“Well, the whole affair is about as real as Kwanza, or uh, the ‘Wookie’s Life Day,’ but I find it charming.” ~Dr. Orpheus
St. Nick: Voyeur
I’m reading a compilation of old fairy tales–Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know–introduced by Hamilton Wright Mabie (1905) with:
“The fairy tale is a poetic recording of the facts of life, an interpretation by the imagination of its hard conditions, an effort to reconcile the spirit which loves freedom and goodness and beauty with its harsh, bare and disappointing conditions.”
Around this time of year, I’m prone to thinking about the hard work our imaginations do. I believe this idea … that fairy / folk tales help us understand human nature, order our world, and reconcile the ideals of freedom, goodness, and beauty with harsh, bare, and disappointing realities of life. So, as I’m reading these tales, I’m thinking about our brain development. I appreciate that when we’re children we have a greater capacity to imagine and a lesser capacity to reason. So, instead of saying, “sometimes people are jealous of the beautiful and are wicked to the good. So, be vigilant” we say “mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.”
As it often happens, while I was milling this thought, I was sent a link to an excellent post about Christmas (thanks, Rach). The author of the post, Laura, talks about the light and dark sides of Christmas. Like many (all?) folk and fairy tales, there is a dark side that makes the light shine brighter. There had to be someone to say there was no room at the inn, just to make the birth story more dangerous and exciting.
Christmas folklore is abundant with danger … whipping, kidnapping, deportation … coal (the most terrifying of all the fuel sources). The Belsnickel or Krampus demons accompany St. Nicholas in Germany and Austria (and other European countries) to scare children into being good … or to beat and scare the sins out of them before Christmas, depending on where you are. Le Père Fouettard or Hanstrapp whips the French children. Black Peter or Zwarte Pieten is the Dutch trickster counterpart to good old Sinterklaas. He’ll tease you and threaten to deport you back to Spain in an old sack if you’re bad. (On the subject, and if you haven’t read it yet, here’s a link to Six to Eight Black Men by David Sedaris.)
I learned about Black Peter when I was in second grade and fell madly in love with him. Naturally, when it came time to getting parts for the Christmas play, I was all over Black Peter. Sadly, there were other fans … 5, as I recall. Two of them bowed out gracefully and took other parts leaving three of us to duke it out. My teacher, who I thought was really groovy, came up with an equitable solution. We would pick a number from 1 to 10 and the closest to the number she was thinking would win. She whispered it to a student and we picked. You’re thinking it’s game over, right? Well, you’re wrong.
What happened next seemed perfectly normal at the time. The teacher asked us if we were sure we wanted those numbers. Isn’t it psychological torture to give people time to second guess themselves? I think the one kid changed his number right away. I didn’t see what difference it would make to change my number. It would just upset me if I changed it to something that made me lose. So, I was standing firm. Still, having the choice and not taking it was shaking me. And my teacher kept it up for a pretty long time, going to each of us one by one, goading us … “you can still change your number,” “this is your last chance,” “are you sure?” It was very tense.
In her final appeal, my teacher said, “you can change your number to anything between one and ten.” She started counting slowly, “ooone … twoooo … threeeee … fooour … fiiive … siiix … seeeven … eiiiight … … … … … nine, ten.” Her eyes flashed at her mistake. She tried to cover. “Any of those numbers.” My hand shot up and I said, “I wanna change my number.” She revealed her hand and I saw it. I said, “eight.” She asked me if I was sure, but the game was over. Her torture couldn’t touch me. She was definitely disappointed. I always mistook her expression as disappointment in me. Like, I shouldn’t have taken advantage of her mistake and the other kids who didn’t catch it. But now that I think of it, she was probably just having an “oh crap” moment because she’d blown the game.
Well, whatever. I got to be Black Peter, which gave me both pleasure and guilt, which I should have loved since that’s sort-of what Black Peter is all about. I mean, we’re not all good inside. We just hide enough of our darkness for people to see our merit, love us, and give us gifts once a year while we play out a folk tale and steep ourselves in pleasure and guilt, light and dark, surprise and control. And that’s why it’s magical. Because, as Hamilton Wright Mabie said, “It is … a spontaneous and instinctive endeavor to shape the facts of the world to meet the needs of the imagination, the cravings of the heart.” Of our light and dark hearts.