’Tis the season. But like all things good and jolly, Christmas has its share of secrets lurking beneath the tinsel. In the first of a two-part article, I’m looking at some festive urban legends and conspiracy theories…
1. Santa Claus is actually Satan
Claim – Santa is actually Satan in disguise. The big giveaways are: Santa dresses in Satan’s favourite colour. He has supernatural powers. He flies around the world on the night before Jesus’ birthday. And most obviously, the letters in his name can be rearranged to spell ‘Satan’.
Truth? – Numerous websites out there are trying to persuade people that Santa is in fact Satan trying to distract people from the true message of Christmas, which is the birth of Jesus. One article, a ‘Special True Christian Report’, is reprinted on multiple sites, including The Conspiracy Zone, which got a few (dis)honourable mentions in my Disney Conspiracy article. The following quote is taken from that article:
“He just moved around the letters in the name ‘Satan’ into a sonogram and got ‘Santa’. Even his last name ‘Claus’ is Olde English for ‘hoof-claws’.”
Yes, he moved around the letters in ‘Satan’ into a sonogram. I’m sure this writer will cry tears of joy when he sees the anagram of his unborn child. But while I must admit I find it very entertaining reading these fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theories, this one simply isn’t true. I don’t just mean that Satan himself is mythical nonsense (that’s a whole other debate). I mean that the name ‘Santa Claus’ has nothing to do with Satan. It derives from Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. ‘Sinterklaas’ basically Chinese whispered its way into American English as Santa Claus. And I think the writer plucked ‘hoof-claws’ straight out of his bum.
2. Santa Claus used to be a child-eating monster, but he changed his ways
Claim – Santa wasn’t always the kind and generous figure we know today. In fact, he used to be a monster/demon who would slither down chimneys and kill and eat children, or stuff them into a sack to eat later. He only changed his ways when a holy man caught up to him and forced him to make amends by visiting each house and delivering gifts to the children instead. The holy man made the demon do this every year. In time, the demon recruited elves to help him carry out his annual gift-giving and he became Santa Claus.
Truth? – Apparently this story originates in Germanic folklore. It actually served as the inspiration for one of my children’s books, The East Pudding Chronicles: The Christmas Monster (there’s more information about this on my Books page). While I can’t substantiate it, there are other similarly gory stories. The legend of the Tomtin, for example. Little dwarf-like creatures who wore red and, accompanied by their leader, would sneak into houses, drag children from their beds and ask questions about their religions. If the children answered correctly, the Tomtin would reward them with an apple or sweet. If the Tomtin weren’t happy with their answers, they would beat them with sticks, chains and coals and drink the blood from their wounds. Over time, the image of the Tomtin and their leader softened, and they became Santa and his elves!
And in a tradition that persists in Alpine countries today, a beast-like creature called the Krampus is celebrated. In folklore, the Krampus is Saint Nicholas’ companion, whose job is to kidnap naughty children and take them to his lair, while Saint Nicholas rewards the good children with presents.
3. X Factor is trying to rid the world of Christmas songs
Claim – Simon Cowell and his X Factor troupe have a vendetta against Christmas songs. That’s why they’ve been seizing the Christmas Number One spot since 2005, with winners’ singles that are less ‘mince pies with a glass of sherry’ than ‘mature cheddar with a side helping of vomit’.
Truth? – You’d be forgiven for believing that there is an X Factor conspiracy against Christmas songs after having to endure the trite, empty and distinctly un-festive pop ballads they put out every year. They’re nearly always bland covers of much better songs, and nothing to do with Christmas. Shayne Ward’s That’s My Goal, Leona Lewis’ A Moment Like This, Leon Jackson’s When You Believe, Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah, Matt Cardle’s When We Collide and Sam Bailey’s Skyscraper have all stolen the Christmas Number One spot in the UK Charts. People buy them because they’ve just won the X Factor, not because they care about music.
I suspect, however, that the reasons for this are less about a vendetta against Christmas songs (it was apparently Simon Cowell’s suggestion that Leona Lewis make her Christmas album), and more about Simon’s desires to take over the world with mediocre pop.
4. There is a war on Christmas
Claim – Atheists and non-Christians, and corporations and governments trying to appease atheists and non-Christians, are conspiring to take the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas, to secularise what is really a Christian celebration. All in the name of political correctness.
Truth? – To some extent, this seems to be true, though more in the US than the UK. In US TV series and movies, I’ve heard characters refer to ‘the holidays’ rather than Christmas. In several US cities, Christmas trees have been renamed ‘holiday trees’, which has prompted backlash. At one stage, retailers Wal-Mart and Best Buy Corporation avoided the word ‘Christmas’ in their advertising, sparking an outcry. Best Buy’s justification was that several holidays take place during November and December (including the Jewish holiday Hanukkah) and they wanted to be respectful to all of them.
Not all of the war on Christmas allegations hold water. In the UK, people accused Birmingham City Council of trying to oust Christmas by calling their seasonal festivities ‘Winterval’. But the council’s response was that plenty of Christmas-related words and symbols were used in the advertising, including banners saying ‘Merry Christmas’. And those arguing that people who write ‘Xmas’ instead of Christmas are part of the anti-Christmas brigade are misinformed; ‘X’ is actually an historic abbreviation of ‘Christ’.
I’m an atheist. But I’m anti-political correctness too, particularly when it’s unnecessary and because of oversensitivity. I’m not offended by Christmas because it has ‘Christ’ in it. That’s what I’ve always known it to be. To me, Christmas is already secular – without requiring a name change. Christmas is about putting up decorations, singing Christmas songs, being with your family, giving gifts, eating turkey, pulling crackers, watching Doctor Who and, if you’re lucky, getting a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve.
5. Mince pies used to contain human flesh
Claim – The mince pie was invented by a group of cannibals in the 16th century, who decided to make little Christmas pies with fruit, spices and minced meat – diced pieces of flesh from their human victims. Mince pies today no longer contain meat in order to distance this staple Christmas tradition from its bloody origins.
Truth? – All right, I confess. I made that one up. But the mincemeat in mince pies did used to contain meat; that part is true. Normally beef or mutton. It was only in the 20th century that mincemeat – despite keeping its name – started to become the meatless fruit and spice mixture we know today.
I will now get back to watching Sweeney Todd.
Next week: Five more Christmas conspiracies and urban legends