The Lies of Christmas

sailsigns

The lies of Christmas. They’re all around us. Every day in every way. I saw lies everywhere I walked in the mall. There were signs that said or implied, buy this coffee maker and you’ll be happy. Buy this shirt and you will have a wonderful Christmas. Love, many of the signs said, can be judged by how expensive the gift. The more you love someone, the more you should spend on them. The more you want someone to love you, the more you should spend on them.

Show your family and friends how successful you are. Buy them this jewellery. Buy them these golf clubs. Buy them gifts that cost more than what your brothers and sisters bought, or your uncles and aunts, or your neighbours.

The signs all chanted buy, buy, buy as I walked by. Some signs whispered. Some shouted. One had a new car wrapped with a red ribbon. A gift for someone you love, a gift you can put In your driveway so everyone can see how much you love your wife or your husband or your fiancé or you son or daughter.

The strange thing is that when I look back on decades of Christmases, I remember very few gifts. What did I get for my sixth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my fourteenth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my twenty-fourth Christmas. I have no idea. I do remember I used to always get a book for Christmas. I remember the gifts under the Christmas tree, gifts that we opened on Christmas Eve. I remember that there was always a gift from Santa on Christmas morning. But I’ll be darned if I remember what they were. When I was twelve I got my Cooey. 22 single shot. Another year I got a football but I don’t remember what year it was. Probably when I turned fourteen. A gift I do remember and will never forget is the finely knitted vest my grandmother made for me. Like her cooking, it was made with love.

What I do remember are Christmas’s at my mother’s parents. Grandma Smith didn’t have a dining room but she had her fold out table all set with her best plates and cups and glasses. She was a wonderful cook and she had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and her special scones. The house was hot from the cooking so we had the front door open and the cold air made clouds as I flowed in. We talked and people told stories and after supper we had tea and sweets and my brother and I fell asleep sitting with my parents on the couch.

I remember Christmases in Gimli at my parents’ house. Exciting Christmases because my grandparents would come from Winnipeg. We watched for them to arrive on the bus. Some of my father’s siblings and their husbands and wives and kids would join us. My parents’ best friends and their two daughters would come through the door. I’ll never forget those Christmas suppers. The smell of supper cooking, the setting out of the table, the laughter, the joyousness of our friendships.

When I think of Christmas’s past, it is people I think of. I don’t regret the disappearance of the gifts, whatever they were but I regret the loss of the people who came through our front door, who shook our hands, who hugged us, who were obviously happy to see us, who embraced us in their friendship. There is nothing so precious at Christmas as to be among people who love you.

I thought as I walked through the mall what lies the signs whispered. I would take a Christmas without the blenders, the DVDs, the vacuum cleaners, the head phones, the ear buds, to be surrounded by friends and family. Yes, the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child, but they didn’t do it as a promotion for the myrrh, frankincense and gold industries. They didn’t do it to boost GDP.

They didn’t do it to buy Christ’s love.

There’s nothing wrong with gifts and may you enjoy the gifts you receive this season and may those you gift enjoy the gifts you give them but remember that love comes from the giver and the receiver not from the price tag on present.

Viking Christmas

Odin
You know Oðin, the one-eyed god in Norse mythology. He’s the big cheese, the head honcho, the CEO of Asgard, the home of the gods. He’s always fighting frost giants, involved in battles, wandering in search of wisdom, preparing for the end of the world, Ragnarok. At least that’s the Oðin, I´ve known. Feasting, fighting, wenching, wandering, drinking.

However, I´ve stumbled on another aspect of Oðin. Some people say Coca Cola invented Santa Claus. Other people say Santa Claus started when the Vikings invaded England and brought with them the idea of Oðin, the wanderer in the blue hooded cloak who carried a bag of bread in one hand and a staff in the other. The Saxons, the guys already in England, had as one of their customs the welcoming of King Frost or King Winter. It wasn´t hard to join together King Winter and Oðin. It wasn´t unusual for pagan beliefs to be joined with Christian beliefs. At my recent visit to the Royal Museum to see the Viking exhibit, there was a Thor´s hammer that was also a cross. It´s not surpring then that even after the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 when the Vikings lost their power in England, when people made oaths, they sometimes still used the phrase “To God and Oðin.” The mysteries of the past that come down to us are many layered.

The Vikings didn´t just bring swords and shields. They brought their beliefs; they brought Oðin. Vikings believed that Oðin would come to earth on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir.

The Oðin described in histories of Christmas is a man who joined people sitting around fires, not participating but listening and observing, seeing if the people were all right and, sometimes, if things were not all right, he would take bread from his sack and leave it for those who were poor and hungry.

It is easy to see the image of Santa Claus beginning to form. A man on a steed. The blue hooded cloak, the unobserved man coming to see if all was well, the leaving of gifts for those in need.

When the Normans came they brought St. Nicholas. For a long time, the image of a benevolent person who came at Christmas time was saintly, stern, lecturing and judging. In a number of countries, he asked questions and decided if you had been naughty and nice and if you had been naughty, you got a lump of coal, or some hay or a potato instead of a desired gift.

Oðin wasn´t the only Nordic god drawn into Christmas. One account says that Frigg, Oðin´s wife, would check to make certain that the entrances to each house were clean. Imagine if you were a housewife and you believed that Odin´s wife was going to come by to check on your housekeeping. What better way to make sure that people kept their places organized and tidy? Although the Viking age ended in 1066, nine hundred years later, my mother always worked hard at making sure our house was tidy and clean for Christmas. I always thought that was because we were going to have relatives coming to visit. But it also may have been part of a tradition started many centuries before with the original tradition forgotten but the need to get organized and keep chaos from descending still at work. If I had said to my mother will you be ready when Frigg checks the house, she wouldn´t have known what I was talking about. She would have said, “Your grandparents are coming. I have to have the house spotless for Christmas.”

Before they became Christian, the Germanic people celebrated Yule. When people became Christian they didn´t automatically give up their traditions and beliefs. Yule celebrations became part of Christmas. For people of Icelandic descent, this keeping of old traditions in spite of the new religion is easy to understand. After all, when a political deal was made for Iceland to become Christian, part of the deal was that people could keep practicing the old religion as long as they did it in private.

If you know your Norse mythology, you’ll know about one of these traditions, The Wild Hunt. When the Wild Hunt takes place, there is a ghostly procession of hunters led by Oðin riding across the sky. When I think about this ghostly procession I remember the Northern Lights on cold clear nights in Gimli, Manitoba. When Oðin leads the procession, he is called Jólnir or Jule figure. He is also referred to as Langbarðr which means long beard. So, we have a long bearded figure in a hooded cloak, riding an eight legged horse across the sky. It´s not too hard to see Oðin turn into Santa Claus and Sleipnir with his eight legs turn into eight reindeer. There are even some traditions of Oðin coming down chimneys. Although, that couldn´t have been an Icelandic tradition since turf houses didn´t have chimneys. There were no stoves or fireplaces, just a fire on the stone floor and a hole in the roof. In Reykjavik today, Oðin or Santa Claus would still have a hard time finding chimneys to climb down because most of the heating is from hot water piped from volcanic areas. No chimneys for a fat man in a red suit with a large bag of toys to scurry down. For that trick, he needs the chimneys of large stone fireplaces.

A lot of people got into the act before we moved from Oðin to our present day image of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas and Sinterklass and Father Christmas plus others. The result is that we no longer have the all-knowing Oðin, no longer the stern saints, no longer the demanding Santa Clauses in shopping malls insisting on knowing if you have been good or bad. Instead, we have a jolly old elf. A gift giver who makes no demands, asks no awkward questions, does his best to meet extravagent requests even if it means maxing out a credit card.

I used to be terrified when I heard the song that said, “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you´re awake, he knows when you´ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” I prefer the jolly old elf, an elf filled with kindness at the darkest time of the year. Yet, yet, in the winter months, especially around Christmas, if I’m lucky enough to be where there are Northern Lights, I am transfixed by the pulsating colors, red, green, blue, traveling across the sky. Watching them I think I see this figure in his blue cloak, riding his eight legged horse over the arc of the world, leading his wildly riding huntsmen. Although I am in awe of these spectral figures, of the shimmering lights, of the majesty of the sky, I have not yet been given a gift of gold. At the same time, I haven´t mocked these huntsmen and so haven´t been taken away with them never to be seen again.

All of this, along with the multiple layers of tradition over the centuries, have often led me along a snowy path to a quiet church service, some joyful singing of hymns and carols, a crèche scene with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. To Oðin, to Frigg, to all their companions, to Father Christmas, to Saint Nicholas, to the Frost King, to all the Santa Clauses in the malls of the world, to mothers and fathers decorating the sacred Christmas tree, the lovers kissing under the magic Christmas bow, to Joseph and Mary and Jesus, Merry Christmas to all.