Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Contemplating Santa Claus and the World Christmas Traditions

”Joulupukki, joulupukki,
valkoparta, vanha ukki.
Eikös taakka paina selkää,
käyppä tänne, emme pelkää.
Oothan meille vanha tuttu,
puuhkalakki, karvanuttu.
Tääl on myöskin kiltit lapset
kirkassilmät, silkohapset."

Finnish people are very fond of Santa, ‘Joulupukki’(yo-lu-puk-ki) as we call him. Every year I am asked why I still believe in Santa and what does Christmas mean to me. Most years I end up giving a talk or being interviewed about the Finnish Christmas traditions. Every year I do a little research to the subject of Santa from the metaphysical or perennial wisdom point of view.

I have a special connection with Christmas as I was born just on the verge of the Christmas Eve, which is the foremost celebration day in the Scandinavian Christmas tradition. My grandfather was born just a day before me and a very close friend who then lived right next door right on the Christmas Eve. I always connected the birthday cake as a part of the Christmas tradition. It only occurred to me to ask my mother about in when I turned 40. She assured me that the cake was for me and not for Jesus as I had suspected. I should have known that as our Christmas always started on my birthday with the tree decorating.

Being born right at the Arctic Circle, in the city where much of the the winter tourism is reliant on the experience of Santa Claus and the image we have on the old elfin traditions and where my father was very involved in the development of the representation of the Arctic Circle Cabin (Napapiirinmaja), it is not a wonder why I feel so strongly about Santa and his presented reflection in the world.

The Christmas celebration is a serious business in Lapland. Next year the Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences will offer a year long course on Christmas Elf profession. The Ear Fell Mountain as a preferred place of home for Joulupukki was already established during the 1920’s through the children’s radio program Uncle Markus, where he declared this location ideal for Santa’s secret abode. From there he could hear if the children would be naughty or nice.

In 1950 the first Arctic Circle Cabin (or Roosevelt’s Cabin) was built in honour of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Rovaniemi and then on served to encourage tourism to Lapland where the war had destroyed everything. I once (1986) organised a Barbie Doll Exhibition at Napapiirinmaja and one year (1994) I was even employed as the Mother Santa up at the Ear Fell Mountain where the eco-tourism brings people to experience an alternative Christmas. I can still smell the smoke on my coat from the hearth and the coffee we served to the appreciative tourists on the -40°C freezing cold mountain.

My metaphysical thought process on the spirit of ‘Yule’ (Joulu in Finnish) or Joulupukki (Santa) started quite early in my life. One boost was a discussion I had with my then 5-yearold son in the early 1980’s. He asked me how long I thought that Santa would live. Since I was on a philosophical mode I answered that as long as he thought to believe in him. His response was: “Ah, that’s just like God!” No more discussions needed on that subject, I thought.

During the 1990’s, I once picked up a book called God. What the Critics Say? One of the quotations that pricked my mindscape is from a writer, P.J. O’Rouke and it states:
“GOD is an elderly or, at any rate, middle-aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men strictly accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for material well-being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God’s country club.

SANTA CLAUS is another matter. He is cute. He’s non-threatening. He’s always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without thought of a pro quo. He works hard for charities and he’s famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” (Wroe, 1992)

Interestingly Patrick (O’Rouke) agrees with my son that God and Santa Claus can be discussed in the same context. I myself was shocked to the core the first time, after moving to Australia, I witnessed the Santa Claus singing ‘Hallelujah’ with angels on the Sydney Opera House stage. I have always felt that Joulupukki is a separate but similar spirit. Apparently O’Rouke is also suspicious and skeptical about the possibility of empathy and compassion in the human world as defined by his threatening and powerful image of God. Further on it seems that he is only acquainted with the Coca Cola image of the Santa Claus and doesn’t believe in the possibility of the real spirit underlying the concept. This is all fine but let’s just for the arguments sake discuss the Joulupukki (Santa Claus) I know.

Let’s start with the Finnish and the Scandinavian Joulupukki or Jultomte (in Swedish). The Scandinavian folklore blends into the traditions of ‘Yule Buck’ (Joulupukki), the threatening figure of the Norse god Thor riding the sky in a chariot of two goats demanding cooked goat flesh as gifts from people and the God Odin (the father of all gods) in his long blue-hooded cloak riding the skies on his eight legged horse bearing gifts to the needy.

In Finland ‘Joulupukki’ retained his name while in Sweden he changed to ‘Jultomte’ (Yule Elf) or in Norway to ‘Julenisse’ again blending with the old elemental elfin folklore traditions. In the Finnish tradition sometimes he would be dressed in goat skins as Nuutipukki with horns to frighten people, judge the behavior of the children, sometimes giving them sticks instead of gifts. In December there would be big festivals to ward off him. Nuutipukki who carries on the tradition of killing the goat on the last day of Christmas, is still well blended to the Joulupukki imagery in Finland. In Sweden it is now mostly represented by popular ‘julbock’-decorations made of straw.

The fact that Santa actually visits the homes of the Scandinavian people during the Christmas Eve gives a possibility for everyone to observe his (and possibly his wife’s and elves’) appearance personally and from that evidence state that there are great varieties presented in that field, from the old fur coat tradition to the newest freshly designed and commercial Santa outfits. Even the odd Father Frost representing the Russian tradition might be observed. But whatever the appearance the personal experience of receiving gifts from Santa overrides the possible threat of the unknown.

One reason for the diminishing status of the old Scandinavian pagan traditions came from the long reigning Lutheran Church in Scandinavia, where Martin Luther at the same time as rejecting the Catholic imagery of St Nicolas wanted to strengthen the role of Jesus as a centre of the celebration and as a gift bearer. The tradition tells a tale (not true, but efficient) that Luther was especially fond of the tree as a centre piece. He brought one home and decorated it with candles to represent the stars on the sky.

Clara M Codd wrote in her book The Way of the Disciple:
“Once define an ideal in words and it loses its reality; once figure a metaphysical idea, and you materialize its spirit.” (Codd, 2000)

The development of the imagery of spirit of Santa Claus took a life of its own and slowly changed to what we know now. We can look at that reality from what I know of Santa Claus, Joulupukki, Nuutipukki, Jultomte, Julenisse, St Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht and others.

While taking into consideration the Christian imagery of St Nicolas, the picture of the Santa we know now in the world is mostly flavored by two popular artists, namely Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom, the first a creator of jolly Christmas cards in 1880’s and the second the creator of the red-cloaked Coca Cola Santa of the 1930’s.

In Scandinavia Jenny Nyström was the one single artist who blended the old Scandinavian elfin folklore and the Norse Edda tradition into the popular leading character of the Jultomte during the 1940’s. The modern design of the Arctic Circle’s Joulupukki’s outfits also bears resemblance to the Russian Father Frost’s attire.

The Santa we know has borrowed qualities from everyone of his inspirational ancestors and modelled them to suit his modern day image in whichever country he is residing. It seems though that influential global images are working on the Santa very strongly.
But it is still possible to detect the trends:

• Compassion and gifts come from Odin, St Nicolas and Christ
• The eight reindeer resemble the Odin’s eight legged horse
• The sleigh comes from the Thor’s Chariot
• Riding the skies also comes from the Norse myths, both Odin and Thor (sky gods)
• The intricate attire is from the Odin’s cloak just changed colour
• The elfin tradition carries on from the elementals that build the atoms from the protons and neutrons to create matter and can thus create any gifts, a kind of elemental nano-technology
• The fear the Santa carries on from our respect to the higher spirits or gods that were felt being volatile and from the Yule Buck as a goat pagan tradition
• The Christmas tree is the symbol of fertility
• The red colour of the Santa’s cloak is the colour of fertility
• Excessive eating comes from the great variety of fertility traditions

I cannot really agree that an idea we as humans have spent ions in shaping into an agreeable image for our use, an idea that compasses compassion, charitability, goodwill, generosity, laughter and love towards those who are underprivileged, especially children is nothing. It certainly is something to believe in and develop further. It should be seen as work in progress rather than a non-possibility. Just because it also encompasses our modern day materialistic ideals in the need to actually physically buy gifts, create beautiful luscious and otherwise perhaps useless decorations and live in excess for a while, doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed without deep contemplation.

The conclusion to this comes again in the words of Clara Codd:
“Thus the mind is the creator of thought-forms, symbols. A true symbol – as the Greek derivation of the word suggests – is a pointer, a signboard, indicating where, if we have the intuition to follow, we may discern something of that Reality which the symbol depicts.” (Ibid)

Let’s commemorate the old and create something new in our own Christmas this year. Let the spirit of ‘Yule’ connect us to one another and the world we live in once more.

CODD, C. M. 2000. The Way of the Disciple, The Theosophical Publishing House.
WROE, M. (ed.) 1992. God. What the Critics Say?: Hodder & Stoughton Religious.ä+voi+opiskella+tontuksi/1135231558458 accessed 13/11/2010

Also some other worthy sites:

The Santa Pictures in this blog are from:
1. Arctic Circle, Santapark, Finland
2-5. Different types of Santas visiting my home over the years
6. Nuutipukki from Satakunnan museo, Finland
7. Swedish Julbock
8. St Nicolaus
9. Father Frost, Moscow
10. Nast Santa
11. Coca Cola Santa
12. Nyström's Jultomte
13. Santa from Ylläs, Finland