Out of the Past
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A Right Jolly Old Elf
by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved.

"He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself"
    -- C. Clement Moore

This Santa Claus is certainly a magical fellow. He flies through the sky, is rarely seen outside of shopping malls, possesses an uncanny intelligence about who has been naughty or nice, and has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of toys.

Some say he is descended -- or evolved -- from Kris Kringle, a legendary figure from Norse folk tales. Or perhaps he's related to Odin, the Lord of the Winds who rode through the stormy nights on an eight-legged flying horse.
   
In her collection of holiday lore, "Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth," author Dorothy Morrison traces the lineage of Santa Claus and other holiday season traditions back to some of mankind's earliest civilizations. Despite differences in language, culture and religion, most peoples celebrate some form of winter holiday.




"Each celebration is a little different, but the main ideas are the same," she points out. "These holidays provide us with a time for reflection, resolution, and renewal. A time for gift-giving, goodwill, and kindness."

Santa Claus, and his generous cousins in other lands, is the perfect expression of that spirit of joy and sharing. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat with his servant, Black Peter, and in Syria the gifts for children are delivered by an immortal camel.

"Santa's sleigh is more than likely a holdover from the Norse myth of Freya," Morrison explains. "Legend has it that every year she spent the twelve days immediately following the Solstice giving gifts to the nice and doling out misery to the naughty. Her mode of transportation? Why, a chariot drawn by stags, of course!"

Like layers of paint on a canvas, the ideas and fantasies of the past both color and give texture to the realities and pretenses of the present. And nowhere is this more evident than in our homes and shops and neighborhoods during the winter holidays:
Three Gods: Frigga,Thor and Odin
Freya statue

* Candles, embraced by Christians as a symbol of Christ, were also important fixtures of the winter festivals of ancient Rome.

* Candy canes, invented by an American confectioner, represent Jesus with their "J" form and blood-red stripe.

* Lights have decorated homes and trees for centuries, urging the sun to shine through winter's darkness, but it was an American inventor who hung up the first string of electric holiday lighting in 1895.

* Mistletoe was used in winter celebrations by ancient Greeks and Celts, but kissing beneath a sprig of the plant began as a way to receive the blessings of the Norse goddess Frigg.

* Poinsettia, known for centuries as the Flower of the Holy Night, is the product of a Mexican myth about a young boy who wanted to give the Christ child a special gift.

Santa Claus moved to the North Pole sometime after he started making visits to American homes. And now, from the darkest, coldest place on earth comes the kindest, jolliest man in the world to spread joy and gifts and warmth.

"But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
- Clement Moore


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