Skyping Santa, Pooping Logs, Blackface Elves: The Holidays Are Awful

I live in a country where parents take their kids to a shopping mall, a very large indoor structure containing generally corporately-owned stores and restaurants, and wait in long lines for the privledge of placing their children on the laps of strangers. They still do this in the year 2011. I checked it out in a recent ill-fated trip to a Baltimore-area mega-mall that left me gasping through a panic attack next to the fish tank at the Bass Pro Shop, a store large enough to have its own supplementary Santa Claus, perhaps one more uniquely suited to the wants of hunter-gatherer children.

But thanks in part to a recent piece on msnbc.com I learned that technology is killing mall Santa.

Parents can now have Santa Claus Skype at their future overconsuming brood for the low price of $14.99 (though ranging significanly higher). Cheaper parents can download a rather sad-sounding iPhone app called “Santa’s Video Chat” where you can prerecord a message and have it talk out of Santa’s mouth and I guess it seems like Santa is calling you? Like, you set a delay and it calls your phone after 20 seconds or so. An intrepid Wall Street Journal reporter tried all this out on her kids.

At Skypemesanta.com, we paid $29.95 and received a link to a questionnaire for parents, asking about the child’s Christmas list and other pertinent details. There was even a space to write what we wanted Santa to discuss, and a note saying Santa wouldn’t scold or discuss topics that would make the child feel bad or sad. . . . this guy was over-the-top jolly, joking and giving a hearty belly laugh after almost every comment. The girls ate it up.

I for the life of me can’t think of a distinct cultural value for the Santa Claus tradition. It all seems pretty well rooted in buying stuff and not bumming your kids out by violating the Santa status quo. Look outside of America, however, and traditions get more interesting – for better or worse – and a bit less future-oriented.

(Photo: Sarah Melikian)

Let’s start with the “worse.” The Dutch have a pretty racist traditional lore around their Santa, or Sinterklaas. Instead of elves, Santa has “six to eight black men” all named Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Yes, black men, six to eight of them. The derivation is not a happy one – Zwarte Piet is the Medieval name for a devil, which later became St. Nicholas’s slave – but today many children are taught that these elves are simply black-faced due to their time spent crawling up and down chimneys. To celebrate the tradition, Dutch people, some of them anyhow, get all dressed up in black face for St. Nicholas’s parade on December 5, and have a merry ol’ time. David Sedaris, in his piece on the topic, explains, or tries to:

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

I think you’ll agree that’s amazing, and the Netherlands isn’t its own planet of course, so there’s a blacklash and there seems to be a good amount of awareness now about this all being fairly fucked up. But they still do it. Maybe just maybe the internet and technology can change this tradition. Like this: HEY, if you’re in the Netherlands right now, stop doing this. Pass it on. OK thanks.

This one is the best worst one. Meet Tió de Nadal, aka Caga Tió, a tradition of Spain’s Catalonian people. Caga Tió is a log and will never be replaced by technology. . . because it’s a log. On Christmas day, a family puts the Caga Tió about halfway inside a fireplace and beats it with sticks. Eventually the log takes a crap (Caga Tió translates to “shitting log”) and it turns out logs shit nuts and candy and cottage cheese. (Like, a parent reaches behind the log and brings out nuts and candy and cottage cheese; the log doesn’t actually shit, you know). So there you have it. Enjoy Caga Tió’s Facebook page.

Caga Tió even has an album:

The album’s crap. (Photo: Ivy B)

A related Catalonia tradition—the Catalonians are apparantly a hilarious people—is the Caganer. You can maybe guess by the translation of Caga Tió that Caganer translates to “shitter” and you’d be right. The Caganer is a figure often found in nativity scenes from the region that is taking a dump right there in the nativity scene.

In Japan, the big thing is KFC, the chicken-like product that we in America perhaps take too much for granted. From the Financial Times:

Through one of the most successful advertising campaigns, which started in 1974, KFC Japan has made eating its chicken meals at Christmas a national custom. This happens on December 23, 24 and 25, but particularly Christmas eve. Sales for the three days are equal to half normal monthly sales, the company says.

Japan is well known for taking foreign products and ideas and adapting them to suit domestic taste, and Christmas is no exception. A highly commercialised and non-religious affair, lots of money is spent annually on decorations, dinners and gifts. KFC is arguably the biggest contributor, thanks in part to its advertising campaign.

I like the idea of highly commericialized non-religious better than highly commericialized yes-religious a little better, at least.

Turns out there’s another fucked up Dutch holiday. People on the small Dutch island of Ameland celebrate something called Sunneklaas. Motherboard’s big sister Vice reports:

This is what we found out about Sunneklaas: Officially the ritual begins at 5 PM. All the lights on the island are turned off, leaving nothing but darkness. Whoever lets his light shine outside his house gets his window broken or painted. Next, men who are wrapped in sheets and armed with sticks go out for banevegen, or “sweeping the streets.” In pitch black these white shadows roam the streets, blow their horns like crazy, beating all the women and children back home.

To check and make sure there is no woman or kid imposter under one of these sheets, they do something called fûskje, where they firmly grip one another’s hands as a test. A feminine or childlike grip will get you punished and chased home with sticks. A girl from Ameland who didn’t want to tell us too much for our huge expose an Sunneklaas told us she knew there was once a woman who pretended she was a man. “That was in Hollum, the town where the most traditional party takes place,” she said. “That woman got her ass kicked hard! All kinds of bruises.”

About two hours later, the real party starts. Men put their masks on and disguise themselves and visit all the women, who have meanwhile grouped themselves in “open houses.” The men continue to check on one another with a fûskje.

If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because it’s kept very secret — like suicide cult-secret.

In Philadelphia, a group of people are trying to get some traction for an anti-Christmas holiday called Krampuslauf, traditional to Austria and Switzerland. Instead of Santa Claus, Krampuslauf has Krampus. Krampus is a hooved devil-like character that steals bad children. Instead of mall-Santa b.o., you get the stench of rotting meat. Gwar Christmas. It’s not even pretending to care about family, thankfulness, or generosity. It’s just awful.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

Topics: holidays, christmas, netherlands, dutch

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