Archive for the ‘Christmas Traditions’ Category

The Twelve Days of Christmas or Happy Holidays!

This may seem late for those who aren’t familiar with the liturgical calendar,  the old celebration of Christmas, or what exactly the Twelve Days of Christmas happen to be.

 The 12 days of Christmas is the period that in Christian theology marks the span between the birth of Christ and the coming of the Magi, the three wise men. It begins on December 25 (Christmas) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany, sometimes also called Three Kings’ Day). The four weeks preceding Christmas are collectively known as Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on December 24.

The 12 Days have been celebrated in Europe since before the middle ages and are a time of celebration.

So, my comment about taking the whole month of December off isn’t too outrageous if we add the four weeks prior to 25th December to the time to Ephiphany (6 January). Christmas day is only beginning,  yet few families choose to mark the 12-day period by observing the feast days of various saints (including St. Stephen on December 26) and planning daily Christmas-related activities. Things go back to business as usual after December 25 for most people.

For those who are into the liturgical 12 days, each traditionally celebrate a feast day for a saint and/or have different celebrations:

  • Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day – celebrating the Birth of Jesus
  • Day 2 (26th December also known as Boxing Day): St Stephen’s Day. He was the first Christian martyr (someone who dies for their faith). It’s also the day when the Christmas Carol ‘Good King Wenceslas‘ takes place.
  • Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle (One of Jesus’s Disciples and friends)
  • Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents – when people remember the baby boys which King Herod killed when he was trying to find and kill the Baby Jesus.
  • Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket. He was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was murdered on 29th December 1170 for challenging the King’s authority over the Church.
  • Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
  • Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve (known as Hogmanay in Scotland). Pope Sylvester I is traditionally celebrated on this day. He was one of the earliest popes (in the 4th Century). In many central and eastern European countries (including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia) New Year’s Eve is still sometimes called ‘Silvester’. In the UK, New Year’s Eve was a traditional day for ‘games’ and sporting competitions. Archery was a very popular sport and during the middle ages it was the law that it had to be practised by all men between ages 17-60 on Sunday after Church! This was so the King had lots of very good archers ready in case he need to go to war!
  • Day 8 (1st January): 1st January – Mary, the Mother of Jesus
  • Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, two important 4th century Christians.
  • Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This remembers when Jesus was officially ‘named’ in the Jewish Temple. It’s celebrated by different churches on a wide number of different dates!
  • Day 11 (4th January): St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the past it also celebrated the feast of Saint Simon Stylites (who lives on a small platform on the top of a pillar for 37 years!).
  • Day 12 (5th January also known as Epiphany Eve):

Even if you are like me and are more pagan/Tudor about it all and just want to celebrate the season, you have Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve (Hogmanay), New Years Day, and Twelfth Night.

Let’s toss in that the Puritans pretty much wiped out the extended Christmas celebration. After all, it’s not too far out to start preparing in November if your Christmas begins four weeks before the 25th of December.

But the bottom line is that the Solstice/Christmas Celebration tend to be long because it is intended to “drive the cold winter away”. It is something to keep seasonal affective disorder at bay and seems really weird when celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere where the days are long.

Sinterklaas en Zwarte Pieten

OK, once again it is time for the cries of “War on Christmas” to begin, which are amusing since (1) the holiday has had problems since the Early Christian Fathers and (2) the people whining have no real reason to whine.

Anyway, over in the Netherlandish countries (Holland, Belgium, and sort of Luxembourg), they are having a row over this tradition for good reason.

I said I would post these pics from my time in Belgium when I found them.

 

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

BTW, be sure to check out “Six To Eight Black Men” by David Sedaris. Try to find the version where he compares this custom to US gun nuttery!

Whose war on Christmas?

‘Tis the Season of stupid comments about Christmas and a “war on Christmas”.
Funny, but people forget about, or are just plain ignorant of, the FACT that some Christians did not like Christmas based upon its pagan origins and traditions (pretty much all of them are Pagan). 

Christmas was banned in Puritan England and New England as well as Scotland.  Other Protestant faiths refused (and some still refuse) to celebrate Christmas.  It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday!

I’m going to grab this comment as a pretty good summary of the state of Christmas in the US:

Christmas is actually a perfect example of the way that a nearly homogeneously Christian dominant culture has segued into a pluralistic one. Christmas is a national holiday mostly because it’s always been one and the inertia is too strong. But Christmas has been co-opted by secular society to the point that it is celebrated by the popular culture as a nonreligious holiday. All the Christmas specials about the “true meaning of Christmas” being abstract notions like “giving” and “caring” and “family” and so on.

The other part of this is that lots of voters still believe that America is a “Christian” country–whatever that means–and any politician who so much as suggested demoting Dec. 25 from its status as a federal holiday would be committing political suicide for no tangible benefit.

So, there really isn’t a “secular war” on Christmas and Christians, it’s that some people don’t realise that the holiday has become secular, rather than religious.

The World Turned Upside Down

Since we are getting into how screwed up things can be when one forgets the lessons of history, or succombs to a more pleasing revised version of history, I present the ballad The World Turned Upside Down.

This was first published on a broadside in 1643 as a protest against the policies of Parliament relating to the celebration of Christmas. Parliament believed the holiday should be a solemn occasion, and outlawed traditional English Christmas celebrations. There are several versions of the lyrics. It is sung to the tune of another ballad, “When the King Enjoys His Own Again”.

Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
Holy-dayes are despis’d, new fashions are devis’d.
Old Christmas is kicked out of Tow
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
The wise men did rejoyce to see our Savior Christs Nativity:
The Angels did good tidings bring, the Sheepheards did rejoyce and sing.
Let all honest men, take example by them.
Why should we from good Laws be bound?
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
Command is given, we must obey, and quite forget old Christmas day:
Kill a thousand men, or a Town regain, we will give thanks and praise amain.
The wine pot shall clinke, we will feast and drinke.
And then strange motions will abound.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
Our Lords and Knights, and Gentry too, doe mean old fashions to forgoe:
They set a porter at the gate, that none must enter in thereat.
They count it a sin, when poor people come in.
Hospitality it selfe is drown’d.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
The serving men doe sit and whine, and thinke it long ere dinner time:
The Butler’s still out of the way, or else my Lady keeps the key,
The poor old cook, in the larder doth look,
Where is no goodnesse to be found,
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
To conclude, I’le tell you news that’s right, Christmas was kil’d at Naseby fight:
Charity was slain at that same time, Jack Tell troth too, a friend of mine,
Likewise then did die, rost beef and shred pie,
Pig, Goose and Capon no quarter found.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.

Of course, those who take the term “Conservative”, yet are hardly holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, are more than willing to turn the world upside down.

Even more amusing are the ancestors of the Puritans who want to put “Christ back into Christmas” when Christians were trying to ignore the holiday because of its pagan connections.

A bit late for Christmas, but…

It seems that a Mattawan, Michigan High School Teacher was suspended and then reinstated after the School Christmas Gift Exchange went a little XXX!

It seems that students brought sex toys to school wrapped as presents for the Christmas gift exchange.  The teacher didn’t know about the X-rated toys ahead of the exchange.  It wasn’t until the toys were unwrapped that the gifts were realised to be less than innocent. Mattawan Superintendent Patrick Bird says the teacher was suspended because she didn’t take immediate action after the wrappings were removed.

The unidentified teacher is now back on the job at Mattawan High School. The superintendent says she’s a “great teacher” who’s made a “positive difference for kids over the years.” The students were not disciplined.

Although, they might have enjoyed that!

Christmas Oldies

The Moody Blues: Don’t Need a Reindeer

I like the sentiment.

This one is appropriate to the Occupy Protests. I dedicate it to all those people who say the US is a Christian nation, yet are the most unchristian people I know. Unfortunately, they don’t know who they are.

As the song says:

Once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby.
You’d do well to remember the things He later said.
When you’re stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
you’ll laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You’re missing the point I’m sure does not need making;
that Christmas spirit is not what you drink.

So how can you laugh when your own mother’s hungry
and how can you smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong?
And if I messed up your thoughtless pleasures,
remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song.

Hey, Santa: pass us that bottle, will you?

Another Christmas Song

Hope everybody’s ringing on their own bell, this fine morning.
Hope everyone’s connected to that long distance phone.
Old man, he’s a mountain.
Old man, he’s an island.
Old man, he’s awaking – says,
“ I’m going to call, call all my children home.”

Hope everybody’s dancing to their own drum this fine morning –
the beat of distant Africa or a Polish factory town.
Old man, he’s calling for his supper.
He’s calling for his whisky.
Calling for his sons and daughters, yeah –
calling, calling all his children round.

Sharp ears are tuned in to the drones and chanters warming.
Mist blowing round some headland, somewhere in your memory.
Everyone is from somewhere –
even if you’ve never been there.
So take a minute to remember the part of you
that might be the old man calling me.

How many wars you fighting out there, this winter’s morning?
Maybe it’s always time for another Christmas song.
Old man he’s asleep now.
Got appointments to keep now.
Dreaming of his sons and daughters and proving ,
proving that the blood is strong.

It’s Christmas Special Time Again!

Nothing says Christmas as much as the Telly reminding us it’s that time of year again. Some folks are depirved of seeing the Regent Street lights and all the hoopla of a London Christmas, but it really starts getting hammered into your head once the Christmas Adverts start appearing and they roll out the Christmas specials.

They are a tradition as Melissa Thompson points out in her Daily Mirror article (16/12/2011) titled The changing face of the BBC’s Christmas TV schedule, which is a rather interesting survey of the tradition of broadcast Christmas specials.

While I still have some old favs (e.g., The Truth About Christmas Carols and Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas), but this sounds like an interesting year for specials.

Channel Four has the 1999 Time Team Christmas Special up with an extravagant Medieval Christmas celebration at York’s Barley Hall.

While we are ignoring the Beeb and at Channel 4, they are putting on Felix and Murdo which the Radio Times describes as:

Imagine an Armstrong and Miller sketch about sexist Edwardian toffs, just extended superbly into a very funny sitcom by Simon Nye.

and Channel Four describes as:

In this sitcom set in Edwardian London, Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong play a pair of ‘modern’ men who indulge in a drink and drugs spree while simultaneously competing in the 1908 Olympics… with no training whatsoever

I would watch Armstrong and Miller where ever they turn up!

BBC is serving up Lost Christmas, which is described as an “Urban fairytale set in Manchester. A series of tragic events that blight a young boy’s life are reversed one Christmas Eve, giving him and those around him the happy ending that they were destined to have.” This features a cast that includes Eddie Izzard,Jason Flemyng, Geoffrey Palmer, Christine Bottomley, Steven Mackintosh, and others.

For some reason, Doctor Who has become a Christmas Tradition now that it is a Terry Nation tribute show from BBC Wales. This special called The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe features Alexander Armstrong, Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir. I understand that Amy Pond will be leaving as companion. This one sounds interesting.

TV: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, 8:30pm, BBC2/BBC HD
Utterly silly TV version of the utterly silly BBC Radio 4 hit, Bleak Expectations. With Robert Webb, Stephen Fry and Katherine Parkinson. The Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff is a four-part comedy adventure set in the Dickensian world of Jedrington Secret-Past, the up-standing family man and owner of The Old Shop of Stuff, Victorian London’s most successful purveyor of miscellaneous odd things.

Septics who missed this and want to see it will find there are download links up already!  Get with it BBC DVD creating staff!

TV: The Borrowers, 7:30pm, BBC1/BBC1 HD Mary Norton’s classic children’s books is brought into the 21st century in a brand-new action-packed adventure film has a stellar cast, including Christopher Eccleston and Stephen Fry.

Not really Christmassy, but they sound interesting:
The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, 9:00pm, BBC2/BBC HD–
“Amanda Vickery on the enduring popularity of Jane Austen. It might be something to do with how great her books are.”

Great Expectations, 9:00pm, BBC1 (10:00pm, BBC HD)
Smashing three-part dramatisation of the Dickens classic, with Douglas Booth as Pip and a luminous Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham.

And here is the Truth About Christmas Carols!

Curse you, Oliver Cromwell!

You will find in reading this blog that I don’t have too much love of the Puritans and their effects upon modern society.

and a more traditional version of the tune:

BBC Christmas specials

I am seriously hoping that the BBC will post its Christmas offerings sometime soon just to set up the PVR for Howard Goodall’s The Truth About Christmas Carols. That means I am serching the iPlayer site for Christmas specials.

What turns up?

Noreen Khan’s Asian Network Christmas Party

I love England and I’m glad the Asian Service is still around.

Pub Carolers

From Howard Goodall’s The Truth About Christmas Carols. You need to go 3m19s into the clip to see the carolers.

The Truth About Christmas Carols

The BBC is going to rebroadcast Howard Goodall’s The Truth About Christmas Carols on the following dates and stations:

Friday, 17 Dec 2010 21:30 BBC HD
Sunday, 19 Dec 2010 20:00 BBC Four

This is the third year it has been broadcast and is well worth watching.

The iPlayer site doesn’t have the broadcast info up yet, but the show site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00gbgt3, does. Here’s the first 10 minutes as a teaser:

I’m adding muckrake’s comment and my response to this:
Excellent! Great information especially for the doubting Thomas. I saw all 6 episodes from Youtube links at the conclusion of episode 1.

Early on, I realised that Christmas had zip to do with Christ, which was a disappointment. On the other hand, the acknowledgement of Christmas’s pagan nature, as well as Easter’s Pagan and Jewish heritage (it’s passover for goys) have helped me appreciate the holidays.

The Twelve Days of Christmas is another carol with a “secret meaning” since the 12 days refers to a more pagan celebration lasting from Christmas eve to Epiphany (6 January). Naturally, that was tied into the pagan feast of Saturnalia featuring such things as the Lord of Misrule. the post Commonwealth purtianical ban on Christmas the feast was changed and the tradition forgotten.

Do They Know its Christmas?

Is it just me or does it seem that the economy is really hitting people? It doesn’t seem that the decorations are out in as much strength as they have been in the past. Of course, the economic effect of Christmas spending seems to be chilling out. But, I am not in retail.

The BBC hasn’t set up the Christmas specials other than Rick Stein’s Cornish Christmas. That’s got me homesick for the West Country, but it doesn’t take too much for me to miss that part of England.

What gives?



Ruining your Christmas spirit!

What is Christmas without alcohol? Forget putting Christ back in Christmas since he has never really had anything to do with the date, but drunken revelry–that’s another thing. Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis tried to sample every Christmas tipple in a BBC Christmas special last year.  And the institution of Christmas drinking is enshrined in all those Wassail songs.  Too bad actual wassail is pretty revolting.  Mulled wine is far more of my fav for the season.

The problem is that the process of making alcohol is fairly environmentally unfriendly as a recent Mother Jones article, An Inconvenient Vermouth, points out. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, alcoholic beverage production in the US alone results in a carbon footprint which is the annual equivalent of 1.9 million households. Not great news if you want to be green and know that EVERYBODY has to start reducing their carbon footprint.  But, don’t worry about that too much since the MoJo Article talks about which forms of alcohol are environmentally friendly.

Wine, for example, is fairly environmentally friendly with most of its carbon footprint coming from transportation.  You can also be more environmentally friendly by using wine that comes in cartons rather than bottles.  Beer is fairly environmentally friendly as well with most of the carbon footprint coming from refrigeration and glass production.  Surprisingly enough, kegs are the most efficient method of packaging beer with cans coming in second.  While aluminium production is an environmental horror, cans are recyclable and cost less to transport.

The spirits industry comes in for a serious beating with Gin, tequila, and rum being the worst for the environment.  The problem is that the distillation process requires loads of energy.  American bourbons are aged in virgin-oak barrels that are used only once, most of those barrels end up being reused by other liquor makers.  And while some of those liquor makers may produce single malts, think of the energy involved in distilling the liquor and transporting it.  In terms of distillation, vodka requires more energy and water than most spirits.

Rum is made from molasses or cane juice, and its fibrous leftovers can throw off the microorganism balance in waterways. In 2001, the EPA sued Bacardi for illegally dumping 3,000 gallons of of mostos, an industrial waste from its rum processing plant, into a river near its Puerto Rico plant. Although, that does mean that many major rum distillers now treat their water. Additionally, sugarcane is also a notoriously destructive crop, producing massive amounts of wastewater and greenhouse gases. Tequila also has a pretty bad waste problem. For every liter of tequila, you get about 11 pounds of pulp and 10 liters of vinazas, or acidic waste—which ends up befouling soil and water in Mexico’s Jalisco state, where most tequila comes from. Blue agave farmers, meanwhile, have used more and more pesticides since their crops were chewed up by insects during the 1990s.

So, it sounds as if this is a victory for the slow food crowd who prefer beer and wine that is locally produced.   Steer clear of distilled spirits since they require loads of energy to produce with Rum and Tequila being down right environmentally unfriendly!  It also sounds as if the best way to drink is to go to a local pub that serves locally manufactured beer or wine!  While you are at it, take public transportation to reduce your carbon footprint.  Also, using public transportation means you won’t get busted for drunk driving: making it an environmentally, legally, and financially wise decision to use public transportation.

There are ways to make the distillation process more environmentally friendly, but most distillers don’t practise them. MoJo does mention which distillers use environmentally friendly practises. I strongly suggest buying their products if you choose to drink spirits. It also might be a good idea to write your fav distiller and ask them what they are doing to cut their carbon footprint?

I leave you with Charles Dickens’s Smoking Bishop recipe which is mentioned at the End of “A Christmas Carol”:

5 unpeeled oranges
1 unpeeled grapefruit
36 cloves
1/4 pound of sugar
2 bottles of red wine
1 bottle of port

— Wash the fruit and oven bake until brownish. Turn once.
— Put fruit into a warmed earthenware bowl with six cloves stuck into each.
— Add the sugar and pour in the wine – not the port.
— Cover and leave in a warm place for a day.
— Squeeze the fruit into the wine and strain.
— Add the port and heat. DO NOT BOIL!

Serve “smoking” warm. Yield: 15 to 20 servings

Just in case you forgot….

It’s time to remind all those good Christians who want to put Christ back in Christmas that Christmas was banned in England under the Commonwealth (Cromwell’s Purtian Government)…


‘Forasmuch as the Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other Festivals, commonly called Holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed: Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival-days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays, within this Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales’–Commons Journal, Volume 9, 11 June 1647

Christmas was not only outlawed in the British Isles but in parts of colonial America, as well. In 1659, a law was passed by the Puritans of General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring a five-shilling fine from anyone caught “observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.

Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday in the US until 1870! Yes, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution!

Strange as this may sound, Protestant Christians such as the Pilgrims, Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians did not celebrate Christmas. Some Christian sects still do not recognise Christmas as being Christian, such as Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Protestant Christians in New England during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries knew that the festivities, traditions, and trappings of Christmas were simply pagan celebrations covered with a Christian veneer. In addition, they were all too familiar with the Saturnalian misrule, disorder, and revelry associated with the mid-winter festivities and wanted to suppress it.

The problem is that Christians have been trying to co-opt the holiday since the Christian Church was established early in the fourth century. This was done to Christianise pagan mid-winter celebrations associated with the Saturnalia and birthday of Sol Invictus – the Sun god. But it didn’t end there! As Christianity spread into northern Europe, elements of the twelve day Scandinavian Yule festival to the god Thor and various other practices of the Germanic pagans were also incorporated into Christmas-time celebrations by the Roman Church.

“All of the incorporation of pagan traditions was done contrary to God’s clear instructions in Deuteronomy 12: 28-32, Jeremiah 10: 1-3, and Matthew 15: 3, 8-9.”

So get your Christ out of our “pagan rite to banish the cold and the dark”!

Thanks to White Rabbit.

“Six To Eight Black Men” by David Sedaris

Since a few people have mentioned the Germanic Tradition of Saint Nicholas Day in comments here, I am posting David Sedaris’s Dutch Christmas story from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sedaris’s story reminds me of getting into Antwerp and not realising that it was Saint Nicholas day. The Zwarte Piet (black men) were portrayed by people in black face.

Not very politically correct, but neither is Sedaris’s story.

I’ve never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in some strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don’t really how many people live in Olympia, Washington or Columbus, Ohio. They’re nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with the average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn’t tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon and, if so, under what circumstances? What’s the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I’ve learned from experience that its best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small area. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I’ve learned, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. In Texas they must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but I heard that in Michigan they’re allowed to go it alone, which raises the question: How do they find whatever it is they just shot? In addition to that, how do they get it home? Are the Michigan blind allowed to drive as well? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that’s become increasingly homogeneous, I’m reassured by these last charming touches or regionalism.757px-Two_Zwarte_Piet

Firearms aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when travelling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good ice breaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France the scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible pre-mixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says, “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good conversation starter, as I think it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family-oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to Mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. Its nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose its fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in the Netherlands the children open their presents on December 5, in celebration of St. Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as the Bishop of Turkey.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but could you repeat that?”

One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t anything. He’s not retired and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. It’s too dangerous there and the people wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. Though he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit hed most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. “Hello. How are you? Can I get you some candy?” Fine. He knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent and he certainly doesn’t eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, the Dutch version arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I’m not sure if there’s a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out asking people what they want.

“Is it just him alone?” I asked. “Or does he come with some backup?”

Oscar’s English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.

“Helpers,” I said. “Does he have any elves?”

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I couldn’t help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. “Elves,” he said. “They are just so silly.zp

The words were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicolas travels with what was consistently described as six to eight black men. I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always six to eight, which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get an accurate head count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid 1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think that history has proved that something usually comes slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in the Netherlands, but rather than duking it out amongst themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as the small branch of a tree.

“A switch?”

“Yes,” he said, “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”

“Saint Nicholas would ?”

“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it’s almost more perverse that the original punishment. “I’m going to hurt you but not really.” How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain old-fashioned fear. What kind of a Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you’ve got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.

“…did you say?”

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it’s not much different than hanging your stockings from the mantle. Now that so few people actually have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point I guess they either jump back down and use the door or stay put and vaporize through pipes and electrical cords. Oscar wasn’t too clear about the particulars, but really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He’s supposed to use the chimney, but if you don’t have one, he still manages to get in. It’s not best to think about it too hard.sint_vancouver650

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year travelling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly better story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution – so what’s not to love about being Dutch?zwarte_pieten_groep

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy – very good company but when he offered to wait until my train arrived I begged off, claiming I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast, vibrant terminal, surrounded by thousands of polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn’t help but feel second-rate. Yes, the Netherlands was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter. I was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off alone into the Michigan forest. He may bag a deer, or he may happily shoot a camper in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your back door. We don’t know for sure, but in pinning that hunting license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.

OK, I’ll admit it that my reaction to the Zwarte Piet was to want to say “Yo, man, rise up against whitey”. Of course, the Vlaams Blok had just won the local elections and that wouldn’t have been a really bright idea.

It seems that some people do protest this tradition, but not with very much success.  I was right to restrain myself in Antwerp.