Trivia Time: Is Santa Claus White?

There has been some controversy lately over the Mall of America hiring a black Santa Claus.

I know, right? Santa is supposed to be white. Having a fictional character played by an actor of the wrong race is a travesty of epic proportion.

Unless it’s Hollywood and the actor is white. Then it’s pretty much mandatory. Every Hollywood producer and filmmaker will insist it’s not them, just the system. It seems to me that one of them could go to their financial backers and say something like, “hey, millions of fans are pissed because they want to see a few more Asian actors in Ghost in a Shell.” But what do I know, I’m just a writer.

Luckily for the purist, there are still mall Santas. They are all white, fat jolly men with white beards, right?

But according to George Takei the Santa in his Japanese internment camp was Asian.

Could it be that Santa isn’t white after all?

A short diversion about the Sami

Once upon a time there was a group of people known as Sami. They lived in Europe during the ice age and when the ice age retreated, they followed the cold north, settling in Northern Scandinavia. They still live there to this day.

They dress in bulky clothes, decorating them in the colors of the northern lights, blues and reds. They live in small villages and were best known for herding reindeer.

(Let me know when this starts ringing bells for you.)

In the winter the snow would pile up in front of their Lavvu, the teepee-like houses they use. By midwinter the snow would be so deep that you couldn’t get in and out of the doors, but instead visitors would often have to climb to the top and lower themselves down the smoke hole.

A Sami Lavvu

A Sami Lavvu

Come midwinter (yule) the village shaman would have to go check on his people. He would take a sack with him, dressing himself in warm red clothes against the cold. He would climb to the top of each Lavvu and let himself down. He would see how each family was doing. If a family was short on food, he’d give them some from his sack. If they had extra, he’d use it to restock the supplies in his sack, making sure each family had enough to survive the winter.

Because the winters in Sami lands was long and being stuck inside for days on end could slowly drive people mad, he would bring the children toys, things to keep them occupied and out of their parents hair.

The Origins of Santa Claus

There are many different and conflicting stories about where Santa Claus comes from. One story associates with him a monk from 280 AD, Saint Nicholas. Others associate him with the pagan god Odin. Or the Germanic legends of Sinterklaas, the Christmas man.

But whatever story you believe, one thing is clear. All across Northern Europe was this memory of a man in a red suit that looked down people’s chimneys in midwinter to check on them. So I am calling it, Santa Claus is a Sami Shaman.

The Sami people look like this:

This is what the historical Santa Claus probably looked like

This is what the historical Santa Claus probably looked like

You’re Welcome.

Are they white? Umm, sort of…

It’s actually a deeply contested debate, one that shows a lot about how slippery the whole concept of race really is. Sami are a genetically distinct indigenous group. They share a lot in common with other far north indigenous tribes, like Inuits and Siberian tribes like the Yakuts and Samoyeds.

They’ve also lived alongside Swedish and Norwegian people for generations and many are light skinned and blonde haired.

So it just depends on how you define white.

But that’s all missing the point. The village shaman isn’t a hereditary post. Shamans are called to the duty. They do it because they are called by the spirits to serve.

So I say this, if you feel called by the spirit of Christmas to be Santa Claus then you must be Santa Claus. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, gay, straight or whatever.

And as a bonus, one of my favorite Christmas songs, the Native American Classic about a fat white man stuck in the smoke hole of someone’s teepee. Enjoy.

Trivia Time: The River Sarasvati

According to legend, the Rg Veda, India’s oldest spiritual manuscript, was composed by the sage Vyasa on the banks of the Sarasvati River. (Sometimes spelled Saraswati.) The Veda sings the praises of the fast flowing river many times over, saying it poured out milk and ghee (Clarified butter).


In case you want some.

Sarasvati became an important goddess in Vedic mythology and in modern Hindu faith. She is not just the Goddess of the River, but Goddess of knowledge, music, art and culture. She is prayed to for help with mental tasks of all kinds, ranging from mundane schooling to enlightenment. Her mantras include the Gayatri, prayed or chanted for thousands of years in the east and, far more recently, made famous in the West by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love.

But where is the river Sarasvati? Check out google maps, you won’t find it.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Is it just a myth? A garden of Eden sort of place? For years many have believed so.

Western Archeology once declared the city of Troy, famous for the Greek sacking told about in the Iliad, as a myth. But the site of the city was later rediscovered by a handful of archeologist. (Credit for the rediscovery most often goes to Heinrich Schlieman, a german archeologist working in the late 1800’s. The current site and academic confirmation of the finding goes to Manfred Korfmann. But in truth there were many who kept alive the belief that Troy was real and led to its eventual discovery.)

The discovery of Troy is an important aside in the history of the River Sarasvati because it fueled many young would be archeologists working in the British Raj in India. Perhaps the mythic river of this land also had a basis in reality.

The evidence quickly mounted as survey after survey found dry river beds running through parts of the Tar desert on the border of what is now the Indian/Pakistan border. The course of this dry bed conforms closely to the mythical Sarasvati river.

They soon discovered signs that this river had been site of a civilization as ancient as Sumer or Egypt, among the earliest known anywhere in the world. It was dubbed Harappa, after the first site. Though others have renamed in after the largest city so far excavated, that at Mohen-daro. Yet others have proposed to call it Sarasvati valley civilization or to even expand the term Indus Valley civilization to Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, tying it more directly to later Indus valley cultures.

As surveys continued into this century and down through modern times, the scope of Harappa grew with it. Harappa once spanned from parts of Iran, near the border with the concurrent city states of Sumeria, to well into central India. The cities are large for the time period and remarkably uniform and organized. From the size of the bricks used in construction to the layout of the cities themselves, everything is uniform. So much so that it has been suggested that when new standards were introduced, whole new cities were built to conform to those standards and the old ones abandoned or razed to the ground! Harappan cities have sewer systems and bins for trash removal, something London wouldn’t get until late nineteenth century.

Two very remarkable facts hide within the sameness of Harappan cities. Sumerian cities of the time were extremely stratified. The rich lived in luxury while the majority lived in mud huts and abject poverty. In Harrappan cities the houses are uniform in size and relative grandeur as well. A rich Harappan merchant may have had a compound made of four normal sized dwellings, but there is nothing that compares to the palatial estates found elsewhere. While it is difficult to say much without more study, the evidence seems to point to there being little gap between the rich and the poor in Harappa.

The Dancing Girl of Harappa. Source: Wikipedia

The Dancing Girl of Harappa.
Source: Wikipedia

Harappan cities have walls and fortifications (we think, we often label buildings based on what we’ve found elsewhere and there is little to prove these labels true.) There are no murals depicting battles or conquests. The Harappan’s worked bronze and made elaborate toys, trinkets and jewelry, but their spearheads and arrows are less refined. Some archeologist suggest spears were ceremonial and the walls meant to keep out animals or the occasional raiding tribe, rather than for warfare.

All of which paints a picture of a civilization very different from the rest of the ancient world, or even the modern one for that matter. There is little to indicated a strong ruling or military class. And yet there is a great deal of organization.

It may be that these things existed, but weren’t recorded for some reason. It might be that Harappa did have masses of poor people, living outside the city proper in houses that have long degraded. It may be that the rich depictions of great rulers and military conquest have vanished somehow.

But it seems unlikely. Instead it seems more likely that Harappa challenges our western assumptions about human nature and power. That without autocratic rule people can learn to get along and live in relative peace and prosperity.

A partial explanation might lie in the land itself. The Sarasvati river was known to have a “deep earth channel” by Vedic writers. Modern geologist confirm this, much of the water spilling down into this region was underground. That meant that despite being a hot, mostly rainless region, wells could be dug and water found only a few feet down. Imagine a land lush with life, where agricultural wealth is easy to come by. It may have been a land of milk and ghee, as the Vedas suggest.

What happened to this beautiful land? Archeologist aren’t sure. The mostly likely explanation is an earthquake further up in the Himalayan mountains changed the course of the head waters that once fed the region. At any rate the waters of the Sarasvati began to flow elsewhere, into the Ganges river and the Yamuna River. The region grew increasingly arid and couldn’t support the population.

Those populations fled eastward, into the Indus Valley. This time was recorded in prehistory as the “forest period” when the Rig Veda and the Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were written.

I have always been intrigued by ancient history, and by Indian culture. The two come together for me in the story of the River Sarasvati. Unfortunately there is so much we don’t know about Harappa. We have yet to decipher their written language. The India-Pakistan divide left most of Harappa north of the new border, in Pakistan. Given the current politics, neither Indian or Western archeologist have had access to dig or survey sites since.

I am not sure yet exactly how this particular bit of research fits into my writing, but I thought it interesting enough to share. I do have a story tickling at the back of my brain that will be set in this ancient land. When I finish it, I will be sure to share.

Until then, If you want to know more about the River Sarasvati, I learned much from the book The Lost River: On the Trails of Saraswati by Michel Danino.

Trivia Time: Rebecca and her Daughters

In honor of North Carolina and a whole host of conservative states manufacturing an issue around trans people peeing in the bathroom that best suits the gender they live in, we bring you a special trivia time where we look at the real historic dangers of cross dressing men, Rebecca and her Daughters.

RebeccaRiots

The scene is Wales and the year is 1842. Wales has been, even down to this day, a reluctant and uneasy part of the English crown. The list of Anglo-Welsh wars and Welsh uprising spans over a thousand years and you can find websites dedicated to Welsh independence even today.

The issue in 1842 was a combination of dropping agricultural prices and static rents, taxes and tolls on Welsh farmers, causing many poor farmers to become even poorer. So one night a huge man by the name of Thomas Reese approached the tollgate at Yr Efail Wen in Carmarthenshire in woman’s clothes. He claimed to be Rebecca and demanded to be let through the toll booth to see his children. When refused, he attacked the guards and destroyed the gate. The Rebecca Riots had begun.

Historians often state that the name Rebecca was drawn from the bible. Genesis 24:60 “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” Local legend however, insists that Rebecca was the name of the woman to which the dress in question had belonged. There is no evidence for this assertion and we may never know.

At any rate the Merched Becca, which translates as Rebecca’s Daughters, continued Thomas’s work throughout 1842 and into 1843. They would approach toll booths dressed as woman and with blackened faces. Sometimes they would pretend to be blind old woman and then pretend to be surprised to find the toll booth in their way. They would smash them and riot.

The riots were put down in 1843 by an increased military presence in the region. However in the aftermath of the riots, there was a commission and the Turnpike Act of 1844, which improved road conditions and made the tolls fairer. Toll booths all but disappeared over the next hundred years and the movement became little more than a foot note in history, and an interesting piece of trivia.

But why did they cross dress?

It makes sense that peasants planning to commit acts of sabotage would want a disguise. But women’s clothing might seem an odd choice to modern readers.

One possible answer lies in the ancient Welsh Ceffyl Pren, or wooden horse. The wooden horse was used to punish men who had transgressed the morality of the time by beating their wives, fathering bastard children or being unfaithful. The men were strapped to the wooden horse and dragged through the village to be ridiculed and scorned by all.

mummers

What does the Ceffyl Pren have to do with cross dressing? It was customary for the judges who oversaw the trial and punishment to wear women’s clothes and blacken their faces. This makes a certain sense in context, they are administering punishment in the name of women in most of these cases, so they symbolically take on that role. Perhaps Rebecca and her daughters meant to shame the English for their rape of the Welsh countryside and abuse of her lands?

Or perhaps it was like the masquerade masks the nobles often wore to balls. They aren’t much of a disguise to modern eyes, but they weren’t meant to be. They meant merely to give others a degree of plausible deniability, an easy way to pretend you don’t know who that man or woman really is. One can imagine a group of Welsh farmers shrugging at the local constable and saying, “Don’t know, it was some woman that did it.”

Yet another explanation lies in medieval carnivals. Carnival days were often celebrated by groups like the “Abbeys of Misrule.” The men in these groups cross dressed, went by names like “princess” and “dame.” They mocked the powers that be and hypocrisy, all from the safety of their disguise. Authorities tended to look the other way, a once yearly carnival was an easy release valve for tensions that might otherwise turn into revolution or rebellion.

What does this have to do with transgender people?

Nothing, at least not directly. Rebecca and her daughters were not trans people. There is no evidence that they continued any sort of cross gender behavior outside of the revolt. There may well have been a few trans people who lived their whole year waiting for that one carnival day when they could truly be themselves, but overall the carnival princesses have more in common with the drag queens of today, more a performance than an identity.

And yet, as Leslie Feinberg point out in Transgender Warriors, the whole notion of men cross dressing to perform acts of rebellion is a far cry from modern stereotypes of crossdressers or trans people. Leslie goes on to point out that even those these people weren’t transgender, we can draw some pride in the fact they choose violating gender norms as a way to show their strength, not as something to be ashamed of.

What does this have to do with the bathroom bills?

Again, nothing. But it might be a lot of fun, the next time some conservative is sharing unrealistic fears of what might happen if trans people are allowed to pee in peace, to remind them that historically speaking, Welsh peasants wrecking up the joint is one of the possibilities.