towards children. The other, even older possible (or likely) influences, are mythical pagan, pre-Christian figures, such as Woden (the Germanic Odin), or the Welsh (Celtic) Gwyn ap Nudd, both associated with the Otherworld and the "Wild Hunt", the harvesting of souls ready to cross over. Odin rode a mighty steed with eight limbs, similar to Santa's "Eight Tiny Reindeer", and Gwyn ap Nudd was associated with spectral hounds, most specifically Dormach, who was said to have a "ruddy" (as in red) nose.

Christmas itself, of course, has more pagan roots than it does Christian, as it too is a mish-mash of various cultural traditions, including Norse/Germanic "Yule", with it's the tradition of the "Yule Log" which gave way to the modern Christmas Tree. It also draws from the Celtic celebration of the Winter Solstice, which of course involved feasts, stories, merriment, and gift-giving. The historical figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra, later became mish-mashed with the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas and the English "Father Christmas", both emblems of generosity and merriment, and both notorious gift-givers. If you want to get super obscure, there are other folkloric figures of a similar mold, many of which very NON-Santa-like, at least in appearance, such as the Italian "Befana", or "Christmas Witch", who like Santa would give well-behaved children gifts, and badly-behaved children coal, or sticks, etc.

A more modern depiction of "Kris Kringle".

Santa with his loving wife, "Mrs. Claus".

Regardless of the etymology, the figure of Santa Claus is one that is known and beloved throughout much of the world, especially in "The West". And while as documented in past articles, I grew up raised by a fairly strict (though very odd) Christian, in my later years I came to associate the holiday more with Santa than anything. And I have always loved the character, even as a child. Not merely because I thought he brought me presents, though that certainly helps. In one of her better moments, when I was about 9 years old, my grandmother even somehow arranged for me to be in bed, and then suddenly heard "sleigh bells", which of course I could swear were coming from outside, before I was allowed to leap up and go look.

I also loved the character because he was this warm, generous, friendly and compassionate figure. Santa was a guy who cares about everybody, regardless of ethnicity, or nationality, or religion. He's a figure of good will, and "being good to one another". And naturally, my love of him was helped along by the many various depictions in the media, on television, most especially in the form of Christmas specials. Several of those came from one company, the great production house of Rankin/Bass (the creators of my beloved 1977 The Hobbit animated feature), such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "The Year Without Santa Claus", etc. But there was one special that always stood out to me, even though they only really played it on TV when it was new, in the 80s, above and beyond all the rest. And it is that special that I'm really here today to talk about, because to me, it tells the best "Santa Myth" there is.

Not your typical Christmas story.

Based on the novel of the same name, by author L. Frank Baum, creator of the "Wizard of Oz" world and stories, originally published in 1902, the Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV Special aired on December 17th, 1985. What makes this tale so unique, and what makes it stick out the most to me as an adult, is that it comes off far more like a piece of classical mythology, or a fairy tale. I don't give a ton of "lip service" to it, because this is an entertainment blog, but in my teens and on into my adulthood, the spirituality that I "came into", that makes the most sense to me, without really getting into it too much, is most easily described as "Celtic Paganism". A belief in the reverence of Nature, the intertwining of the spirit and physical worlds, the idea of cyclical reincarnation, and the concept of the "Awen" or "Flowing Spirit" that creates and flows through all living things (kind of like Chi or The Force), etc.

So to me, this take on the Santa myth really strikes a lot of chords, while still remaining true the core essence of the figure, which is important. The story begins when The Great Ak, Lord of the Forests, an antlered entity who is probably derived from the Celtic deity Cernnunos, discovers an infant boy, abandoned near the edge of the mystical forest of Burzee, where mortal humans are generally not allowed to enter. Having compassion for the child, he decides to save him, and brings him before the Fairy Queen to decide what should be done. They initially decide to allow the lioness, Shiegra, to raise the boy, as she takes an instant, maternal liking to him, and she takes him away to her den to sleep.

The Forest Nymph, Necile.

But in the meanwhile, during a discussion on the nature of children, and how Immortal beings like fairies do not have children, one of the fairies named Necile, realizes that she would very much like to know what it would feel like to be a mother. So, giving in to her curiosity and desire, she sneaks away to the lion's den, and takes the baby with her, intent on raising him herself. Of course, when Shiegra the lioness wakes to find the baby gone, she is furious, and goes roaring through the forest after him. The matter comes before the Fairy Queen, who finds Necile with the child, and Ak, who comes to see what the commotion is about. And after Necile makes her case, that she could be a good mother and care for the boy, it is finally agreed that she will be allowed to raise him, with the help of Shiegra, who will be his protector.

Already not your typical Santa mythos, eh? To recap, baby Claus, as Necile names him, is raised in a magical forest by elves, fairies, a lioness and other wild animals, and a great Forest God. Not too shabby. As part of his education, young Claus is taught by the Sound Imp, Tingler, to speak a wide array of languages, including human, animal, fish, bird, and other more magical entities. This of course helps lay some foundation for why Santa as an adult can relate and communicate to people all over the world. He is taught a great many other things as he grows up by his magical forest friends, so that by the time he reaches his teens, he is incredibly well educated.

Young Claus flying around the world with the Great Ak.

When he is old enough, Ak decides to take Claus to different places in the world, to see the world of man, his own kind, which he thus far has not experienced. This is done so that he can better understand the world he will have to live in when he grows up, as adult mortals cannot stay in the Forest of Burzee. This trip winds up being an incredibly formative moment for Claus, as he is forever changed by what Ak calls "Man's Inhumanity to Man". He is shown war, strife, poverty, and even child abuse. He is horrified by it all, of course, but seeing children being mistreated, and even left homeless and ignored out in the street, seems to affect him the most. It is then that he decides that he wants to do good things, to help the children of the world.

Tingler, Claus, and Shiegra, heading out into the world.

When he finally reaches adulthood, as he can no longer stay in Burzee, he sets out into the human world, to make his own way. Tingler the imp is sent with him, as well as (in the TV special at least) his "second mom" Shiegra the lioness, to protect him. He eventually settles in the oddly named "Laughing Valley", and makes a house for himself there, with the help of fairy folk, of course. He makes a habit of doing things like reading to the local children, befriending and teaching them. He becomes a well regarded figure by most in the valley. One night, he helps a lost boy who is out in the snow, and upon seeing his black cat Blinky (who had been a housewarming gift from his "mother" Necile), the boy takes an instant liking to him, exclaiming how he'd love to have a kitty just like that. Claus, who had been whittling wood, decides to surprise the boy in the morning, by presenting to him a wooden facsimile of Blinky, which he calls a "toy". The boy is thrilled, and when other town's children see the toy, at first they want one too, though they eventually decide to share it.

Fully grown Claus finds his calling.

Seeing how happy the toys make the children, Claus feels he has finally found his calling, and with the help of Necile and other fairy folk, he sets to work making lots of toys for the local children of the valley. He makes so many that it's hard to carry them all without a sleigh, which they ask Peter Knook, the Master of all Animals, if they can borrow some reindeer to pull. He agrees, begrudgingly, but only for one night per year, which they agree should be Christmas Eve (as Fate would have it). However, there's a problem. In the interim, toys have been getting stolen by some rather nasty characters called the Awgwas, giant goblin/troll-like creatures, who dislike that Claus has been making the children happy, because it is their lot in life to influence human children into mischief and bad behavior.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Initially Claus works around this new stumbling block, by delivering toys at night to keep them away from the Awgwas. He even has to improvise, getting into locked houses at night, by going down the chimney, leaving toys in stockings drying by the fire. Or in other places still, without fireplaces, he leaves toys hanging on nearby trees. But the monsters don't let up, and eventually steal too many of his toys. If Claus can't get the presents back from them in time, he'll miss his "one night a year" opportunity, and have to wait a whole year. And beyond that, with all the presents stolen, he and his fairy friends can't make enough toys in time to meet the deadline either.

Two of my least-liked critters: Snakes and Spiders.

The King of the Awgwas, who by the way can turn themselves invisible, even goes so far as to have Claus kidnapped, and taken to a cave guarded by monsters, so that he can't possibly deliver more presents. Ultimately, the Great Ak comes and tries to reason with the Awgwas, but they won't relent, so he is forced to declare war on them. Yes, war, in a "children's cartoon" (or book).

Necile is a bad ass! Don't mess with Mama!

So the denizens of the forest come, animals, fairies, imps, and the Ak, face off against an army of Awgwas, and Three Eyed Giants, and Goozle-Goblins, and Black Demons. The monsters are formidable, but they're not immortal, nor do they have the great power of the forest on their side. There is even a scene, shown above, where a great Asian styled Dragon tries to fry some of the fairies with fire, but Necile, presumably fighting for her "son", uses fairy magic to blow the fire right back in his face and burn him to a crisp. Pretty drastic for a story about Santa, eh?

The Great Council of Immortals

The monsters are no match for the forces of Burzee, and though Claus does not see the fighting himself, the Ak simply tells him later that "the Awgwas have perished". So he is now free to help the children of Laughing Valley, and indeed the world, as he pleases. He uses his one night with the reindeer to go all over the planet, delivering presents to children no matter where they live, and in time, this earns him the status of a Saint, and hence the title "Santa Claus". But with time, too, he grows old, and the Great Ak senses that his time is near. The special itself is actually framed by this plot point, as in the beginning we are shown Ak calling together the Council of the Immortals, and the story unfolds with Ak telling it, as a way of explaining to them why he believes Santa deserves to be gifted the "Mantle of Immortality".

The Commander of the Wind Demons

The Council themselves are a colorful and memorable lot, which include our friend the Fairy Queen, a batlike Commander of the Wind Demons,  the King of the Knooks, the Master of the Sound Imps, The Queen of the Water Spirits, The King of the Ryls, the Lord of Sleep Fays, the Grand Duke of Light Elves, and his princes Flash and Twilight. And of course, the Great Ak himself. He tries to convince them that the work Santa does is too important to allow him to die of old age, and that he should be given Immortality so that he can continue it indefinitely. At first, the other Immortals, especially that creepy Wind Demon guy, are quite skeptical that ANY mortal human deserves such an honor. But by the end of his tale, after hearing of Claus' character and all his many deeds, even the Wind Demon is convinced, and as Santa lies on his deathbed, telling Tingler and the others to decorate a Christmas Tree in memory of him, he is given the Mantle, and thus becomes immortal.

The Great Fairy Queen.

So there you have it. The synopsis of what is, to me, a pretty great origin story for good ol' "St. Nick". Seeing this as a kid really stuck with me, and when I was older, thinking back and trying to remember it, I remember being surprised that my grandmother would have let me sit and watch it at all. I guess she somehow didn't catch just how pagan the whole affair seemed, what with fairy folk and elves and gods and monsters, and Santa being given immortality. And, presumably, his magick powers he is often attributed with (such as being able to shoot back up chimneys in the blink of an eye). As a side note, this special is also significant, because it was also apparently the LAST major Rankin/Bass stop-motion special they would make, which is both cool, and sad.

To me, Santa has always been a character of mythical proportions. A wizard at the very least, or perhaps even a sort of divinity unto himself, like a kind of "God of Cheer and Giving" or something like that. Or perhaps he's just a nice guy who likes to do nice things, because he believes the world could use a bit more kindness. Either way, Santa Claus is a symbol, an emblem, of what Christmas-time, whether you're a Christian, or a pagan, or even an agnostic or atheist, is really supposed to be all about: fellowship with our fellow humans, being nicer and more caring to one another, acting civilized and trying to cause each other some joy, instead of so much suffocating misery.

To me, I think even in the context of this story, young Claus probably decided to focus on helping children, because perhaps he felt that adults were too set in their ways and hard to reach. That, perhaps, by reaching children, and showing them kindness and generosity, that they might grow up to extend the same to their own children, and their fellow man. Perhaps Santa believed, as I do, that it is really through children, and future generations, that we have any real prayer and hope, of building a better, brighter tomorrow. And that's the "Spirit of Christmas", after all, right?

"Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men".

 Certainly food for thought. And whether you, like me, even as an adult, like to believe in some form of Santa Claus, or you don't really celebrate the season at all, I hope that you all have a very Happy Holidays, and here's to us having, against all odds, a very good New Year!