It was a few days before Christmas when I saw my old friend Jack sitting by himself in the food court on the third level of the Bayshore Shopping Centre. He was disconsolately pushing some food around on a paper plate, a sneer on his face.
I had done a little Christmas shopping, and decided I needed a rest and maybe some New York Fries with vinegar. I made my way over to where he was sitting and said "Hi". He absentmindedly nodded in acknowledgment of my presence and motioned for me to sit down. I did. The New York Fries would have to wait.
"Did you get everything on Santa's list?" I asked him.
"Fuck Santa Claus!" said Jack.
I said: "Let's leave that to Mrs Claus, shall we."
I could tell from his lack of response that he was not in the mood for trifling.
"What do you have against jolly old Santa?" I asked.
"That fat imposter? That creature of the devil?" said Jack. Despite the exaggeration in his voice, it was clear that he wasn't altogether kidding.
"That's hardly the way to get into his good graces," I replied. "What have you got against him?" I reiterated.
"That asterisk/exclamation mark/dollar sign/octothorpe/ampersand asshole is the biggest proof of the existence of the devil, at least in my book" Jack expostulated. Jack had gone to Sunday school in his youth and I credited him with knowing about such matters.
"How so?" I asked.
"Well, allow me to explain. You got a minute?"
I said yes, although the line-up for the New York Fries was getting longer.
And Jack began: "A long time ago there lived in Greece or Turkey or Italy -- what do I know -- a bishop by name of Nicholas. He used to do all kinds of good. One day he heard that a poor man was getting ready to sell his three daughters into prostitution. So he threw three little bags with gold coins through the man's window. Now the poor man had enough dowry to marry them off."
"What's this have to do with Christmas or Santa Claus?" I asked.
Jack continued: "From this we have the custom of giving presents. But he is also said to have performed miracles. One time he learned of three young boys who had been murdered and pickled in a barrel of brine. He raised them back to life. That's where his concern for children comes in."
I said: "But, what does all this have to do with Santa Claus?"
"Saint Nicholas' feast day is celebrated on the 6th of December."
I said: "Jack, I know about Saint Nicholas. I was born and raised in Holland, remember? On his feast day, Saint Nicholas brings gifts for the little children. In Holland he is called by the Dutch version of his name: Sinterklaas. The Dutch settlers in the New York area -- remember New York was once called New Amsterdam -- brought Sinterklaas over with them. I know that in the course of time Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, because the British and other foreigners couldn't pronounce the name right."
"Anyhow," I continued, "that's still no reason for calling Santa Claus an asterisk/exclamation mark/dollar sign/octothorpe/ ampersand asshole."
"Wait," Jack said, "You haven't heard all of it yet. Now Sinterklaas is not a jolly fat man, right? He is a bishop. This is where the pagan Father Winter figure comes in. He's the bearded old guy with the long overcoat that you sometimes see in the stores around this time of year. So now the bishop's robe is supplanted by an overcoat. See where this is heading?"
"Not yet," I said.
"Well, let's look at it from the other side of the month of December: 6 days from the end of the month -- see the symmetry? That's Christmas, the birth of Christ. Also a religious celebration. And what has been happening to Christmas? It's all about sales, all about Santa, hell -- pardon my Portuguese -- you're not even supposed to wish somebody a Merry Christmas any more! You're supposed to say Season's Greetings. Well *!$#& me!" Jack added with righteous indignation.
"So if I get you right," I said, "You're saying that all the religious elements of Saint Nicholas and Jesus have been virtually squeezed out of December by the pagan Santa Claus."
"Exactly" said Jack. "And it's not just that he's pagan. I could accept that, just as I can accept a Christmas tree, which is also a pagan custom. But it is more sinister than that?"
"How so?" I asked.
"Do you know what an anagram is?"
I said: "That's where you scramble the letters of a word to form another word"
"Right", said Jack, "and this is where the devil comes in, he always leaves his mark."
I raised my eyebrows as a question.
Jack looked at me conspiratorially as he leaned over and said:
"The anagram for Santa ... is Satan."
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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