by Xavier Kataquapit
Attawapiskat – Christmas is right around the corner and I am being reminded of that fact every time I venture out to go shopping. The shops in all the local northern Ontario communities I call home like Kirkland Lake, Iroquois Falls, Timmins, Cochrane, North Bay and Sudbury have been promoting Christmas with posters, advertising in the media and music through sound systems in bigger stores. Don’t get me wrong as there are lots of things I like about Christmas but the commercial part of it has really taken over to such a degree that it is difficult for me to still find the heart in this celebration.
I don’t recall a huge celebration around Christmas when I was a boy back home in Attawapiskat. We went through the motions because we were more or less convinced it was the normal thing to do with a tree to decorate and giving gifts but really I never did get very excited by it all. Mostly, Christmas seemed like it ended up as a time of year when there was a lot of drinking and tragedy.
Still, for children I believe that Christmas with all of the myths and legends is generally a good thing. Childrens’ minds are full of images of Santa, reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, wonderful gifts and lots of treats to eat. For children when this day is done right it is very good but when it takes a turn for a lot of drinking and drugs in the home, the memories of childhood become very dark and sad.
Christmas and Santa Claus are very new concepts for my people the Cree of James Bay. We have only known the Christian religions and the celebrations that come with them for a couple of hundred years or so. Before that we lived a life that was all about the land, Mother Nature, the spirits of the land, water and air and of course the creatures. European religions and celebrations and holidays like Christmas were not known by my people at all. In contrast Christians had been following their religions for a couple of thousand years and Christmas and Santa had histories that connected back many hundreds of years.
The funny thing is that the Santa that we know today has origins that would surprise most of us. The original Santa Claus can be traced back to Saint Nicholas who was a Christian bishop in the third century in Turkey. He would have been darker skinned and probably skinny. It is interesting to note that the name Santa Clause is actually a contraction that was made over the years of Saint Nicholas. His day was originally celebrated on December 6 to mark the day he died in the mid third century and in honour of him for the kindness and good deeds he did for children. In his lifetime he survived being imprisoned and persecuted by the Romans and became a legend for doing that. Later he was associated with Christmas Eve.
People who were Christians around the world started celebrating his day and his legend in reference to Kris Kringle, La Befana, Yule Tomten, and Christkindli. Santa made his debut in North America In 1809 when Washington Irving wrote “A History of New York,” that included Saint Nicholas, a jolly, fat fellow smoking a Dutch pipe, who flew over the rooftops in a wagon and dropped presents down the chimneys. A minister by the name of Clement Clarke Moore in 1822 wrote a Christmas poem for his daughters titled, ‘An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas’, later more popularly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. A lot of the images that we now associate with Santa came out of this poem which became very popular. A cartoonist named Thomas Nast used Moore’s poem later to draw images of Santa which appeared in Harper’s Weekly and that image was more like the Santa we know today as chubby, with a big white beard and carrying a bag full of toys. Nast was German and called his character Santa Claus which caught on with Americans.
Santa, who was now associated with Christmas Eve had been used to advertise gift buying and giving from the 1800s. The colourful Santa that we know today was partly created by Coca Cola in a 1930s advertising campaign done by artist Haddon Sundblom which presented St Nick in the company’s classic red.
So even the Santa Claus that everybody knows started out being very different in colour, race and country origin. We have only really known Santa in the image that is very familiar and popular for less than one hundred years. Most remote First Nation children have known him for much less time.
My wish is that all those children out there get to experience the joy and love of functional and caring families this Christmas and holiday season.
I worry that far too many of them will have to deal with terrorizing situations because those family members that are supposed to be caring for them are drunk or on drugs. So, if you think that just maybe you might have a problem with addictions and that Christmas is going to be hell for your kids this could be the perfect time to pick up the phone and call your local Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous chapter in your town or city to get help.
This could be the year you give the very best Christmas present ever to your children