SANTA'S WISDOM TEACHINGS
an interfaith inspirational story
Asatru adaptation by
Ingeborg S. Nordén and Marion Ingham
(Note from the editors: The original Wiccan version of this story has circulated all over the Internet without naming the author. If you know who wrote it, please drop one of us an e-mail!)
Five minutes before the Mothers' Night blot was scheduled to begin, my mother called (as if I didn't know that the Heathen gods have a keen sense of humor). Since most of our kindred were "Vikings are KEWL" types who tended to hang out much too late at SCA sword practice, I took the call. Half the people hadn't arrived, and those who had wouldn't settle down to business for at least twenty minutes.
"Merry Christmas, Frannie."
"Hi, Mom. I don't do Christmas."
"Maybe not--but I do, so I'll say it." she told me in her sassy voice, kind of sweet and vinegary at the same time. "If I can respect your freedom of religion, you can respect my freedom of speech."
I grinned and rolled my eyes. "And the score is Mom--one, Fran--nothing. But I love you, anyway."
People were bustling around in the next room, setting up the altar, decking the halls with what I considered excessive amounts of holly and ivy, and singing something like, "We Wish You a Merry Yuletide."
"It sounds like a...holiday party." Mom said.
"We're doing the first night of Yule tonight."
"Oh. That's sort of like your version of Christmas, right?"
I wanted to snap back that Christmas was the Christian version of Yule, but I held back. "We honor the gods and ancestors with an all-night feast. It's a lot more honest and guilt-free than Christmas. No strangers in red suits ringing bells to beg for money, no going to church out of duty once a year, and it doesn't wipe me out. I remember how you had always worked yourself to a frazzle by December 26."
"Oh honey, you shouldn't let the churchy parts of Christmas sour you on the fun parts. I loved caroling, baking sugar cookies, trimming the tree, and all that stuff. I wouldn't trade those memories for all the spare time in the world. I wish you and Jack would loosen up a little for the baby's sake. When you were little, you enjoyed Easter bunnies and trick-or-treating and Christmas things. Since you've gotten into this Asatru religion, you sound a lot like Aunt Betty the year she was a Jehovah's Witness."
I laughed nervously. "Yeah. How is Aunt Betty?"
"Fine. She's into the Celestine Prophecy now, and she seems quite happy. Y'know," she went on, "Aunt Betty always said the Jehovah's Witnesses said those holiday things were pagan. So I don't see why you've given them up."
"Ummm...our ancestors have had a thousand years of Christianity, Mom. The real meanings of those 'pagan holiday things' have been distorted or forgotten; we're at least honest that this holiday couldn't have been Jesus' birthday to begin with."
"Well," she said dubiously, "as long as you're happy."
Sometimes long distance is better than being there, 'cause your mother can't give you the look that makes you agree with everything she says. Jack rescued me by interrupting.
"Hi, Ma." he called to the phone as he waved a beribboned sprig of mistletoe over my head. Then he kissed me, one of those quick noisy ones. I frowned at him.
"Did the Norsemen use mistletoe at Yule? You know, Baldr and all that…"
"Kissing under a murder weapon--yeah, that sounds really festive," I sneered.
"Sorry. We'll be needing you in about five minutes."
"Okay. Gotta go, Mom. Love you."
We had a friendly, festive Mothers' Night blot. No
cheesy parodies of Christmas poems, or off-color jokes about Jesus and
Christians. We had figured at least some of the kindred would stay all night,
but the snow was getting stronger and in the end even our two "designated
drivers" decided we should wrap the feast up so they could get everyone
home safely. After the last kindred member left, Jack decided he couldn't
handle staying up all night either: an out-of-town friend had donated a bottle
of homemade mead
for the blot, mead so strong that even the hornful that Jack had shared with me was beginning to make him drowsy.
"The baby's nestled all snug in her bed," he said with a yawn, "I think I'll go settle in for a long winter's nap."
I heaved a martyred sigh. He grinned unrepentantly, kissed me, called me a grinch, and went to bed. I stayed up and puttered around the house, trying to unwind. I sifted through the day's mail, ditched the flyers urging us to purchase all the seasonal joy we could afford or charge.
I opened the card from his parents. Another sermonette: a manger scene and a Bible verse, with a handwritten note expressing his mother's fervent hope that God's love and Christmas spirit would fill our hearts in this blessed season. She means well, really. I amused myself by picking out every element in the scene that was inappropriate to the climate of Judea and to the first century BCE.
When the mail had been sorted, I got up and started
turning our ritual room back into a living room. As if the greeting card had
carried a virus, I found myself humming Christmas carols. I turned on the
classic rock station, but they were playing that Lennon-Ono Christmas song. I
switched stations. The weatherman was issuing travelers' advisories for
the whole Tri-County area because of that blizzard; I prayed to Thor and Ullr
that those "designated drivers" would make it home in time. Then, as
rotten luck would have it, the deejay let Bruce Springsteen insult my ears
crooning, "yah better watch out, yah better not pout." I tried the
Oldies station. Elvis lives, and he does Christmas songs. Okay, fine. We'll do
classical--no, we won't. They're playing Handel's Messiah. Maybe the
community radio station
would have something secular humanist.
"Ahora, escucharemos a Jose Feliciano canta 'Feliz Navidad'."
I was getting annoyed. The radio doesn't usually get this saturated with holiday mush until the twenty-fourth.
"This is too weird." I said to the radio, "Cut that crap out."
The country station had some Kenny Rogers Christmas tune, the first rock station had gone from John and Yoko's Christmas song to Simon and Garfunkel's "Silent Night," and the other rock station still had Springsteen reliving his childhood. "--I'm tellin' you why. Santa Claus is comin' to town!" he bellowed.
I was about to pick out a nice secular CD when there was a knock at the door. Now, it could have been a kindred member who'd forgotten something. It could have been someone with car trouble. It could have been any number of things, but it certainly couldn't have been a stout guy in a red suit--snowy beard, rosy cheeks, and all--backed by eight reindeer and a sleigh. I blinked, wondered crazily where Rudolph was, and blinked again. There were nine reindeer. Our dead grass was now completely obscured by eight inches of snow; more continued to float down in fat flakes.
"Hi, Frannie." he said warmly, "I've missed you."
"Whatever was in that mead, it's fried my brain; you don't exist."
He looked at me with a mixture of sorrow and compassion and sighed heavily. "That's why I miss you, Frannie. Can I come in? We need to talk."
I couldn't quite bring myself to slam the door on this vision, hallucination, or whatever. So I let him in, because that made more sense then letting all the cold air in while I argued with someone who wasn't there.
As he stepped in, a thought crossed my mind about various entities needing an invitation to get in houses. He flashed me a smile that would melt the polar caps.
"Don't you miss Christmas, Frannie?"
"No." I said flatly, "Apparently you don't see me when I'm sleeping and waking these days. I haven't been Christian for years."
"Oh, now don't let that stop you. We both know this holiday's older than that. Yule trees and Saturnalia and here-comes-the-sun, doodoodendoodoo."
I raised an eyebrow at the Beatles reference, then gave him my standard sermonette on the appropriation and adulteration that made Christmas no longer a pagan holiday--not to mention the ignorance of people who confused Asatru with Wicca. Being Heathen, I did not care about Saturnalia, the Unconquered Sun or any other such Mediterranean nonsense. I had done my homework. I listed centuries, I named names--St. Nicholas among them.
"In the twenty-first century version," I assured him, "Christmas is two parts historical inaccuracy and distortion mixed with one part blind faith in a religion that never made any sense outside of the Middle East anyhow." I gave him my best lines, the ones that had convinced my kindred to reject the reason-for-the-season claptrap. My hallucination sat in Jack's favorite chair, nodding patiently at me. "And you," I added nastily, "come here talking about ancient customs when you--in your current form--were invented in the nineteenth century by, um...Clement C. Moore."
He laughed, a rolling, belly-deep chuckle unlike any department-store Santa I'd ever heard. "Of course I change my form now and then to suit fashion. Don't you? And does that stop you from being yourself?" he said, and asked me if I remembered A Book of Troth by Edred Thorsson--not to mention all those sagas and poems with Odin changing shape, traveling under hundreds of assumed names.
I gaped at him for a moment, then caught myself. "This is like Labyrinth, right? I'm having a dream that pretends to be real, but is only made from pieces of things in my memory. You don't look a thing like David Bowie."
Santa chuckled and asked me amiably, "And what would you have the Wild Hunt and the Green Man do ... wait around for people to move back to farms and forests?" He lit a long-stemmed pipe. The tobacco had a mild and somehow Christmassy smell, and every puff sent up a wreath of smoke. "Do you want me to go through my whole derivation from the Bear God of the Neanderthals, or are you up on your Fortean Times?"
"Oh, sure." I lied as unconvincingly as possible.
Santa sighed heavily. "When's the last time you left out hot tea and cookies for me?"
"When I figured out my parents were eating them."
"Frannie, Frannie. Remember the bowl of
porridge you left in the back yard,
before the blot?"
"For the house-ghost--Scandinavian tradition."
"Do you really think the house-ghost is going to make that porridge disappear?"
"All right, y'got me there. Even if a stray cat or dog eats the stuff, a lot of us say some friendly spirit could send animals to accept the offering."
"Mm-hm." Santa smiled at me compassionately through his snowy beard.
I rallied quickly. "What about the toys? I know for a fact they aren't made by you and a bunch of non-union Elves."
"Your own lore implies that even the gods couldn't make the Nine Worlds out of nothing. Even if I could conjure toys out of thin air like some cheap parlor trick--you'd accuse me, truthfully, of putting style before substance. Now, Mrs. Claus and the Elves and I really do have a shop at the North Pole. Not the sort of thing the Air Force would ever find. What we make up there is what makes this time a holiday, no matter what religion it's called."
"Don't tell me," I said, rolling my eyes, "you send our ancestors back."
"Oh my, no. The ancestral stuff, the ghosts visiting Midgard, isn't my department. My part is making it a holiday. We make a mild, non-addictive psychedelic thing called Christmas spirit. Try some."
He dipped his fingers in a pocket and tossed
red-gold-green-silver glitter at me. I could have ducked. I don't know why I
didn't. It smelled like snow, and pine needles, and cedar chips in the
fireplace. It smelled like
fruitcake, cornbread savory herbal stuffing, like that foamy white stuff you
spray on the window with stencils. It felt like a crisp wind, Grandma's
hugs, fuzzy new mittens, pine needles scrunching under my slippers. I saw
twinkly lights, mistletoe in the doorway, smiling faces from years gone by.
Several Christmas carols played almost simultaneously in a kind of medley. I
fought my way back to my living room and glared sternly at the hallucination
in Jack's chair.
"Fun stuff. Does the DEA know about this?"
"Oh, Frannie. Why are you such a hard case? I
told you it's non-addictive
and has no harmful side effects. Would Santa Claus lie to you?" I opened
my mouth and closed it again. We looked at each other a while.
"Can I have some more of that glittery stuff?"
"Mmmm. I think you need something stronger. Try a sugarplum."
I tasted rum ball. Peppermint. Those hard candies
with the picture all the
way through. Mama's favorite fudge. A chorus line of Christmas candies
danced through my mouth. The Swedish angel chimes, run on candle power, say tingatingatingating. Mama, with a funny smile, promised to give Santa my letter. Greeting cards taped on the refrigerator door. We rode through the
tree farm on a straw-filled trailer pulled by a red and green tractor,
looking for a perfect pine. It was so big, Daddy had to cut a bit off so the
star wouldn't scrape the ceiling. Lights, ornaments, tinsel. Daddy lifted me
up to the mantle to hang my stocking. My dolls stayed up to see Santa Claus, and in the morning they all had new clothes. Grandma carried in platters with the world's biggest Christmas dinner. Joey's Christmas puppy chased my Christmas kitten up the tree and it would have fallen over but Daddy held it while Mama got the kitten out. Daddy said every bad word there was but he kept laughing anyway. I sneaked my favorite plastic horse into the Nativity scene, between the camels and the donkey.
I came back to reality slowly, with a silly smile on
my face and tickly
feeling behind my eyes like they wanted to cry. The phrase "visions of
sugarplums" took on a whole new meaning.
"How long has it been," Santa asked, "since you played with a Nativity set?"
"But it symbolizes--"
"Mary wasn't the only mother that a religion
ever told stories about.
Besides, you were hailing your Disir--your own ancestral mothers--all
through that blot. Got a problem with that? You could pick up a couple of
extra Marys from a cheap set and paint three of 'em to look Norse enough,
they'll look fine. As for the Christianization, I've seen you trace hammer
signs hundreds of times."
"But the lore has evidence for Norsemen who
weren't Christian, making--oh."
I crossed my arms and tried to glare at him, but failed. "You're a sneaky
old Elf, y'know?"
"The term is `jolly old Elf.' Care for another sugarplum?"
I did. I tasted gingerbread. My first nip of soy
eggnog the way the
grown-ups drink it. Fresh sugar cookies, shaped like trees and decked with
colored frosting. Dad had been laid off, but we managed a lot of cheer. They
told us Christmas would be "slim pickings." Joey and I smiled bravely when
Mama brought home that spindly spruce. We loaded down our "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" with every light and ornament it could hold. Popcorn and cranberry strings for the outdoor trees. Mistletoe in the hall: plastic
mistletoe, real kisses. Joey and I snipped and glued and stitched and
painted treasures to give as presents.
We agonized over our "Santa" letters...by now we knew where the goodies came from, and we tried to compromise between what we longed for and they thought they could afford. Every day we hoped the factory would reopen. When Joey's dog ate my mitten, I wasn't brave. I knew that meant I'd get mittens for Christmas, and one less toy. I cried. On December twenty-fifth we opened our presents ve-ery slo-wly, drawing out the experience. We made a show of cheer over our socks and shirts and meager haul of toys. I got red mittens. We could tell Mama and Daddy were proud of us for being so brave, because they were grinning like crazy.
"Go out to the garage for apples." Mama
told us. "We'll have apple
I don't remember having the pancakes. There was a
dollhouse in the garage.
No mass-produced aluminum thing but a homemade plywood dollhouse with
wall-papered walls and real curtains and thread-spool chairs. My dolls were
inside, with newly sewn clothes. Joey was on his knees in front of a plywood
barn with hay in the loft. His old farm implements had new paint. Our
plastic animals were corralled in popsicle-stick fences. The garage smelled
like apples and hay, the cement was bone-chilling under my slippers, and I
My knees were drawn up to my chest, arms wrapped
around them. My chest felt tight, like ice cracking in sunshine. Santa offered
me a huge white
handkerchief. When all the ice in my chest had melted, he cleared his
throat. He was pretty misty-eyed, too.
"Want to come sit on my lap and tell me what you want for Christmas?"
"You've already given it to me." But I sat
on his lap anyway, and kissed his
rosy cheek until he did his famous laugh.
"I'd better go now, Frannie. I have other stops
to make, and you have work
"Right. I'd better pop the corn tonight, it strings best when it's stale."
I opened the door and let him out. The reindeer were pawing impatiently at
the moon-kissed new-fallen snow. I'd swear Rudolph winked at me.
"Don't forget the hot tea and cookies."
"Right. Uh, December twenty-fourth, or Solstice, or when?"
He shrugged. "Whatever night you expect me, I'll be there. Eh, don't wait
up. Visits like this are tightly rationed. Wild Hunt rides too fast,
y'know," he explained with a wink.
"Gotcha. Thanks, Santa." I kissed his cheek again. "Happy Holidays."
The phrase had a nice, non-denominational ring to it. I thought I'd call my
parents and in-laws soon and try it out on them.
"Aren't you going to wish me..."
"Umm, right, Santa… Far heill!" I replied, thankful that the
lore-thumping smart-aleck in my kindred had gone home and couldn't hear me
butcher Old Norse.
Santa laid his finger aside of his nose and nodded.
"Glad Yule and gods bless, Frannie."
The sleigh soared up, and Santa really did exclaim something. It sounded
like old German. Smart-aleck Elf.
When I closed the door, the radio was playing Jethro Tull's "Solstice