Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bumbles Bounce


The classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer featured not only Santa but an initially fearsome but eventually loveable abominable snowman. According to at least one aficionado of mythical creatures, Jeffery Vallance of LA Weekly, those two characters might have originally been one:
When I first arrived in the Land of Hoarfrost, I was puzzled by the enigmatic heraldic symbol of Lapland, the wildman — a hairy, reddish, bestial character dressed in leaves, wielding a gnarled club. To me he looked like a typical prehistoric caveman or the Jolly Green Giant. I collected vague reports of an actual Swedish wildman (Snömannen), a yeti-like creature believed to inhabit the remote areas of the forest. One day when wandering through the wilds of Lapland, I beheld an astonishing thing: a colossal statue of the wildman painted bright red with a snowy white beard. From a distance it looked like Santa Claus. As I stood at the base, staring up at the Herculean statue, it hit me like a hunk of red-hot ejecta from Mount Hekla: Santa Claus, the wildman and Snömannen must spring from the same ancient source. I determined to find the connections between these enigmatic characters.

. . . .

Christmas is a festive holiday in Sàpmi, the Saami homeland. The Saami await a Yuletide visit from a giant, horned and hairy wildman named Stallo. In Lappish, stallo means "metal man." Sometimes Stallo is dressed in stylish, all-black clothes like an MIB (man in black) or in a metallic suit (as conspiracy theorists conjecture, a robot or ancient astronaut in a space suit). Most likely the metal suit was the chain-mail armor of the berserker Vikings. The amoral Stallo delights in macabre acts of genital mutilation of his innocent victims. (Stallo pokes his staff up the skirts of young girls.) On Christmas Eve, Stallo rides around in his sleigh looking for something to drink. Traditionally, the Saami drive a stake into the ground near a fresh-water supply so Stallo can tie up his sled while having a refreshing gulp of water. If Stallo cannot find anything to drink, he will bash in a child's skull, sucking out the brains and blood to satiate his thirst. The most dangerous night for Lapp children is Christmas Eve, when Stallo lurks about looking for naughty victims to cram into his sack.

Link (via Cryptomundo). If you could figure out how this all ties in with the Sedaris-Holland Sinterklaas legend, you'd have one heck of a master's thesis:

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't use to do anything. He's not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate's all wrong, and people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn't have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he'd most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn't speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he's not fluent, and he certainly doesn't eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.

"Is it just him alone?" I asked. "Or does he come with backup?"

Oscar's English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.

"Helpers," I said. "Does he have any elves?"

Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but I couldn't help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. "Elves," he said. "They're just so silly."

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as "six to eight black men." I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always "six to eight," which seems strange, seeing as they've had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

Link ("Six to Eight Black Men" from Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim by David Sedaris, 2002).

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Image credits: Sinterklass with Funny Pope Hat Accompanied by Black Man, available at Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, borrowed for news-reporting and comment purposes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I actually had the opportunity earlier this month to ask a friend from Holland about their Sinterklaas traditions. She clarified that the black men traveling with Sinterklaas are not supposed to be of African origin. Their faces are black because of chimney soot--I can't remember exactly why they have soot on their faces though. Maybe they go down people's chimneys to deliver presents, and so their faces have gotten perpetually dirty?

Also, she mentioned that when Sinterklaas disembarks, he (and presumably his helpers) throw out tasty candies for the children.

There is even a website that tracks Sinterklaas's progress as he travels through the country. She tried to show it to me, but, until Sinterklaas is actually in the country (which I think he is now), it just displays a message saying when he'll arrive. Very silly. I think the official website might be this one:

My friend from Holland has gone back home, just in time to see Sinterklaas. She was very excited.

~Mrs. G. R.

3:45 PM  

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