Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sinterklaas explained

by David Sedaris:
In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while
in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in
celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until
I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the
details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

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

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.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves
until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it
was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good
friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes
between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by
cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and
mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather
than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves
decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a
child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men
would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of
a tree."

"A switch?"

"Yes," he said. "That's it. They'd kick him and beat him with a
switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in
a sack and take him back to Spain."

"Saint Nicholas would kick you?"

"Well, not anymore," Oscar said. "Now he just pretends to kick

"And the six to eight black men?"

"Them, too."

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it's
almost more perverse than the original punishment. "I'm going to
hurt you, but not really." How many times have we fallen for that
line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements
of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old-
fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to
kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of
course, you've got the six to eight former slaves who could
potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest
difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of
our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if
you told the average white American that six to eight nameless
black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the
night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever
he could get his hands on.

"Six to eight, did you say?"

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave
their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they
planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint
Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs
with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping,
it's not much different from hanging your stockings from the
mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch
children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator,
furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black
men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At
this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door,
or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical
wires. Oscar wasn't too clear about the particulars, but, really,
who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He's
supposed to use the chimney, but if you don't have one, he still
manages to come through. It's best not to think about it too hard.

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our
Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his
wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year
traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If
you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything
you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed,
where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch
parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his
children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things
together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will
be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some
candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you
to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know
for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to
hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat
it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs
and prostitution-so what's not to love about being Dutch?

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was
a polite and interesting guy-very good company-but when he offered
to wait until my train arrived, I begged off, saying I had some
calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast terminal, surrounded by
other polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn't help
but feel second-rate. Yes, it was a small country, but it had six
to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly
competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter, and was edging
toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off
into the Michigan forest. He might bag a deer, or he might happily
shoot his sighted companion in the stomach. He may find his way
back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before
stumbling through your front door. We don't know for sure, but in
pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of
narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The History of Christmas by Tim Minchin

The History of Christmas by Tim Minchin

Christmas to me means writing a column about Christmas. The only time I ever get asked to write columns is at this time of year. An editor of a music magazine somewhere says, Who are we going to get to write a column about Christmas? We need someone moderately well-known, musical and preferably comic. And some spotty intern says, How about moderately-well-known musical comedian Tim Minchin? And the editor says… well the editor says, Yes.

I do understand my task here. I understand that I am expected to produce some amusing whimsy about turkey with in-laws and drunken blowjobs at office parties and why no one ever gives Myrrh and more. What ever happened to Myrrh?, I might write, and you might think, Good point, C-grade celebrity Tim Minchin, good point. What did ever happen to Myrrh? And that would be nice. Because we would have achieved empathy.

But instead I am going to write a short History of Christmas. Note: everything I write is true.


Christmas was originally a Roman pagan festival of lawlessness called Saturnalia. For a week, no one could get arrested for wrecking shit or going nuts. There was lots of singing in the nude (a practice recommended by Tim), plenty of shagging (also recommended by Tim), some rape (not recommended by Tim, but you can watch heaps of it on CSI SVU – I heart modern morality), and some eating of human-shaped biscuits (Tim impartial). It was fun for everyone. Well… nearly everyone. See, at the beginning of the week they’d find a dude who they didn’t like (could be a chick, whatever, lay off) and they’d feed him loads of food and make him shag and party and stuff and then at the end of Saturnalia they’d kill him. Totally kill him dead. Kill the living fuck out of him. Ostensibly in order to ward off evil forces and enemies of Rome.

Saturnalia was – understandably – pretty popular. Completely amoral behaviour (not immoral – who am I to judge?) and a wee bit of human sacrifice. If they’d had cameras, it would have made perfect reality TV. (But they didn’t have cameras, not for many many years yet. In fact not until Joseph Nicéphore Niépce squeezed out his first image over an 8 hour period in 1827. Eight hours! Bet he didn’t delete that fucker, even if it made him look fat or whatever.) So when the homies who were running the increasingly pop cult of Christianity wanted to get more members, they decided they’d just tell everyone that Jesus (or whatever his name was) was born on the final day of the festival, which was… wait for it… December 25th. (Actually, the most likely date of the big J’s b’day is thought to be September 11th. How fucking weird is that? Someone make a documentary.) In this way, the Christian leaders back then were very similar to the leaders of the Pentecostal churches of today: to increase membership, you just change the frickin rules dude. Reinterpret the story. Like reinterpreting the Lord of the Rings to make it about lanky people with hairless feet on a journey to get rid of a necklace. Don’t fucking start me.

So Jesus was introduced and the hitherto pagan Romans just shrugged their shoulders and went with it. They didn’t really care about the justification for getting nude and singing and rooting and eating person-biscuits, as long as they still got the week off. Of course, even back then the Christian church was pretty into their moral directives and all, and they weren’t really sure how the traditions of Saturnalia fitted in with said directives, but they really wanted to get their numbers up, so they just started calling it Christmas and let the Romie Homie’s get on with the raping and the eating of the gingerbread men (or women, whatever, lay off).

To reiterate: the church put Jesus’s name to a festival of sexual abuse and human sacrifice in order to increase income. Oh, and here’s a cool thing: you know how Jews are always banging on about how their people have been so mistreated through the ages? Blah blah blah. Well in 1460ish, Pope Paul the Twoth revived some of the old Saturnalia ways for the amusement of the Roman people by force-feeding a whole lot of Jews food and booze and then making them race naked through the streets while all the good Catholics laughed at them. I think it’s a hilarious idea, and I don’t know why Jews are so sensitive. Maybe ol’ Pope Benedict should revive the tradition, but use gays instead of Jews. It’d be just as funny I reckon.

I know what you’re thinking: “But where does Tim Allen come into this?”. I’m getting there, alright?

Nicking bits of other cults was the bit of business development strategy that made Christianity what it is today. Another example: the church encouraged decorating Christmas trees when they were trying (successfully) to pinch the members of the pagan hippy mob, the Asheira cult. Oh and I assume you know about Santa? He was a Turkish bishop called Nicholas who was the dude who first called Jewish people the “children of the devil”. Bless him. He was idolised by these sailor dudes who took his bones to Italy where he usurped the stocking-filling attributes of a local lady-deity known as The Grandmother. The cult spread to the Germans and the Celts where Nick got mixed up with Woden (big white beard, rode a flying horse), then the Christians took him on board to try to… wait for it… increase membership. Time passes, Coca Cola hires a Swedish artist to make a Santa who drinks coke, and now here we are, 5 years old in Myer Perth city, sitting on the knee of a fat man in a red suit who is touching our thigh and asking us what we want for Christmas and the answer is: to get away from you, you obese, sweaty, antisemitic paedo fuck.

Hold on, hold on, I’ve skipped a bit. Roughly one thousand nine hundred and fifty three years after the birth of Joshua (or whatever his name was) and twenty-two years after the birth of Santa Cola, a boychild was born in Denver, Colorado to Gerald and Martha Dick. His name was Timothy Dick. Timothy Allen Dick.

Tim Dick’s dad died in a car accident when he was eleven, and his mum married an Episcopalian deacon two years later. When Tim was twenty-five he was arrested on drug (dunno which type) charges and spent two years in gaol, after which he changed his name to Tim Allen and made the hit ABC comedy series Home Improvement before bringing us the cinematic joy of The Santa Clause 1, The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

A clause can be defined as an article, stipulation or proviso in a treaty, bill or contract. In the case of Allen’s seminal trilogy, it is a pun.

In the case of the above sentence, the word seminal is a pun.

Have a spoofy Christmas.

(Thanks and apologies to Mr Minchin for nicking this)