In which yr correspondent, an unwashed American, makes fun of other people’s holiday celebrations

The ludicrous oddities of Yule-tide have long been fodder for confused American writers. American Christmases are almost entirely sanitized, consumer-friendly versions of C. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. That’s hardly news; there’s a segment on it in Adam Ruins Everything. In point of fact, most Christians frowned upon Christmas, because it was an obvious, blatant rip-off of pagan traditions involving — this is true — lawlessness, human sacrifice, drunken mob violence, and all the things you traditionally associate with the Sermon on the Mount. But this isn’t about American Christmas traditions — or even Real ‘Merican Chrismas traditions (which involves saying “Merry Christmas” and then assiduously ignoring the least among us, rather than doing charity work)(in other words, America, we’ve become Ebenezer Scrooge, not the Ghost of Christmas Present). The only thing I’ll say about American traditions and the so-called War on Christmas is, without Googling it; can you tell me what the twelve days of Christmas are? C’mon folks, it’s a song, John Denver performed it with the Muppets (making it possibly the most Thomas Kinkade-esque thing ever), it’s a long-standing thing in the American Christmas pantheon — it’s the 12 days between December 25, when Christ was born, according to one calendar and set of specious dates, and when the Magi arrived to give Baby Jesus three utterly useless gifts on January 6. That classic Christmas nativity scene you grew up with, with the three creepy, used BMW salesman-looking dudes in the background holding be-glittered boxes? Historically and Biblically inaccurate.

But this isn’t about how a weird pagan holiday got adopted by Madison Avenue and then embraced by Pat Buchanan and then made a weird political weapon by fringe conservatives. Nor is it about the 14 various religious holidays that also occur around this time (Chappy Chanukah!)(that’s the other near-Christmas religious festival I know most about, and, obviously, I don’t know very much about it). No, it’s about how, no matter how you celebrate the holidays, or which holiday you celebrate it, it’s still superior to the traditional, continental European celebrations, which are, frankly, terrifying. That’s right, children, today the Ghost of Christmas in Other Cultures shall be played by yr correspondent; and, in order to get into the really off-puttingly crazy celebrations elsewhere, you have to acknowledge and recognize that Christmas is an artificial holiday made up of cannibalized local traditions. That’s a critical aspect to keep in mind, because some of this stuff is absolutely insane (also, remember that, traditionally, the solstice is spent freezing and/or starving to death — that’s my way of saying, “This essay is probably SFW, but not child-friendly,” especially since, as we’ll see, child abuse is a very traditional past-time)(also, if I have to go through this essay and explain what I approve and disapprove of, we’ll be here all night).

First of all, there’s the well-documented Six to Eight Black Men, as described by David Sedaris in the essay of the same name. In the Netherlands, Santa is accompanied by personal slaves — traditionally (because slavery is a very traditional cross-cultural institution, let’s remember)(not an endorsement, BTW). This has been rather dramatically white-washed in recent years, because Father Christmas rewarding the just and punishing the wicked is really, really weird when it’s framed from, “Oh, he also owns other humans.” This will not be the last cringe-worthy moment in this essay. Because Santa Claus is less real than Albus Dumbledore, you are, of course, free to imagine him any way you wish, although I’d strongly discourage any interpretations that involve him kidnapping people from Africa. Normally, I’m not a fan of white-washing or revising history to ignore the sins of the past, but maybe making Santa Claus not violate the Geneva Convention is a good thing.

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Stolen from Wikipedia, not unlike Sinterklaas’ help.

Kidnapping is also an extremely common sub-theme of Santa Claus, who also traditionally kidnaps bad children in the Netherlands (sources are unclear if he then sells them into slavery to finance next year’s Christmas festivities, but, in American end-stage capitalism, that is the logical way to generate revenue). Don’t like the thought of Santa Claus kidnapping people, but you still want to traumatize your children into behaving? Enter the Teutonic tribes!

When Robert Smith has nightmares, this is what he sees.

That is the Krampus, a central-European Christmas tradition designed to scare the hell out of everyone, kind of like Melania’s White House Christmas decorations. I’ve heard they beat bad children, but, let’s be honest; with a face like that, can we rule out murder, torture, and other indoor sports? Possibly every time you send an unsolicited sexting message, the Krampus gets it, too. I do not know if the Krampus accompanies Santa Claus, or what, but I think we can all agree that, after a visit from that, just not being actively emotionally tortured seems like a gift.

In France, presents are delivered to children by a bell from Rome. I imagine the story behind that particularly half-assed tradition probably involves the French desperately trying to rationalize their usual weekend binge, and merging it with Yule traditions. “Quick, dump ze presents on ze kids, let’s get back to le bar!”

In Finland, the Finns claim that Santa Claus lives in Lapland. To be fair, it’s cold, wintery, and loaded with reindeer, so it’s not hard to imagine Santa Claus skulking around (according to unverified sources, Santa Claus in Finnish tradition was originally a wild boar — we’ll come back to that thought)(although I don’t know how you go from “Rabid, omnivorous large wild animal” to “Benevolent bringer of material goods,” but it’s not like it’s the dumbest thing I’ll be writing about today, so we’ll breeze over it). They also traditionally visit the grave sites of deceased relatives, which nicely summarizes the Nordic cultures — sweet and kind, while also being awkward and slightly creepy.

They also have lutefisk, which is an extremely common Scandinavian Christmas tradition. If you know nothing about lutefisk, I would advise you to maintain that ignorance. All I’ll say is, the Scandinavian countries have no need of scary Santas or Krampuses, because they have lutefisk.

Which is my ham-handed way of getting to the point of today’s essay; Christmas in Iceland. I knew about “ Jolabokaflod,” which translates as “Book flood” — most Icelandic publishers print new books mostly in winter, so there’s an Icelandic tradition of everyone buying each other books and reading. Doesn’t that sound delightful? It’s a bookworm’s ideal holiday.

Oh, how I yearn for the sweet naivete of yesterday, when that was my single biggest bit of knowledge about Icelandic Christmas. Unfortunately, I am in regular contact with an actual Icelandic woman (as a native Icelander, she represents 3.2% of the population, and generates 12.4% of Iceland’s GDP). This morning, on a message board, she wrote about Icelandic people being visited by beings named — I am not making this up — Candle Beggar, Spoon licker, Bowl Licker, Pot Scraper, Door Slammer, Sausage Swiper, and Meat-Hook. Because these sound like obscure kitchen implements, and/or club drugs, and/or unspeakably filthy, quasi-legal sex acts, I had to investigate.

If you thought the krampus, present-giving bell, and racially-based chattel slavery were bonkers, strap in, because you ain’t seen nothing, yet (good news; there’s nothing half as terrifying as the krampus or lutefisk)(but it’s still weird).

As far as my research goes, Iceland does not have a traditional Santa Claus figure. Instead, they have 13 “Yule Lads,” which sounds like a really weird Christmas song cover band. They all look vaguely Santa Claus-ish, but they are, according to folklore, the offspring of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði. Don’t ask me how those names are pronounced, but, supposedly, Grýla, comes down from the mountains to boil really bad children alive (Icelandic people are metal AF). Like the Finnish boar; I’m not sure how they went from “troll spawn” to “bringers of gifts,” but roll with it. Each Yule Lad has a distinct personality (“Sausage Swiper” still sounds horrifying) associated with fairly harmless prankery (“Door Slammer” likes to slam doors), and, in 1742, the Icelandic government changed them to make them less creepy. No word on their ruling about telling children they’ll be cooked and eaten alive by trolls if they’re bad, though. The Yule Lads leave candy in children’s shoes in the run-up to Christmas/the book flood; if they’re good (the kids) — which is a fairly common continental tradition. For bad children who are in that gray area of, “Too bad for candy, not so bad they end up on the menu,” the Yule Lads leave potatoes. I love that. In Iceland, the traditional punishment is French Fries. Or troll dismemberment, I’m still vague on the details.

So, let’s say you want to opt out of the not-so-traditional ‘Merican frenzy of random purchases and really big meals with people about whom you have mixed feelings, but you still want all the most ludicrous aspects of Christmas and the recently-imbued-upon-Christmas spirit of generosity and kindness? I offer a potential counter-holiday: Hogswatch.

Bit of required context, Hogswatch is the primary holiday in the fictional universe of Discworld, a fantasy series/franchise created by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, a man who — this is true — forged a sword using iron from a meteorite (we all need hobbies). In the world of fantasy nerds, Discworld fans make D&D players look like the varsity football squad. To paraphrase T. Pratchett (and I may be getting this wrong, apologies), “Discworld is Lord of the Rings 5000 years later. There are no Dark Lords, the orcs and trolls have had to come out of the mountains and get real jobs, and everyone has to learn to live with each other.” It’s a superb, satirical take on both fantasy and our own world, but the book Hogfather is possibly the best of the series, largely because it’s an out-and-out spoof of our own most ludicrous traditions. In the book, Death (a recurring character in the series) discovers that the Hogfather is, shall we say, indisposed for the night, and is forced to take on the duties usually associated with Father Christmas. With his bad-tempered manservant.

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You liked “Nightmare Before Christmas?” You’re adorable

Quite frankly, it would be easier to discuss cross-cultural Christmas misunderstandings than it would be to discuss this piece of literary genius, but, suffice it to say, if you despised The Little Match Girl and feel squeamish about trolls, krampuses, and the whole “dying by exposure” aspects of traditional winter celebrations, this is your Christmas special. Essentially, Hogswatch celebrations are nearly-identical to Christmas celebrations, except instead of presents and sweets, you get pork products (okay, maybe not the most-compatible replacement for Channukah). You might want to wait a few months (or until Jan. 6, depending on which parts of Christmas you believe) until the recently-gutted EPA and FDA have improved pork inspections, but I certainly approve of taking the all the guess-work out of gift-giving (“Bacon or ham” is a much easier choice than meandering on Amazon and knowing Jeff Bezos is financially forcing his employees to work 14-hour shifts). For everyone wondering what hogs have to do with Christmas, that would be the (unverified) myth of S. Claus being theologically descended from a pagan boar god (or something — again, once you start deconstructing one belief or tradition, the rest start looking equally ludicrous). In addition to subsidizing the farm industry and making shopping easier, Hogswatch could, potentially, replace all these weird quasi-mythological figures with a single, centralized fictional character we can all agree upon, regardless of race, class, or creed:

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Happy holidays, folks.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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