Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas On Planet Earth

And so here it is, this, my Christmas Day posting for 2008. This year, I'm full of sunny good cheer, caused not entirely by the shot of Bailey's Irish Creme in my morning coffee, but also by this video, which I'm sharing to hopefully spread my glad tidings and joy:

According to, "ever since he heard some street musicians outside a subway station move some 200-odd passersby to tears, Mark Johnson has been thinking up a way to shine more light on the transformative power of music. After ten years, this Grammy winning filmmaker has got something. Something remarkable, actually: bringing together musicians from around the world -- blues singers in a waterlogged New Orleans, chamber groups in Moscow, a South African choir -- to collaborate on songs familiar and new, in the effort to foster a new, greater understanding of our commonality. As part of 'Playing for Change', this is moving remix of the popular 'Stand By Me' performed by more than 100 musicians from Tibet to Zimbabwe!"

I literally got misty-eyed watching this, but then maybe I'm just aging into a sentimental old fool. And if that didn't warm the cockles of your heart, perhaps this MTV blast from the past, brought to my attention by none other than the High Zen Priestess herself, might do the trick.

It was formerly my habit on holidays like Christmas to post cynical pictures like the one below, reminding us that America's first decisive military victory came when General Washington ambushed British troops sleeping off their hangovers from their Christmas Eve festivities:

Or, this - Joe the Plumber's Christmas complaint:

However, this year, I have more optimism - you could even say Obama-like hope - so instead of snickering at the traditions and beliefs of others, this year I'm choosing to share this old chestnut from years past:

Speaking of years past, Christmas traditions and the legend of Santa Claus have been celebrated differently in past times, as well as in different parts of the world. The American humorist David Sedaris notes that "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."

The Dutch Saint Nicholas was apparently not the jolly fat man of current American lore. According to Sedaris, Saint Nicholas travelled with "six to eight black men." These 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 his "good friends." Sedaris notes that "history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility."

Further, if a child was naughty, instead of bestowing presents, the Dutch Saint Nicholas and his six to eight "good friends" would beat him or her with the small branch of a tree. If the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him to, of all places, Spain, which actually doesn't sound all that bad right now (Spain is wonderful this time of year).

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, who by the way, is apparently now Canadian, Saint Nicholas was painfully thin and dressed "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."

Apparently, our perception of Santa Claus was once somewhat more similar to the Dutch version than to our modern vision. While we never went as far as assuming that Santa was the former Bishop of Turkey, kidnapping bad children to Spain with his six to eight personal slaves, as shown in this movie from 1898, Santa Claus wasn't always considered fat - in fact, he once was skinny and dressed something like a Manchurian monk (note the long sleeves):

That's it for this year, folks. My hope is that by providing some videos for you to watch, some pictures that may make you smile, some music and some words, I've made your holiday a little more enjoyable.

Joyeaux Noel, y'all.

Postscript: I decided the 1898 silent movie was perhaps a tad too silent, so I updated it with a soundtrack. The music is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Ruined Castles" from the 1964 album, "I Talk With the Spirits." I thought it had the right lullaby qualities where needed and the right magical elements where needed, and despite the glum title, a holiday sound throughout. Let me know what you think.

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