Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Real Gift Giver

Grandfather Frost of pre-Christian Ukraine

With Christmas almost here for those in the West and soon approaching for us in Ukraine on January 7th, I thought it was a good time to talk about gift giving.

Did Moroz (pronounced Deed Mo-rose), meaning "Grandfather Frost", is not the Ukrainian equivalent of Santa Claus, but rather a pagan character that was used during communist times to replace any reference to the Christian holiday of Christmas. Did Moroz, along with his granddaughter, Snihuronka, the "Snow Maiden", bring presents to children around the New Year holiday.

Did Moroz and his granddaughter the Snow Maiden
Snihuronka and Did Moroz in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine

In the Soviet Union, Christmas trees were banned until 1935 because they were considered to be a "bourgeois and religious prejudice". They were brought back as "New Year Trees" since this holiday was not associated with Christians. In 1937, Ded Moroz (the Russian version of Did Moroz) for the first time arrived at the Moscow Palace of Unions. In subsequent years, an invitation to the New Year Tree at the Palace of Unions became a matter of honor for Soviet children. The color of the coat that Ded Moroz wore was changed several times. So as not to be confused with Santa Claus, it was often blue. Joseph Stalin ordered Palace of Unions' Ded Morozes to wear only blue coats. During the times of the Soviet Union's dominance over Eastern Europe, Ded Moroz was officially introduced in many national traditions, despite being alien to them.

Ded Morozes in Russia today

Of course in the United States and elsewhere, we have Santa Claus as our Christmas gift giver. But what does Santa Claus have to do with Christmas? It turns out that old Saint Nick has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Not in the beginning anyway. So where did the jolly man in the red fur suit come from then? I posted a blog about this very topic a couple of years back, so here's a quick history of Santa Claus from that post.

1. Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 AD and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 AD on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century.

2. Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and created the New Testament.

3. In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children's stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6th.

4. The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.

5. In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.

6. In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.

7. Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” Moore innovated by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.

8. The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.

9. In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red. And Santa was born.

Here's what I think is interesting and worth thinking about. Communism tried to create a non-Christian gift giver for a secular holiday to detract from Christmas. In some respect it was successful. The New Year holiday is still more popular in Ukraine than Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, but the celebration of Christmas is growing more popular each year. This will be a good thing as long as people celebrate it for what it is, the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. The irony is that in the West, the Catholic Church merged the worship of Nicholas with the celebration of the birth of Christ to draw pagan converts. The result is that today Jesus now has to compete with a fictional character called Santa Claus who is nothing more than a clever marketing tool. I won't even mention the multitude of lies we would be forced to tell our children to support the whole charade. Like how he gets in homes without chimneys, the deal with the reindeer, and their ability to fly at the speed of light to deliver all those gifts in one night. The list is endless.

For now, Christmas in Ukraine is mostly identified with Jesus Christ, although that could change as Santa Claus makes his way into Ukrainian culture through marketing and advertising.

The point of all this is to focus on the real gift giver, Jesus. He gave himself as a gift to us both in life and in death. He became a man that walked among us and He died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins so that we could have eternal life with Him and His Father. There is no greater gift than that so don't settle for anything less this Christmas.

Merry Christmas and may God bless you with His Grace and Mercy!


Jake Knotts said...

I love the fact that St. Nick is a separate holiday, The tree, gifts, party is on new years, and Christmas is actually what it is supposed to be, a religious holiday without the glam, gimmicks, and bright lights.

In the States they took all of this and threw it together, St. Nick, tree, gifts, and Jesus.

I like it simple.

Not that I am against trees and all, I am not a into that lamo anti-christmas flag burning attitude towards the holiday like some.

Greg and Edna Silva said...

Exactly. I see nothing wrong with trees and gifts, just remember that it's about Jesus. I think it's pretty sad that some parents would rather tell their children a lie than the truth of Jesus.

Here's a good site about why we shouldn't perpetuate a myth when we can tell the truth, especially to our children.



benjamin morrison said...

that pagan ded moroz looks like he could take the ufc title.