|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published 1909 )
And now you may be tempted to ask, "What bearing has all this stuff about the pagan festivals upon the question of the identity of our old friend Santa Klaus ?
I am coming to that. In every one of these festivals the leading figure was an old man, with a lot of white beard and white hair rimming his face.
In the Bacchanalia the representative god was not the young Bacchus, but the aged, cheery and decidedly disreputable Silenus, the chief of the Satyrs and the god of drunkards.
In the Saturnalia it was Saturn, a dignified and venerable old gentleman-the god of Time. In the Germanic feasts it was Thor, a person of patriarchal aspect, and a warrior to boot. Now, although the central figure of the Christian festival was the child-god-the christ-Kindleinnone the less the influence of long pagan antecedents was too strong within the breast of the newly Christianized world to be readily dismissed. The tradition of hoary age as the true representative of the holiday period, a tradition, it will be seen, in which all pagan nations agreed, still remained smouldering under the ashes of the past. It burst into flame again when the past was too far back to be looked upon with dislike or disquietude by the Church. No longer did there seem to be any danger of a relapse into the religious errors of that past.
At first the more dignified representative was chosen as more in keeping with a solemn season. Saturn was preferred to Silenus, and was almost unconsciously rebaptized as Saint Nicholas, the latter being the greatest saint whose festival was celebrated in December and the one who in other respects was most nearly in accord with the dim traditions of Saturn as the hero of the Saturnalia.
If you look at the pictures printed in this book you will see that in face and figure the Saint Nicholas of the early painters was not unlike the ancient idea of Saturn.
And it was many, many years before Saint Nicholas had ousted the Christ-child from the first place in the Christmas festivities. Indeed, as we shall see, he often accompanied his Master on His Christmas rounds. It may be added that he still does so in certain country places in Europe where the modern spirit has been least felt.
In course of time, as the idea of worldly merriment at the Christmas season prevailed over that of prayer and thanksgiving, the name Saint Nicholas gradually merged into the affectionate diminutive of Santa Klaus. Under the new name the old saint lost all his austerity. He became ruddier, jollier, more rubicund in aspect, while the Christ-Kindlein faded more and more into the background, until at last the very name of the latter, under the slightly different form of Kris-Kinkle, was transferred to his successor.
And now compare the pictures of Santa Klaus which are scattered through this book with that of Silenus. Is it not evident that the one is a revival of the other, changed, indeed, in certain traits of character, sobered up, washed and purified, clad in warm garments that are more suited to the wintry season which he has made his own, but still the god of good fellows,-the representative of good health, good humor and good cheer?Extremes meet once more. The most modern hero of the season of merriment is a return to the most ancient. The Santa Klaus of today is the Silenus of an unknown antiquity.
Let us learn a little more about Silenus. He was the tutor of Bacchus and seems to have had so much respect for his pupil that his life after the invention of wine was one long spree. It was a merry and good-natured spree, however. Silenus never became maudlin or quarrelsome in his cups. He was the most jovial of tipplers. His outlook upon life was as rosy as his nose. A cheery laugh beamed over his large fat face, the light of humor twinkled in his beady eyes, his rotund stomach spoke of good cheer, his smile beamed assurance of an unruffled disposition.
Among all the brute creation he chose an ass, that caricature of the horse, as his favorite charger. He always appeared with a troupe of laughing fauns and satyrs around him, and his advent was everywhere the signal for quips and cranks and wreathed smiles.
Now Saint Nicholas, also, in former times used to ride abroad on an ass, and still continues to do so in certain portions of Europe. In fact, as already noted, all the genial traits of Silenus, save only that of drunkenness, are reproduced in Santa Klaus,-the jolly pagan who is today the personification of Christmas.
But though a modernized pagan god holds this important position in our festival, everything that could be offensive in the old pagan way of celebrating it has been abolished.
It was not always so. The Church which so wisely sought to retain the old heathen forms, found it often very hard, and sometimes impossible, to subdue the heathen spirit. In spite of the protests of priests and the anathemas of popes, in spite of the condemnation of all wise and good men, Christians in the early days frequently reproduced all the worst follies and vices of the Bacchanalia and the Saturnalia. Even the clergy were for a period whirled into the vortex. A special celebration, called the Feast of Fools, was instituted in their behalf with a view, said the doctors of the Church, that "the folly which is natural to and born with us might exhale at least once a year." The intention was excellent. But in practice the liberty so accorded speedily degenerated into license.
Early in the history of the Church excesses were so great that a council of bishops held at Auxerre was moved to inquire into the matter. Gerson, the most noted theologian of the day, made an immense sensation by declaring that "if all the devils in hell had put their heads together to devise a feast that should utterly scandalize Christianity, they could not have improved upon this one."
If even among the clergy heathen traditions survived so strenuously, what wonder that they survived among the laity? The wild revels, indeed, of the Christmas period in olden times almost stagger belief. No amount of drunkenness, no blasphemy, no obscenity was frowned upon. License was carried to the utmost limits of licentiousness. Even in the seventeenth century, when the revels had been slightly toned down, Master William Prynne discovered in them those vestiges of paganism which are apparent enough to the historian of today.
"If we compare," he says in his Histrio-Mastix, "our Bacchanalian Christmas and New Year's tides with these Saturnalia and feasts of Janus, we shall find such near affinity between them, both in regard of time,-they being both in the end of December and the first of January-and in their manner of solemnizing-both being spent in revelling, epicurism, wantonness, idleness, dancing, drinking, stage-plays, masques and carnal pomp and jollity-that we must conclude the one to be but the ape, or issue, of the other."
The very excesses of the Christmas period proved their own eventual cure. In England the Puritans revolted so bitterly that they for a period put an end to Christmas altogether. In Europe the revolution was more gradual. But everywhere a change of manners and of morals has purified the festival over which Santa Klaus presides, and Santa Klaus himself, even if we look upon him as a revival of the pagan Silenus, is a Silenus freed from all the offensive features of paganism, a Silenus who with his new baptismal name has taken on a new character.
It must be remembered, however, that Santa Klaus does not rule all over the Christian world. There is even a wide difference between our Santa Klaus and the Saint Nicholas of Southern France and Germany. The latter, grave, sedate, severe, preserves more of the Saturn than the Silenus type. He is Saturn christianized and dignified with episcopal robes. He distributes gifts like our Santa Klaus, but in addition to gifts for good little boys and girls, he carries a birch-rod for bad ones. In the more primitive sections, such as certain parts of Lorraine, the Tyrol, Bohemia and so on, he is attended by an evil spirit called Ruprecht who looks after bad boys and girls.
It is also frequently the custom on Christmas Day for a couple or more of maskers to dress themselves up as Saint Nicholas and Ruprecht, and other attendants, such as the Christ-child or St. Peter or who not,-these additional characters varying with the locality. They go from house to house rewarding the good children and punishing the bad.
More of this, however, in a future chapter.