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Long-time readers know how much I love the "Ghost of Christmas Present," because so much of him hearkens back to the green spirit of the ancient Yule celebration, so often represented by a fat man. So here's a lovely "Christmas Present" from me to you.

Click to enlarge.

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I've been reading about Yule the past few days - that ancient pre-Christian European celebration around the time of the winter solstice. Pretty much everyone in the Northern Hemisphere had some kind of "festival of light" at this time, although the ancient European traditions of Yule speak most loudly to me. The more I read about Yule, the happier I feel, because I realize that all along I've been in touch with something quite ancient. When we put up greenery and pine cones, roast meat, make wassail and give toasts, light candles, decorate a fresh evergreen, bake cookies in the shape of little men, we honor the spirit of Yule.

But what are the roots of Yule? [ profile] abearius made a good point about one fundamental "reason for the season:"
Before there was Christ, or marketing departments, or even Yule, there were three months of dark, cold weather that not everybody could live through. And that's where "it" all began. Helping people live through something completely uncontrollable--weather that takes lives--is the real reason for the season of charity and compassion. Jesus came later ...
I think that you don't make a difference by spitting into the cold winter winds; you make a difference by giving people wood, or coal, or food, or hope.

More green men of winter, SFW )

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What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?

-- The White Witch, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

In the Chronicles of Narnia, The White Witch of Narnia made it "always winter and never Christmas." She was crafted by CS Lewis to represent the 17th century Puritan revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, who outlawed Christmas in England for the very reasons the White Witch spouts above. Our own US Surgeon General seems to be stepping into her Cromwellian white robes when he complains that Santa is too fat.

I thought this was just a British and Australian obsession, but I guess not.

Because the SG wants to use Santa for propaganda purposes, it's a red herring for the article to bring up the putative "health risks" to the men who dress up in Santa costumes. Nor do I think the SG would accept thinner men in padding or fat suits. What seems to bug him is that the *iconic* Santa, the Santa of imagination, is himself is fat.

However, archetypes have a life of their own, and the shape they take says important things about their nature. Santa is fat because fatness is iconic for generosity and plenty. Never mind that there are very generous thin people, and miserly, selfish fat ones. The point of Santa's fatness is to remind us that whatever plenitude we experience is a gift to us, and one that's to be shared. That's why Dickens showed the Ghost of Christmas Present as a traditional "Father Christmas" dressed in Yule green.

Most of our Christmas symbols come from the old pre-Christian European cultures: the phallic pine cones and red candles; the fertility of the mistletoe; the life-giving symbols of nuts and berries; the glow of warm sweet wine; the burning log which is like a spark of life itself.

In John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, the two lost, homeless men (as much in need of a manger as any wandering Holy Family) repeat the beautiful phrase to themselves like a mantra, the sum of their hopes and ultimately dashed dreams - "The fat o' the land. We're gonna live off the fat o' the land."

Santa represents the "fat of the land" in a vivid and visual way. While Santa has not always been represented as fat, it's the fat Santa image which has cultural "stickiness." It doesn't matter if the modern representation came from Thomas Nast's Victorian illustrations, the 1920s White Rock seltzer ads, or Haddon Sundblom's luminescent Coca Cola representations. They all descend from an archetypal image from deep in our past.

Not only that, fat Santa is a statement that intrinsic qualities matter. Not everything is deconstructable, interchangeable, replaceable. Icons may evolve over time, but tweaking them for propaganda purposes can destroy their fundamental meanings.

So here are some fat Santas to enjoy. )

Next time: the king of Santa painters, Haddon Sundblom, and his Coca Cola pictures.

Happy St. Nicholas's feast day, everyone!
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Here are some cheery Christmas cards you wouldn't see today ...

A lot of old Christmas cards have these huge plum puddings that almost overwhelm the scene. They're massive and fleshy, almost like body parts. These kids aren't just eating it, they're literally climbing inside it - which has some strange overtones. They've made themselves so sick on plum pudding, they have to go to the nasty medications on the right for relief ...

The last time we had a fat politico in office, he got hounded for it. Notice Father Christmas's green robe and crown of holly.

Good Yule, everyone!

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In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears in Scrooge's room and transforms it:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney ...

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see:, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

'Come in.' exclaimed the Ghost. 'Come in and know me better, man.'"

The image on the right is from the rare 1971 Oscar-winning animated version directed by Richard Williams (of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? fame.) In Williams' interpretation, Christmas Present's generosity of form also reflects the expansiveness and charity of the season that gets left out in so many adaptations, for this Christmas Present takes Scrooge not just to Bob Cratchit's and Fezziwig's homes, but to the home of the miners, the lighthouse keepers, and the ship at sea as well. So his fullness of body (rather than reflecting gluttony) serves as an emblem of the generosity, openness, and hospitality Dickens wishes us to associate with the season for those in all walks of life and circumstances. And he uses a "jolly giant, glorious to see," full in body and spirit, to do so.

The Ghost of Christmas Present wasn't cut from whole cloth by Dickens. Before there was the commercialized "Santa Claus" as we know him, there was "Father Christmas," whom Dickens appropriated for his Spirit. He's middle-aged, not old, with the wideness and solidity that some men grow into with time. With his green fur-trimmed robe, his crown of holly, his "capacious breast" that disdained "to be warded or concealed by any artifice," his hint of wildness and phallic torch, he perhaps hails from the Green Man of pre-Christian England.

Today we are cautioned against the season as a mortal threat to diets. That sounds similar to the Puritan disdain for Christmas, where fear and suspicion of the twelve-day long season peaked during the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell. The 17th century Puritan parliament's "Godly Party" embarked on a twenty-some year attempt to snuff out the celebration, seen as sinful, luxurious, wasteful, and a harbinger of pre-Puritan days. But in older Catholic and Anglican celebrations,

... there was also the concept of a ‘Father Christmas’, more as a figure that oversaw the community celebrations than as someone who gave presents to children. ... It was a period of leisure, of eating and drinking to excess, of dancing and singing, gambling, gaming and stage plays (though modern-style pantomimes did not emerge until the eighteenth century), of drunkenness and sexual immorality, a period when normal rules and self-control did not apply, a period of deliberate inversion and ‘misrule’. (Ref.)

C.S. Lewis had his Cromwellian White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe enchant Narnia so that it was "always winter and never Christmas," and it's the coming of Father Christmas that signals the end of her ascetic and bitter reign.

The Spirit stood beside sickbeds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by sruggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery's every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.

As he might us. God bless us, every one, and hold us fast in the embrace of Christmas Present in this upcoming season.


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September 2013



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