Wednesday, 21 December 2011



Did you hear about the dyslexic Satanist? He sold his soul to Santa.

It’s a silly joke, but I think it captures a truth we have all felt: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas. Call him what you like, there’s something not right about him. Something ambiguous, even sinister. Perhaps it’s because the first lie our parents ever tell us is about the existence of Santa. Perhaps it’s because the nature of that lie is so diametrically opposite to what we are being told elsewhere. In this modern, paranoid world with its increasingly amped-up fears about home invasion, where children are brought up to believe all doors and windows must be lock at night and they must never talk to, never trust a stranger, how unnerving must it be for those same children to suddenly be told that there is this old guy on a flying sledge who can get into their home and prowl around their bedroom with impunity, and that they must be good and do as he says or they won’t get any presents. Think about that for a moment. Think about the darker implications. Talk about a mixed message.

Parents might try to delude themselves that it’s part of “magic of Christmas” to perpetuate this myth, but behind that popular image of the laughing, jolly red-faced man in the fur-fringed red costume, Santa is just another bogeyman. A myth our parents tell us to make us behave. Think of the words of the classic, oft-covered song, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”:

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
O! You better watch out!
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

Does this sound like anyone you’d want to meet? Would you want to sit on his knee, or would you want to run and hide? This Santa sounds more like some kind of moral vigilante. The Punisher with a white beard and a sack of toys, or perhaps the sadistic Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan’s THE MIKADO:

“I’ve got him on the list / I’m sure he won’t be missed!”

Scant wonder that Diamanda Galas referenced the lyrics of this song in “Double Barrelled Prayer”, when referring to the savage dogs of hell

They know when you are sleeping.
They know when you’re awake
How fast your heart is beating
So be ready or too late…

They can smell your blood inside
It’s too late to go and hide…

Behind that jolly mask, then, Santa is a figure who sits in judgement, who weighs lives in the balance. Like God. Or the Devil. Or Jason. Or Michael Myers.

Yep. Sorry, boys and girls, but Santa never really was one of the good guys. The modern, iconic image of Santa, in his red suit, hemmed with white fur, has its origins in the work of 19th Century illustrator Thomas Nast, but was actually fixed in the public consciousness by the art of Haddon Sunblom - in a series of advertisements he created for Coca-Cola, beginning in the 1930s (a decade which also saw the composition of “Santa Clause is Coming To Town”). The Santa we are most familiar with was a simple marketing gimmick, dressed, conveniently enough, in the Coca-Cola colours. Thus, over time, Santa has become a symbol of the crass commercialism of Christmas, his motivations distinctly suspect. Billy Bob Thornton’s drunken department store heist man is not alone in using that familiar red and white outfit for questionable aims - horror cinema is filled with “Bad Santas”: Silent Night, Deadly Night and its various sequels, Christmas Evil, Psycho Santa, Santa Claws, Santa’s Slay, Satan Claus, and of course Freddie Francis’s horror anthology Tales From The Crypt, featuring what may well be the original Santa serial killer in the tale “And All Through The House”.  And that’s if we stick solely to the US and UK. Grimm Up North’s recent festive double bill of Rare Exports and Saint offered a suitably startling reminder that there are other versions of Santa out there; that behind the smiling shill for a fizzy drink company lies a far older, far darker, more ambiguous entity.

The name Santa Claus is an American-English corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself a corruption of “St Nicholas”, the Christian saint famous for his generous gifts to the poor. So “Santa Claus” is nominally Christian. But the figure of Father Christmas is entirely secular, a figure representing good cheer, originally all in green, and later in red and green, and most likely derived from the pagan figure of the Green Man, symbol of fertility, the changing seasons, and of rebirth, and thus a figure whose appearance at the year’s end, the Winter solstice, is entirely logical, signifying as he does the hope of a new year, and the arrival of Spring.

The connection of this figure directly with Christmas probably dates back to the 14th Century verse narrative SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. Perhaps the earliest, and one of the greatest of all festive stories, this epic poem is an attempt to reconcile the Christian and Pagan traditions, as the two are brought into quite literal conflict. It is Christmas at the Court of King Arthur, and in the midst of the celebrations, a knight arrives, demanding audience. He is clad all in green; even his hair and flesh are green. This Green Knight sets a seemingly absurd challenge: he will allow any knight who dares to cut off his head, and then, the following year, the knight in question must allow the Green Knight to do the same to him. Gawain takes up the challenge, and strikes off the Green Knight’s head. But the Green Knight does not die. He simply picks up his severed head and replaces it. Gawain is faced with having to go to the Green Knight’s own castle in a year‘s time, where he must risk his own head.

The story is filled with both Christian and Pagan symbolism. Gawain is the perfect Christian Knight, faced with martyrdom. The Green Knight is of course the Green Man of pagan tradition. Gawain is being tested for his faith, and for his chivalry as a knight. In the end, he does not lose his head, because he proves true, and the narrative ends with another Christmas celebration. Here Pagan and Christian are finally reconciled, albeit uneasily, and not without tension. And it is the Pagan world, interestingly, that sets the rules and parameters for the contest.

This is perfectly understandable, and entirely appropriate. The early Christian Church had been very smart in its efforts to convert the pagans, retaining many of the symbols and fetish objects and much of the iconography of pagan worship, and merely assigning them a new, Christian value and purpose. Christmas time itself is the Pagan Yuletide or Winter Solstice. The images of death and renewal, of the old year giving way to new, the turning of the seasons so essential to pagans, are assigned a new value within the Christian faith. The evergreen holly and ivy, originally used in druidic practice become symbols of Christ. The result, however, is that the symbols become ambiguous. And at Christmas, this ambiguity is rife. For Christian believers, it is a time of celebration of their faith, of their belief that they are redeemed, that mankind is renewed. But underlying this are pagan beliefs and fears. As Winter draws in, and the days get shorter and the nights longer, the promise of Spring’s renewal seems further and further off.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is a tale of high chivalry and courtly love, and ends in celebration and renewal, but it is also links Christmas quite explicitly with the pagan world and the supernatural. It adds a touch of dread to the festivities. And in the ambiguous, menacing Green Knight, it introduces the idea of a figure who sits in judgement, who “knows if you've been bad or good”, and who thus decides whether you deserve a good Christmas. And this figure has persisted ever since, distinct from any Christian interpretation that might be placed upon him. Christmas, then, is not simply a time for celebration and good fellowship and overeating. It is also a time to reflect upon who we are. And to confront our darkest fears.

Christmas, as we know it, was pretty much invented by the Victorians. It is no accident that the second most famous, most celebrated, and most performed Christmas story, after that old chestnut about the kid being born in the stable, and the shepherds and the three kings and whatnot, should be Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Originally published in December 1843, Dickens’ classic tale has never been out of print, and has been adapted for stage and screen a multitude of times. It has been an opera, a musical, the source of numerous pantos. There are versions featuring the Muppets, Blackadder and Dr Who. There is even, horrifyingly, an updated version starring Ross Kemp as one “Eddie Scrooge”.  The result is that while we are all-too-familiar with the story, we tend to know it second hand, in reduced, simplified form; to regard it as a warm-hearted, sentimental tale of a hateful miser, made to see the error of his ways by visits from the three spirits of Christmas.

And yet Dickens’ original story contains some genuinely disturbing images. The narrative follows a redemptive arc, but there is a palpable sense of dread, too. The visions Scrooge is offered tap into all of our worst fears about being unloved, alone, isolated; of dying forgotten, or worse, actively hated. The final, sentimental, celebratory Christmas scenes are made all the more rosily appealing by the dark alternative we have been shown. Tiny Tim’s words, “God bless us, every one!” have an undercurrent of fear and pathos. Scrooge has seen a future in which the boy dies, and that future might still happen. Dickens knew full well what Christmas was like for the desperate and the destitute. His father had been sent to debtors’ prison when Dickens was only twelve. And the recent Poor Laws had made life even worse for the poorest in society. A CHRISTMAS CAROL in its condemnation of selfish greed and call for social responsibility is very much a product of Dickens the social critic and reformer.

But the story is also a product of Dickens the great myth-maker of his age. It was written during a period when there was something of a national preoccupation with Christmas. Prince Albert had imported a number of festive traditions from his native Germany, including the Tannenbaum or Christmas Tree, and the giving and receiving of greetings cards, and there had followed a widespread revival of interest in early British Christmas traditions, such as the Yule Log, mistletoe, and holly and ivy. The Victorians were creating a whole iconography of Christmas that remains with us to this day. And whether they were conscious of it or not, a lot of that iconography is essentially pagan, and pre-Christian in origin. Charles Dickens did much to consolidate that iconography in the national consciousness, to fuse Christian and Pagan into a vision of Christmas that is essentially fairly secular - a time of family, of celebration, of goodwill to all, of the opportunity for redemption, where God is mentioned only in passing, where essential human decency prevails. For all of the darkness along the way, essentially, yes, a comforting vision.

That Dickens should choose to present this vision in the form of a ghost story might seem perverse, but again it simply shows his understanding of his audience. The Victorians loved tales of the sensational and supernatural. This was beginning of the great age of the English Ghost Story, and Dickens was a key player in its development. But in making his Christmas Myth a ghost story, Dickens achieved something else. He ensured that the Ghost Story became as much a part of Christmas as trees, and cards and goose and plum pudding, and carol singing, and all of the other festive traditions his story celebrates.

And the tradition has continued ever after. The great Edwardian master of the ghost story, MR James wrote all of his tales originally as Christmas entertainments for his students, to be consumed no doubt with mince pies and a glass of good port. More recently WOMAN IN BLACK author Susan Hill has taken to releasing a ghost story in time for Christmas (though ironically, we will have to wait till the New Year for the new film version of her most famous work). It is thus entirely appropriate that many of James’s stories should have been adapted for TV over the years, invariably as part of the Christmas season’s viewing, and that TV and film companies should continue to choose Christmas-time as much as Halloween as a suitable time to release their. There is something almost… cosy… about ghosts and horror at Christmas.

So all of you Grimlins out there planning to spend that Jesus kid’s birthday watching a Filipino Zombie movie marathon are just following in a great tradition dating back centuries. Just don’t eat any of the guests. That would be wrong.