Sunday, 23 December 2012

Is Santa Claus a god?

He has many names. Being a British household, we called him Father Christmas, and this is how he is known in many countries, be it as Papa Noel in Spain or Kaghand Papik in Armenia, rooted in ancient northern folklore. Some call him St. Nicholas, after the genuine Anatolian philanthropist of the 4th century, whose story has been combined with various mythical figures to provide the modern Saint Nick. In Dutch, he is Sinterklaas, the Good Saint, and this became Santa Claus when imported to America. German Protestants had the Christ-Child, or Christkindl, known also throughout Europe as Jususka or Gesu Bambino. This was a direct attempt to take belief away from Father Christmas, and seems to be an inversion of the biblical story of the wise men presenting the infant Jesus with gifts. This became Americanised too, and Christkindl became Kris Kringle, again stirred into the whole Santa Claus melting pot. Today, millions of children know him simply as Santa.

It makes sense for Christmas, a festival that has arisen from the mixing of Christian, Turkish, Roman, pagan and Scandinavian mythologies, to be represented by a figure whose own origins are a mash-up of various traditions. The Romans had Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the great god Saturn, himself adapted from the Greek Titan Kronos. Saturnalia was a major Roman imperial holiday, and once the Empire became Christian, Saturnalia was transmogrified, over time, into Christmas. Other cultures had their own winter festivals, such as the Germanic/Scandinavian Yule, which itself became absorbed into the modern, secular Christmas. The focal figure of Yule was none other than Odin, the ancient, bearded chief of the gods.

So, there's the background. Whatever you want to call him, it's clear that Santa's precedents were with major gods in some of the ancient pantheons. Does that make the modern Santa a god? Well, look at is this way: what forms does the worship of a god take? There are prayers to him; every year, thousands of letters to Santa are written, even posted, asking for all manner of gifts from the great giver.

A god needs priests, or acolytes; thousands of men make their living by dressing as Santa Claus during the festive season. Children half-believe that these figures are the real deal, even though they know that Father Christmas is busy at the North Pole. These men become the worldly embodiments of Santa, representing him  in the everyday world.

A god needs temples; Santa has his grotto, to which children are taken to present their letters or sit on the knees of his priests, asking for their hearts' desires directly. A god should have a chariot; pulled by eight magical, flying steeds, the sleigh is Santa's chariot, conveying him to any point in the world all in the space of one night.

A god requires sacrifices, and demands certain modes of behaviour. We leave out mince pies and sherry, or cookies and milk, for Saint Nick, and carrots for his reindeer, while children, on the run up to Christmas, are told that Santa is watching them to see if they are "naughty or nice." They are warned that it's not a good idea to get on the naughty list this close to Christmas, and are threatened with a lump of coal instead of presents. In Germany, Austria and central Europe, it's not Father Christmas himself who meets out punishment, but the Krampus, aka the Grampus, or Bartle, or Pelzebock, a goblin-like monster. The Krampus seems to be the result of a separating out of the benevolent and malevolent aspects of the Father Claus character. Earlier traditions remain, in which the Krampus takes naughty children away in his sack, for punishment.

A god should be powerful; Santa Claus is omniscient, always aware of what children are doing and if they are behaving. He can go anywhere, in no time at all. He can fit down chimneys despite his huge girth, and can simply step into homes where no chimney exists.

Above all, a god needs believers. How many children around the world believe in Santa Claus? Hundreds of millions, surely, when taking into account the children of all the western nations. It's not only Christian and secular children who believe in him; I know Muslim families, who do not celebrate Christmas itself, but who still allow their children to leave their stockings out for Saint Nick. Ask yourself who most children really believe is the most powerful being in their lives, and then ask yourself: is Santa Claus a god?

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