Hi Readers! Here's my column from That's Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou magazines this month. Merry Christmas!
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THIS family has big plans for Christmas. First we're going to euthanize Santa. Then we're going to hang on a beach in Vietnam.
It's probably time. I've never been to Vietnam before. As for Santa, our eight-year-old Lani has started asking awkward questions, like "Daddy, are you a liar?"
Perhaps not that pointed, but the inevitable question about the North Pole's most famous resident came up over dinner last week. Since there was a six-year-old also at the table, I made the very clever parent move of telling Lani that we would "talk about this later". I then winked at her and slashed my throat.
Only with a finger, mind you. I don't find these parenting situations that troubling. But it is probably time we labelled as "fiction" this tale about an exotic place where lots of not very tall people work feverishly to make presents for the world's children. For one thing, everyone now knows that place is called "China". For another, there are some fantastic other Santa-ish Christmas tales around the world. As citizens of expat-land's cultural melting pot, maybe we should try a few.
There's the Russian one. Just to confuse things, Russia's "Santa" delivers presents not on Russian Christmas (January 7) but on New Year's Eve. He goes by the name of Ded Moroz.
Now, I don't want to claim our Christmas is any more jolly, or point at Russia's famous national vibe of melancholy, or misère de vivre, but goodness their main spreader of joy sounds perilously like "Dead Morose".
Ded Moroz sounded to me like a heavy metal band. Or perhaps a stun grenade. Or a used condom. But the internet said it meant "Grandfather Frost". When you become a grandfather in Russia, straight away they just start calling you Ded. I can see walking sticks being shaken angrily everywhere. As for Moroz, there was confusion.
For clarification I turned to my friend from the gym, Roman. He's not Russian but he is from Estonia (motto: "If it's not exactly Russia, it'll do til we get some"). As me and my fellow large bald man sat naked in the sauna talking about Santa, I finally found understanding. "Moroz" is actually the term for when the temperature drops below about minus 10 Celsius. So really, Father Christmas in Russia is more like "Grandfather F***ing Freezing".
Russia also has none of this North Pole business. Ded Moroz lives in Veliky Ustyug, a town of 32,000 people a few hundred kilometres north-east of Moscow. You can probably see him there in the summer doing whatever Russians do - trimming his roses, running an export-import business, etc.
The Russians in fact have two people said to dish out presents. The other is Babushka. It's Russian for "grandmother", but this Babushka is special.
One night, as the snow fell heavily in mid Russian winter, this very old lady was sitting by the fire in her cottage when there was a knock on the door. It was THE three wise kings of the east. They were wise enough to know the son of God had been born in what is now Israel. But apparently they were still hopeless with maps.
The kings told Babushka what had happened, and said she should go with them to meet Jesus. As she stood in her doorway while the kings beckoned her out into the snow, without a moment's hesitation Babushka looked up at them and cleared her throat to speak. She said "Nuh", and closed the door.
The next day she remembered she was supposed to go out and do something, or find someone. "Was it Jeff? Gene? Ooww!" she groaned. Though vexed, she headed off from house to house asking if the occupants had seen a "baby" or a "saviour" or "something like that". One after the other, the residents all said "NO DEAR!" Perhaps to avoid embarrassment she decided to leave them presents, and has been doing it ever since.
|Ded Moroz, complete with hair and beard.|
No, just kidding. He's supposed to be jolly, remember?
|This is him.|
|Spurred, and upset, by the thought there might be|
someone in Russia more popular than him, the
the country's Grand Ruler Vladimir Putin recently
made a snap visit on Ded Moroz in Veliky Ustyug.
|Putin said he was grateful to Ded, but would reserve the|
right to have final say on his "Naughty or nice" list.
|Meanwhile this is an artistic representation of|
Babushka. They do like to rock hard, these
elderly Russian Christmas figures.
|Luckily an artist was present when King Balthasar|
explained to Babushka: "Yeah I think we got a bit
stuffed up around the Khyber Pass".
I'd heard the Dutch Christmas had a crazy twist. So I grabbed the first Dutch person I could find, a man called Fred at a friend's wedding, and asked him. It started with a shock. There was no reindeer.
"Well Santa Claus turns up with his whores," he said, as I spat my beer all over him.
I liked this Santa better than ours already. I pictured him in a sleigh, jacked right up at the front, with a set of really big speakers booming out something a bit more gangsta than Jingle Bells.
"No, his HORSE," said Fred, more clearly.
Still the story was astounding. The Dutch Sinterklass used to be a Greek bishop in Turkey sometime in the first millennium AD. He retired to take up the position of Dutch Santa, residing in ... Spain. No one is sure why he lives there, but my money's on the weather. Where would you rather live - the North Pole, Veliky Ustyug, or Spain? Especially if you're the wrong side of 1,000.
Usually Sinterklass goes around with a much loved colored man named Pieter, who is more commonly known as Black Pete. He is usually depicted in all sorts of garb, like curly hair and made up red lips, and performs functions like distributing candy. By the look of him it wouldn't surprise if his roles also included tap dancing and singing "My Mammy". In fact there are usually a handful of Black Petes, who since the mid 19th century have been called Sinter's, umm, "servants".
Early on, Dutch Santa and the Petes would turn up, and if children had been good he'd reward them with presents. If they'd been bad, they would be punished by getting no presents. They would also get a good kicking and a beating from Santa. If they were especially bad a Pete would bundle them into a sack and they'd be dragged back to Spain to a mysterious - but presumably wretched - fate.
Since the 1950s, however, this tale has been softened up. Now if children are naughty Santa only pretends to give them a good kicking and beating.
The Dutch story - which is replicated in Belgium - is so bizarre it has caught the attention of more and more people in recent years. These include people from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. They couldn't help noticing the story might be a wee bit racist, especially since people playing the Petes in Christmas parades wear "blackface" make-up.
Hopefully the Petes will soon be retired, replaced by a more universally loved breed of Christmas helper. For as the old saying goes - you're alright as long as you've got your elf.
|Sinterklaas and some Petes at a Christmas parade.|
Defenders of the Pete tradition say it's a harmless
bit of fun that delights parade-goers every year ...
|... such as these merry revelers at one such event.|
I'll leave you instead with a more normal image of the pure, unadulterated Santa known and loved by most of the western world.
Merry Christmas to all!