Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Peace

This is Boxing Day in Finland, or rather Tapaninpäivä (“St. Stephen’s Day”). It’s not a holiday celebrated back in the Baptist heartland I grew up in. Well, it’s not exactly “celebrated” here either, but it is a day when most stores are closed and most people are off work. It’s a peaceful pause after the all the hectic activity leading up to Christmas. For me, it’s also a welcome sign that, now that Christmas is over, the long and grueling War on Christmas in America is over too, for another year.  

Americans do have a tendency now and then to declare war on things other than countries: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror (the only such “war” so far in which bombs have been dropped on anyone, though mostly on people who are not actual terrorists). Luckily, the War on Christmas has resulted in no fatalities as far as I know. I did hear that this year a Salvation Army bell ringer was punched by a passing woman who was pissed when she was greeted with a “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas”. No doubt, Jesus would have done the same.

In Finland, there is no War on Christmas. Here, the holiday hasn’t become an ever-growing source of grievance and bitching for a “persecuted” Christian majority, mainly because – I would say – no one, for the purpose of scoring political points (or in the case of renown author Sarah Palin, also for turning a buck), is constantly telling American Christians how very, very persecuted they are. 

To be clear, the "War on Christmas" is how certain religious folks in the US describe the secularization of the holiday, as if this is something new. In my mind, it easily becomes an excuse to rally and rile up the faithful. And, boy, is it tedious

Here are some highlights of Christmas warmongering that the less belligerent Finns miss out on:

The Christmas Greetings War. "Defenders” of Christmas in America often complain that the recent corrupting trend of people using “neutral” holiday greetings, rather than the only truly acceptable expression of “Merry Christmas”, is due to misguided political correctness. Interestingly, I have a X-mas card my parents used around 1958 with the inscription “Season’s Greetings”. No mention of Christ. Could it be that way back then my parents, outwardly good, church-going folks, were actually part of a fifth column in the War on Christmas? Or, could it be that the outrage over saying “Happy Holidays” is just a recently manufactured controversy? Hint:  it’s the latter.

In Finnish, the word for “Christmas” is joulu, which is related to the ancient pagan festival of Yule. The name itself has no explicit reference to Christ, so taking “Christ” out of the greeting of “Hauskaa Joulua” isn’t an issue. He wasn’t exactly there in the first place.

The Christmas Race War. This year, one of the war’s most intense skirmishes was over the complexion of someone who doesn’t exist. Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, became a bit excited over the question of whether Santa Claus can ever be represented as any other race than Caucasian. To settle the issue, she declared, “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” then adding for good measure, “Jesus was a white man, too.”

The Internet ignited, almost like a super nova appearing in the east.

If you think this kind of thing wouldn’t be worthy of any grown-up discussion, you certainly haven’t been paying attention to US politics over the last few years.

Now, I admit that St. Nick has always been depicted as white. You would expect this for an imaginary creature arising in Europe, famous as it is as the origin of such pasty-white mythical figures as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Smurfette. Okay, I guess even in European folklore there’s some wiggle room when it comes to skin color.

But, I don’t see why anyone should be too worked on either side of this issue. In a modern, multiracial country like America, would it be so unsettling for a kid to see an Asian Santa, a Hispanic Santa or even a Black Santa? On the other hand, after all of the millions of dollars that have been invested in plastering the world with images of a rosy-cheeked white Santa, don’t we owe it to a certain Georgia-based soft-drink company to resist any other possible visions of Santa dancing in our heads. We owe them. They’ve paid so much for that slice of our minds. They've paid so much.

Of course, this obsession with Santa is also good business for Finland, the one and only home of Joulupukki (“The Yule Goat”) and the site of a successful tourist destination, the Santa Claus Village, in Lapland.

Although Finland has adopted the Americanized version of Santa, white beard, red suit and all, the original Finnish Santa was a goat. Literally. No one here seems too worried about whether or not he was a white goat. I’m guessing he was gray, maybe with dark highlights.

Anyway, the fixation of Fox News and some folks on the right over the ethnicity of a non-religious character who nowadays is mostly just an ad-agency creation (not that there’s anything wrong with that) seems strange in light of how little it has anything to do with Jesus’ birthday. Which is nothing.

I’ve understood that in some European countries, such as Spain, Santa is often seen as an unwanted “Americanization” of Christmas. There, the celebration centers more around the January 5th visit of the Three Kings (known as the Three Wise Men in the US), who are the ones who leave presents for children. It ain't Santa.

The Three Kings also play a bigger role in Finland than in the American version of Christmas. In many schools, and even some company Christmas parties, a trio of boys (or men) dressed as wise men from the Orient and wielding cardboard swords perform a small song recounting the story of the Nativity. One of these Tiernapojat (or “Star Boys”) is always done up in blackface, apparently based on the tradition that one of the wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus was African.

So far, there has been no controversy here over whether or not this is politically correct. But then again, Finns are not an especially contentious people, even at Christmastime.

Joulupukki as he appeared in our house this year,
helping himself to some gingerbread. 

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