Sunday, December 15, 2013
Multi-Culti Santa and the Dilemmas of Representation
Ho ho ho!
Santa Claus is a fascinating and often contentious figure. He is claimed by Christians as the mythologized version of Saint Nikolaos/Nicholas, an ethnic Greek citizen of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire who lived from 270-343 and grew up to become Bishop of Myra in the region known today as Turkey. As a leader of the Byzantine Christian community, Nikolaos participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nikolaos was later canonized as a saint of the Byzantine Church, and was particularly popular with sailors and fisherman, becoming a patron saint of such seagoing professions. He was also remembered for a practice of giving gifts to needy persons. This formed one of the kernels of the legend that gradually developed around him, transforming him from a leader of the fourth century Church to a mysterious, supernatural benefactor who provides gifts to the good in the season of Christmas each year. In many accounts of the genesis of Santa, this is where the story stops, with a gift-giving Christian Saint Nicholas who is eventually transformed into today's Saint Nick or Santa Claus.
However, there is much about our modern Santa that is hard to explain as deriving exclusively from the life of this Byzantine Greek Saint. What does the life of a fourth century Byzantine bishop in Turkey have to do with a portly old fellow dressed in red, one who is totally lacking in any Christian accoutrements, nary a crucifix nor a baby Jesus in sight, flying around the world, at night, in a magic sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer? Why is he associated with elves and the North Pole? Why are Christmas presents left around a gorgeously decorated evergreen tree? To answer these questions, we have to move beyond a strictly Christian framework to consider Pagan elements that were woven into the many-faceted legend of Saint Nick. It is not in Christian hagiography, but in Germanic Pagan mythology that we find a coherent explanation of these aspects of the Santa Claus legend. The god Odin emerges as something of a Pagan alter ego of the supposedly Christian Santa. Odin, like Santa, watches over all the world and observes the deeds of all mankind. Like Santa flying all around the world in the winter night, Odin wanders far and wide. Though Odin is not associated with a flying sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, he has an eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, who bears him through the sky,and Norse myth tells of a number of deities who have conveyances drawn by animals, most notably Thor's chariot drawn by goats, and Freyja's wagon drawn by cats. The ornately-decorated Christmas tree is prefigured by the World Tree of Norse mythology as well as the practice among the Pagan Scandinavians, as documented by the Christian author Adam of Bremen, of a massive sacrifice of animals and humans who would be hung on evergreen trees near the Pagan temple at Uppsala, in Sweden. The North Pole and reindeer associations clearly associate Santa with Scandinavia, homeland of Norse myth and of Odin. The elves too are drawn from Norse-Germanic mythology. Finally, we know that the Northern Pagans had a cherished tradition of feasting and celebrating in the depths of winter, in the time of Jól or Yule.
Putting together the Christian legend of the gift-giving Nikolaos of Myra with the Scandinavian lore of Odin and other myths and traditions of the Norse-Germanic Pagans, with just the teeniest little dash of twentieth-to-twenty-first century capitalist consumerism sprinkled on top, we arrive at today's Santa Claus. I take delight in this mixing and mashing of diverse and contradictory elements, all the more when I hear Christians complain about the un-Christian-ness of the materialism and the non-Biblical-ness of Santa's appearance and trappings, and Pagans bemoaning the Christian gloss on (or theft of) Germanic folklore. Relax, folks; this is how human culture works. Everything is regurgitated and recombined over time, with the loose ends still showing that you can trace back to find the roots tapping into much older traditions. I don't think this glorious recombinant confusion is something that started in our so-called "post-modern" age; I think this has always been going on across the ages. Humans are hoarders, tinkerers and cobblers by nature. We hoard little pieces of the past, tinker around with them, adding and subtracting new-old meanings and stories, and cobble together new creations out of the remnants of the old that answer to no one's ideal of purity.
I salute my cheesy little plastic Santa, perched on my window, with a low-wattage bulb lighting up his innards. I see Odin playing tricks on the Bishop of Myra, all the way to Walmart, and the Bishop having a good laugh too.
On a more serious note, I am saddened but not surprised by the tempest in the cable news media teapot sparked by the Dec. 11 comment of Megyn Kelly, hostess of the FOX news program The Kelly File that "Santa Claus just IS white...so you know, kids." Many have criticized Ms. Kelly for offering a racist perspective on Christmas and Santa Claus. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's news parody program The Daily Show noted on Dec. 12 that Christmas was supposed to be for EVERYONE, implying that Megyn Kelly was wading into racist waters with her insistence on Santa's whiteness. In defense of Megyn Kelly, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of visual representations of Santa Claus DO portray him as, well, an old white man: a rotund, elderly Caucasian male with rosy red cheeks and a flowing white beard. Ms. Kelly's comments came in response to a Dec. 10 blog essay on the Slate web site by Aisha Harris that proposed that since the usual representation of Santa Claus as white was out of keeping with our modern, multi-cultural, inter-racial, poly-ethnic world culture, it might be a nice idea to replace the image of Santa as a jovial old white guy with a penguin, since everyone loves penguins and there would be no possibility of a racial agenda or interpretation being imposed upon such a creature. See http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2013/12/santa_claus_an_old_white_man_not_anymore_meet_santa_the_penguin_a_new_christmas.html
I have some sympathy for all of the viewpoints noted above. Kelly is right that, in reality, Santa Claus is most often portrayed as white; Stewart is correct that Christmas is nowadays meant to be a universal holiday without racial overtones; and Harris makes a valid point that a cute animal icon might be a way out of the racial dilemma posed by the traditional image of the old white Santa. Where Kelly went a little off the rails, in my view, was in her further statement that if people felt uncomfortable with Santa's white image, it was their obligation to get over their discomfort and accept the traditional image rather than expect the tradition to change to suit their sensitivities. Stewart acutely observed, "that is the definition of oppression."
This dilemma of how to take a tradition or image rooted in an earlier, less ethnically diverse place and time and render it suitable for today's multi-ethnic world, in societies such as ours that have struggled so mightily and even heroically to overcome racism and other kinds of prejudice and oppression, is indeed very delicate and complicated. It has direct bearing on modern Pagan religious movements. Pagans living in the twenty-first century must ask themselves how their Pagan gods and goddesses, primarily derived from European cultural traditions, are to be perceived and represented in a time when people of non-white, non-European background may be interested in taking these gods as their personal deities, icons and symbols. The same dilemma holds for non-European based religious revival movements with a strong ethnic component as well. For example, persons of non-African background may well wish to become involved in African or Afro-Caribbean religious traditions such as Santeria, Ife or Voudoun. In each case, should the deities continue to be imagined in the form of the people among whom the religion first developed, or should worshippers or participants with different racial or ethnic origins be allowed to re-interpret the images of the gods in keeping with their own identities?
This is not just a superficial, cosmetic matter of slapping on a few ethnic attributes, such as skin, eye or hair color, to accommodate people of varied ethnic origins and identities. This issue also calls upon us to ask ourselves if the gods are essentially ethnic or racial in nature, or whether ethnic trappings and characteristics are not essential attributes of Pagan divinity. As Odin is the god who I most often relate to in my religious thinking and ritual life, I ask myself, is Odin essentially white, Caucasian, European, or something beyond all of that, something/someone ineffable and transcendent, that happened to find expression in Norse myth and religion? Is Odin a person, with a face, with a certain kind of hair and skin color, or a spiritual essence beyond all of that? In this matter, I think Paganism can learn from the monotheistic traditions which grappled so extensively with the issue of whether their God has any particular form or physicality, or is beyond all such things. Hinduism provides another useful perspective, with the idea that gods are beyond physical form but may temporarily inhabit physical forms, such as statues or temples, to provide darśan to their human devotees. It is likewise in Shinto, where the kami gods are summoned to inhabit particular images on particular occasions, such as rice-gods called down from the mountains to dwell in temples near the rice field for the time of planting and growth, only to be dismissed back to the mountain when the harvest is complete. I also see value in the Jungian perspective, that what we think of as gods may be just our personalized or culturally-determined forms of deeper psychological or spiritual realities.
I went to see the second Thor film, Thor: The Dark World a few nights ago. I didn't expect much, knowing it was mainly a mass-market, special effects-laden, big-bang action-film, and I left the theatre a bit tired from all the repetitive fight sequences that seemed to me more Star Wars than Snorri Sturluson, more Hollywood than Hávamál. One small element in the film does relate to the previous discussion, however. The god Heimdall is portrayed by Idris Elba, a great British actor of African descent, best known for his performance as erudite drug dealer Stringer Bell in the acclaimed American TV series The Wire, and more recently, for his much-praised portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the just-released Mandela film biography Long Walk to Freedom. Mr. Elba's version of Heimdall seemed to work fine in the film, and his brown-skinned appearance had no special import for the sequence of events, one way or another. I did not see the first Thor film and do not know how modern Norse-Germanic Pagans responded to Heimdall's Africanized appearance. Anyone out there want to comment on this?
Another interesting aspect of the film to me was how the Hollywood version of Thor has completely dispensed with the human alter ego that the Marvel comic book Thor once had. This makes Thor all-god, all-the-time. The Don Blake, alter-ego version added more complexity to his character, which the Hollywood Thor could have badly used, in my opinion. He was really rather stiff and uninteresting, all noble virtue and manly courage, quite boring in comparison to the film's clever, cunning and humorous Loki, who was the only character who seemed to possess any notable complexity or depth. However, who is to say how these figures should be portrayed? I take solace in the view that whatever ultimate meaning or reality these gods have, it is beyond any particular representation, but always open to reinterpretation, reinvention and reimagination.
Plastic, six-inch Santa, I once again salute you! May thy plasticity and elusiveness long endure to delight further generations of children and provoke further generations of adults to reflection, befuddlement, and argument!
Hmm, maybe it is Loki having the last word here....