Thursday, 29 December 2016

Reinventing Christmas folklore

Christmas Present
A few days ago, chatting over morning coffee and social media, The Other Half and I happened upon a mention of Père Fouettard, a Christmas character.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and search engines, it didn’t take long to discover that Père Fouettard is a sort of counterpoint to Father Christmas in northern and eastern France, and in Flanders, and that he carries a whip with him to punish the naughty children.

This is not too far removed from Krampus, the half goat, half demon figure who can be found from Bavaria to northern Italy to Hungary and more, and who, through comics and more recently a film, has found his way into American and British minds.

It struck me how sanitised our own gift-bringing mythology is: at one time, a bad child in the UK might have been led to expect a lump of coal as a present, but we don’t seem to have the same child-snatching villain as Krampus or, indeed, Père Fouettard, who is sometimes equipped with a sack to take away naughty children, never mind whip them.

But then again, Victorian society was a weirdly mixed bag when it came to frightening children with morality tales, yet sanitising the likes of fairy tales.

The late 19th century was also the time when British personifications of Father Christmas morphed from the sort of Green Man version that owed a great deal to ancient myth and folklore – and is famously presented as the Ghost of Christmas Present in John Leechs illustration for Charles Dickenss Christmas Carol – to the red-cloaked old man we are so familiar with today.

Our discussion ranged across various other elements of Christmas folklore, including the vexed question of when Santa first needed elves.

Godey's Lady's Book
Elves were an established part of Germanic and Scandinavian folkloric traditions, but it was only in the US, where they’d made their way via migration, that they were incorporated into Christmas, with a first festive appearance in literature coming in 1850 in an unpublished book by Louisa May Alcott, called Christmas Elves.

Harper’s Weekly published a poem mentioning elves in 1857, but for the idea of the elves in the workshop, we can thank a 1873 edition of women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, with its cover illustration showing Santa surrounded by toys and elves and with the caption: "Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time”.

I’ve always rather thought of folklore as a process that has stopped, and that we preserve, as in amber, but it continues to grow, even if modern communication and entertainment methods have largely overtaken the oral tradition.

Star Wars has a sense of the mythological about it. And Christmas myth and folklore have not stood still in recent years either. Some reworkings and new versions are more successful than others.

In 1996, Terry Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel introduced us to the Hogfather – with a two-part TV version following a decade later.

Josh Kirby's original cover artwork for Hogfather
Pratchett, of course, famously said that he’d occasionally been accused of penning ‘literature’ – and Hogfather is a good example of how his novels are so much more than simple ‘entertainments’.

Here, beyond the satire – and I’d suggest that Pratchett is one of the finest satirists the UK has ever produced – are questions and reflexions on the relationship between storytelling, myth and folklore and the human condition; on the fine balance between somehow believing (à la the willing suspension of disbelief we engage in at the cinema or theatre) and yet not allowing such beliefs to usurp science and reality.

The God Delusion didn’t hit bookshelves until three years after Hogfather, but re-reading it again this December, it was difficult not to see The Auditors as being akin to Richard Dawkins and others.

However, Hogfather is far from the only evocation of Christmas to add to the mythos and, indeed, to offer a sense of Christmas not being ‘just about the children’.

A Dan Mora cover for one issue of Klaus 
Klaus, written by top comic creator Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dan Mora (who has won an award already for his work on this), first appeared in seven parts, beginning at the end of 2015.

Now available as a trade – although when it’s a large-format, limited-edition hardback with gilded page edging, it’s hard to think of it as a ‘trade’ – this presents us with a far darker Santa origin story that draws on Norse myth and Siberian shamanism.

There are no elves here and nothing sanitised, but a brutal and beautiful tale that draws us back to Christmas as a festival marking the depths of winter.

It’s a really top work (the architectural aesthetic attracted me first, since it owes more than a little to the kind of Germany that we’ve experienced in the last couple of years), and left me with a meditative sense of something that was not new, but as old as the hills.

If youre unfamiliar with Morrisons work, just this work should illustrate why hes so highly regarded.

Klaus is available now from BOOM! Studios, both in the limited edition mentioned above (it seems that Forbidden Planet still has copies) and in a non-limited edition. A one-off, single story comic has also just been released to follow up the first series/book.

I’ve also read Krampus! from writer Brian Joines and artist Dean Kotz (published by Image) and, while it’s an entertaining romp, it also serves to reiterate how good Klaus is.

So, folklore/mythology does not stand still, even in technological, cynical times such as ours. And thank goodness for that.

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