Friday, December 24, 2010

Now I Know Why My Son Calls Me Krampus

This past week I was once again rattling my ping-pong ball brain around in my skull, trying to knock loose from my miserly sub-conscience another of his multitude of ultra-creative, neuron-growth-stimulating ideas for my Tuesday evening English class. Last month I decided to broaden my students’ vocabulary as well as their intercultural awareness by showing them photos of my recent trip to California. This worked well for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it gave my students a way to feel they were fully participating in class without having to say anything more than ooh and ahh.


With the Christmas season upon us, and with Japanese society in general not having the slightest clue how to properly celebrate, I wanted to incorporate a Christmas theme into our ninety-minute lesson that usually ends up lasting no more than an hour because someone, like the teacher, is always late. Singing Christmas songs seems an obvious option, but after teaching that Beatles class earlier in the year I knew no one would be able to hang with a tempo any quicker than ‘Silver Bells’ and personally I know my sanity wouldn’t survive the class because they don’t allow spiked eggnog in the building. Last year I asked them to translate a children’s Christmas book; my preparation for this consisted entirely of plowing through all the Santa and Snowman and cartoon ‘Zheesusu’ stories my wife had borrowed from the library and picking out the shortest one. Two hours later my students were bleeding through their foreheads trying to translate the sounds Maisy the mouse, Tallulah the chicken-like thing, Charley the alligator and Eddie the elephant made as they walked through the snow. No disrespect to Lucy Cousins but I will not be trying that again.

This year I am arguably older and wiser, and I thought it would be interesting for my students and quite easy on my ping-pong ball if I put together a list of little-known facts related to Christmas. But when I sat down to a piece of white paper, pen in hand (my printer is broken, has been for two years and isn’t getting better), it occurred to me I know pretty much jack about Christmas beyond church and Charlie Brown (not to downplay the significance of either of these). So I turned on the laptop, made a cup of hot chocolate and folded an entire load of laundry waiting for it (the laptop) to warm up, then googled and scribbled down the most easily-explainable bits of Christmas history and trivia I could find before my son came in to demand I let him use the pc to watch Barney, one of the dozens of DVDs we have from the US that won’t play on our Japanese DVD player.

When I go home for Christmas I hear the same Christmas songs on the radio I heard when I was in high school, maybe even before that. They are fun, and add to the explosion of sensory recall that comes with any trip back to the States. But I can mimic with atomic clock precision Bruce Springsteen’s laughter when Clarence Clemons starts ho-hoing in the latter part of the E Street rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and after a few rounds of the song list I am digging through the closet in my old bedroom for the mix tapes I swear I mailed home from Colorado ten years ago. If you are likewise full of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, take a few minutes to read the following, and perhaps add something new to your Christmas. My students certainly seemed to enjoy it, from all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing.

Disclaimer: I have no idea about the verity of any of this and haven’t the slightest inclination to cross-reference one candy-cane-licking bit of it.

According to a 1995 survey, 7 out of 10 British dogs get Christmas gifts from their owners. The other 3 have to make do with secondhand doggie top hats and turtleneck sweaters from the Salvation Army.

The National Christmas Tree Association says Americans buy 37 million Christmas trees every year. Now this is truly amazing. There’s a National Christmas Tree Association?

In the Ukraine, a spider web found on Christmas is considered good luck. Finding the spider is an entirely different matter.

In Paris, oysters are the most popular Christmas dish. Unless the guys who catch the oysters are on strike, in which case the preferred dish is escargot. Unless the snail distributors are on strike, in which case it’s prawn in a red wine sauce. Unless...

In 1647 the Puritans, in control of England’s parliament, made Christmas illegal. Legality was restored in 1660. This happened to be the year the Puritans realized eggnog tasted the same spiked or not.

In Armenia the traditional Christmas Eve dinner consists of fried fish, lettuce and spinach, which was what Mary is said to have had the night before Jesus was born. Then sometime in late January hundreds of young Armenian girls claim to have no idea how they got pregnant.

On Christmas Eve in Norway all brooms in the house are hidden so that witches and assorted other evil spirits can not steal them for riding and wreaking havoc on Christmas. What the Norwegians fail to realize is that the witches all left for the Ukraine years ago.

‘Silent Night’ was written in 1818 by an Austrian priest whose church organ fell out of order and could not be fixed in time for Christmas. The garbage disposal went out at about the same time but that song never gained much of a following.

In Victorian England Christmas turkeys were given boots to protect their feet from the cold wet ground on the way to market. Geese, on the other hand, were not given boots; their feet were instead coated with tar. (This last bit is not italicized because it is true.)

With such depth of cultural insight is it any wonder I can keep showing up late for class and my students continue to pay me sixty bucks an hour? And here you all are getting it for free, along with these profound tidbits I dug up just today:

In 1846, "The Illustrated London News" carried an illustration of Queen Victoria and her family around a Christmas tree. No one in all of Great Britain knew what the hell that was all about but if a tree in the living room was good enough for the queen it was good enough for the hoi polloi, and the tradition took off. The following year the queen developed a strange accent and a compulsive-obsessive disorder centered on drinking tea in mid-afternoon.

For many years only the tops were cut off trees and used as Christmas trees. They were usually no more than 2-3 ft. tall and usually stood on a table. During the Victorian era this changed as people became fonder of large floor-standing Christmas trees and it became a status symbol to have the largest tree in your neighborhood. Is nothing sacred?

Though it was in style in Poland during the 16th century after the country was invaded by the Prussians, the practice of hanging the Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling was evident in some regions of Germany as far back as the 12th century. It was considered a Christmas chandelier. And all this time we’ve been telling Polish jokes.

The caganer is one of Europe's more unusual holiday characters, often found in nativity scenes in parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy. A caganer is a peasant man in a red stocking cap depicted in the act of defecating. The exact origin of this figure is unknown but has been around since at least the 17th century. The first known caganer had no stocking cap but this was deemed not festive enough.

"Dominick the Donkey" was a holiday song that was first released in 1960 by Lou Monte. It tells the story of a donkey that helps Santa to deliver toys to the children of Italy. It is very loosely based on Italian folklore, but since the release of this song, Dominick has become a very popular holiday figure in Italy. His image can be seen with Santa in the same manner that reindeer are seen with Santa in other parts of the world. Anonymous records indicate Italy’s Santa did in fact have reindeer at one time, until certain businessmen began finding severed reindeer heads next to them in bed on Christmas morning.

Krampus is a scary holiday figure found in Croatia, Hungary, and Slovakia. He travels with St. Nicholas to punish children who were bad, while St. Nicholas leaves gifts for children who were good. He is depicted as a demon-like character with horns. Some traditions have him birching bad children (whipping them with a birch wood rod). Other traditions depict him as having a basket on his back in which he puts bad children before he deposits them in the pits of hell. The perfect little bedtime story for any well-meaning parent.

Le Pere Fouettard, literally "The Whipping Father", is said to accompany Santa on his holiday rounds in France. He brings lumps of coal for the stockings of bad boys and girls. He also is depicted as carrying a stick to sometimes flog bad children. Images of him show an old man with a sinister face, dressed in black clothing, with long stringy hair and a long beard. He is also known as the well-meaning father of Krampus.

The legendary Icelandic demon Gryla, around since the 13th century though she was not actually associated with Christmas until the 17th century, was so fearsome that laws were passed in the 18th century forbidding the use of her name to scare children. So they started threatening the kids with Krampus but the effect was not quite the same.

In Syria, where gifts are expected and exchanged on January 6th, there is the legend of the smallest camel. The story derives from the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem by camel to see the Christ child. The smallest camel, exhausted from carrying such a heavy load, survived the journey simply because he so wanted to see the baby. Because he never gave up, and tried so very hard, he was granted immortality and still carries the holiday gifts to this day. Tired of getting tiny boxes of myrrh every Christmas, kids in Syria are clamoring for the legend of the biggest camel.

Speaking of the wise men...Christian tradition says there were three magi, probably because of the three gifts that were given (gold, frankincense and tiny boxes of myrrh). However, the Bible itself does not disclose the number of magi who visited Christ. But there was no other place to slip in the names of the egomaniacal sponsors of the story, Melchior, Kaspar, and Baltazar.

And these wise men did not visit Jesus while he was in the manger. They did not, in fact, visit Christ until he was a "young child" and came to him in a house. (See Matthew 2:11.) Jesus, not yet aware he could turn five fish (or gold coins) into five thousand, traded all his presents for Silly Bandz.

Matthew alone includes the story of the magi, as told in chapter two of his Gospel. Mark, Luke and John weren’t about to sell out to anyone named Melchior.

Now let’s turn to Santa, who has to deliver presents on Christmas Eve to believers all around the world. Since he has to go city to city and across oceans one can assume that there is an average 3/4 mile distance between homes. According to NPR's 2007 analysis of this scenario some university professor (tenured no doubt) sat down and determined that to make the rounds Santa would have to go at a speed that would vaporize his reindeer. Sweet dreams little ones!

The U.S. Postal Service, slightly slower than Santa, delivers upwards of one million packages every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And every day many more are apparently vaporized.

In the US in 2004 there were 149,831 clothing and clothing accessories stores, 9,360 department stores, 10,345 hobby, toy and game shops, 33,956 gift, novelty and souvenir shops, 22,902 sporting goods stores, 28,772 jewelry stores and 11,218 book stores across the nation. Fortunately there are enough surly teenagers in the US to staff all of them.

Christmas tree farmers in the US made $485 million from tree sales in 2005. Taking the average price of a tree that’s got to be like, a million trees.

In the Middle Ages, boar's head used to be a traditional Christmas dish. This custom started when a boar attacked a university student and he saved himself by ramming a book of Aristotle's writings down its throat. The boar choked to death and then the young man cut off its head and brought it back to his college. This of course was the only way his professor would believe that a boar ate his homework.

And a few final loose ends:

Spoiled leftovers are responsible for 400,000 cases of post-Christmas illnesses.

According to nameless surveys, 17% of you will embarrass yourselves at your holiday party.

A Mongolian wild ass can run faster than a reindeer.

St. Nicholas of Myra, the original St. Nick, was the patron saint of children, thieves and pawnbrokers. Sounds about right.

"I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white man would be coming into my neighborhood after dark."  -- Dick Gregory

"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall."  -- Larry Wilde.

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful." --  Norman Vincent Peale

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.