The Duncan Banner

December 8, 2013

Whatever you call him, Santa is loved by all

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — Boys and girls of all ages, here is some festive poetic verse I know we all have stored in our memory banks. So, feel free to recite along:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

gave the luster of mid-day to objects below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear,

but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be Generous Pho Pho...

Generous Pho Pho?

Say what? Who — or what — the heck is Generous Pho Pho? (Is it pronounced “Foo Foo?” “Pa-ho Pa-ho?” Or what?) And I think 99.93 percent of us realize that last line should be: “I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick.”

Well, if you were a young’un in Burma, all giddy about the impending arrival of Christmas, Generous Pho Pho is one of the names you’d use when referring to that little ol’ driver. To the Burmese, there are three accepted names for the nation’s Santa Claus figure: Generous Pho Pho, Magi or Santa Claus.

Nobody in history has logged more frequent flyer mileage than the gift-giver Americans call Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and Kris Kringle. Having a major holiday at this time of year is almost as ancient as humanity itself, and some form of Santa has been around throughout.

It all began back in antiquity, as a way to acknowledge the winter solstice.

And the winter solstice needed acknowledgment. December 21st, a day modern humans have assigned to the beginning of the winter solstice, was a bewildering and frightening experience for early humanoids.

If you lived south of the equator, Dec. 21 was the longest day of the year, which was pretty confusing for your internal clock. If you lived north of the equator, the winter solstice was the longest night of the year, and the thought that the sun might never return scared the bejeebers out of you.

The way I figure it, a group of ancient intellectuals got together and concluded: “This winter solstice thingie throws everybody off their feet. So, let’s make it less mysterious by throwing a big party. We’ll invent wassail and fruitcake and have a joyous celebration. Everybody can give gifts to their family, friends and those less fortunate, which will stimulate the economy by creating jobs at exchange windows in shopping malls. Plus, we can invent the credit card.”

Buoyed by foresight, imagination and wassail, these thoughtful ancients also realized the masses would have an easier time relating to the gift-giving idea if the concept was humanized.

Thus was born the figure of the winter gift-giver, whose many names now include Grandfather Frost, Pere Noel, Wotan, Sinterklass, Santa Claus and Ron Popiel.

Winter solstice celebrations were too debauched for early Christians. In the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., they decided to tame things down, stress the message of giving and infuse a deeper spiritual meaning in the holiday by declaring Dec. 25 as the day Christ was born.

The holiday became Christmas, and the gift-giver took on names like St. Nicholas, Father Christmas and Christkindl. On the isle of Cyprus, the figure is St. Basil, whose greatest gift was pesto sauce — I think.

In Brazil, the gift-giver is Papai Noel. The Danes have Julemand. Kids in Sri Lanka await a visit from Natal Seeya. Little Mongolians write letters to Tsai Sen Yeh. In the Czech Republic, the children are nestled all snug in their beds, with visions of Svaty Miklas dancing in their heads.

Some of the gift-giver figures are secular, some have religious derivation, but here in the 21st century, a form of Santa Claus exists in at least 65 countries.

No matter what you call him, that jolly ol’ elf really gets around. And because he does, the world is a better place.

jeff.kaley@duncanbanner.com