Wednesday, December 05, 2001

Santa Claus

When you think of it, Santa Claus is a rather unlikely figure. Living at the North Pole, flying around on Christmas Eve, going down chimneys to deliver presents to good little girls and boys.

Everybody knows that the presents are actually from Mom and Dad. Everybody keeps up the pretense, and when the "deception" gets revealed, it can be a bit traumatic for the kids.

Why does this myth persist? Why do kids believe in Santa Claus in the face of vast evidence? Why do parents keep it up? It seems odd that marketing alone could explain what's going on.

A Trip to Arizona

The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest have a colorful religion called the Kachina Cult. The best known of the pueblo tribes following the kachina cult are the Hopi, of northern Arizona. Good information on the kachina cults is hard to come by; most info I've found on the Web seems to be either from art galleries selling "kachina dolls" or first year anthropology students with no real clues. Beware -- studies of "primitive" religions almost always slide into the quagmire of "mine's better than yours" or "lookit the funny people".

Anyway, everything, in this religion, has a spirit, called a kachina. They're not Gods to be worshipped, but rather spirits that may be helpful if treated right. You can't communicate directly with a kachina; you have to communicate with something else that has somehow gotten a part of the kachina's spirit. One way to do this is through dance. Dancers put on masks representing particular kachinas. The dances represent interactions between spirits and humans and hopefully will influence the real kachinas to to what the dancers want.

All very photogenic. The dances are complex, the costumes are spectacular, and everybody gets a lot of nice pictures. At least in the public version ....


Think of what this looks like to children. Their village is being visited by these spirits, who will determine how well everything in the village does for the next year. The spirits are great and mysterious, with awesome powers. Not like anybody we know, surely.

Now think of a boy being introduced to the cult (it's men-only). For the first time, he is allowed "backstage", and sees that all of the "spirits" are "really" the men that he sees every day. Now, he is expected to help maintain the illusion for the women and children.

Santa Claus is the Kachina of Christmas

Everybody does it for the kids. When a kid gets old enough to stop believing, he or she is old enough to help in maintaining the illusion for the younger kids. As to why the illusion doesn't really bother anybody (and kids aren't bothered by a zillion different shopping mall and advertising Santas), well, it's a kachina dancer. None of the Santas that you see is the "real" Santa, but each has (hopefully!) some small fragment of the spirit of the "real" Santa. And it will only be there if everybody works at maintaining the illusion.

The Hopi are definitely onto something here.

Note -- This isn't my idea. I don't remember where I first saw it, and I can't find anything on the Web. Anyway, for whoever came up with it, thanks for a really good idea.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

The Emerald City

About half an exit up the Beltway from where I live is the Maryland Mormon Temple. (Note -- this picture doesn't do it justice. Anybody knows of a URL for a better picture, please drop me a note.) I heard someplace that it's the biggest temple in the world outside of Salt Lake City. Personally, I think it looks like a fantasy castle drawn by Kelly Freas. Others have different ideas; for a long time, "The Washington, DC Area's Favorite Graffito" was on the railroad bridge over the Beltway right next to the temple; some wag (or wags) painted "Surrender Dorothy" on the bridge. The Powers that Be would paint over it; a few weeks later it would be back. It hasn't been back in a while; I suspect the PtB put the word out that It's Not Funny Any More. They obviously were worried about somebody either falling off onto the Beltway or getting hit by a train. However, last time, the PtB painted it out with nice fresh silver paint that's almost as readable as the graffito version.

At some point, some Mormon with a sense of humor (no, that's not an oxymoron) started slipping green theater gels over the floodlights. First time I saw it, I nearly drove right off the Beltway.

Yeah, we get doorknockers. Impression I've gotten is that they may be getting out of the habit. Reason for doorknocking is to reinforce their status as Outsiders -- if folks know that you're going to preach at them, in general, they won't be very nice to you. This lets the Church say "See? Everybody hates us. We have to stick together". We've come a long way since the 1840s, when it was legal in Missouri to kill Mormons. Nowadays, if most people think about Mormons at all, they assume they're just another bunch of Protestants. To non-Mormon Christian theologians, of course, Mormons are the worst sort of heretics. Their problem; nobody else cares.

Aside -- my wife actually found a new way of getting rid of the doorknockers, (without mentioning their underwear, which isn't really very nice). Let's just say that they were ready for anything except literary criticism.

Anyway, every year they have a Festival of Lights. I've never been; I'm not enthused with the thought of a recreational traffic jam. The pictures are nice, however. Problem is that this Temple was not designed with road access in mind. It's not normally a problem; we are not inundated with huge swarms of Mormons. But at Christmas, they have the lights. Think mile-long jams. Tour busses.

One year, I encountered a tour bus that tried to take a "short cut". Think large cork, small bottle. The driver should have tried to back out; it was only a quarter mile or so. He didn't. Got stuck rather thoroughly. This year, the bridge in that direction is out. I dunno if this is good or bad.

A Descent into Hell

Christmas time is here, by golly!
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don't say "when"!

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again!

-- Tom Lehrer

Everyone has their own vision of Hell. Mine is a shopping mall the week before Christmas. I have to by gifts for a whole bunch of people whom I barely know. Family members I don't see often, business collogues, friends met briefly at social events. Each gift must be a unique expression of that person's individuality, while staying within the bounds of their taste and my budget. Everybody else at this mall has a different idea. Their purpose is to run around like human bumper cars, using baby strollers as weapons. Parents are yelling at kids, kids are crying, salespeople are either twitching maniacs or sullen zombies (defense mechanisms, I'm sure.) Over this, the sound system is stuck repeating a syrupy mixture of Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

What's that, you say? This sounds like a normal mall? Not my own private visit with Satan Himself (Satan is wearing red long johns with white fake fur trim and is surrounded by hundreds of whiny, sticky children)?

A time of peace, generosity, and brotherhood? Bag that. Save it for the Christmas sermon, on the one day each year that most "churchgoers" actually make it inside a church. More like rudeness and greed, with a side order of aggression.

The surest sign of Christmas is not the mall decorations. Those go up before Halloween. No, it's the sudden, drastic increase of road pushiness. Last year about this time, I got a crease in the fender of my brand new car from somebody in a Ford Godzilla SUV who just had to cut in front of me in a construction zone. Hurt him worse than it did me -- I think he hit the Jersey barrier. A couple of days ago on a normally quiet run up to the local Home Depot I saw two people pull out into traffic from sidestreets without warning, or a hole in traffic. Fortunately, I was not one of the ones who had to take severe evasive action to avoid running into them. Must be Christmas.

I have a big advantage in Christmas shopping. I don't mind walking. Most places really do have enough parking if you're willing to walk a bit. The Christmas road mania extends to parking lots, with cars following shoppers on the way back to their cars, ready to lunge. For a Good Time, walk down a row of cars, and then cut between cars over to the next row. If you want to see a real example of Parking Lot Rage, just put your packages into the car trunk and go back to the mall. In both cases, the people following you feel that you have cheated them out of their birthright of a Parking Place and are furious about it; in the first case, you're out of the way and they don't know where your car is.

Selecting gifts? After five minutes in the mall, everything I see looks like trash and I can barely remember the names on the shopping list, let alone their personalities. I want to take an ax and start chopping up tacky decorations, yelling parents, screaming children, and anybody else within reach. Including myself (Note to self: Don't take ax to mall.)

I don't do well with shopping, anyway. I have trouble buying things for myself; I'm totally clueless as to what other people need/like/want/won't throw up at the sight of.

Oh, well, the lights are nice.

Somebody wake me up the first week in January.

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