Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Santa Claus: A Biography

In Santa Claus: A Biography, author Gerry Bowler explores the history behind the Santa Claus myth, tracing it to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra of Turkey in the fourth century. Bowler also looks at modern appropriations of Santa Claus iconography to suit specific means, such as Santa in wartime and in advertising. He concludes the biography with a look towards the future and if Santa Claus will have a part in it among today's tech-savvy tots.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders despised the cult of the saints, and Saint Nicholas the gift-giver was substituted by the Christ child as the sole great provider. While Saint Nicholas may have been abolished, the spirit of mythical and fantastic gift-giving remained. This explains the sudden new generation of gift-givers across Europe such as Befana, the witch from Italy.

One of the more common myths about the evolution of Santa is that the Coca-Cola Company single-handedly invented his modern-day portrayal. I'm sure the folks at Coke like to hear others perpetuate this myth year after year, knowing that those who tell it probably are reaching for a refreshing beverage while reminiscing about their beloved childhood Christmases:

"It is far too frequently believed that Sundblom's work for Coca-Cola created the familiar red-and-white-clad Santa of the modern era. In fact, the Coke Santa was in no way groundbreaking; illustrators for the Saturday Evening Post such as J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell had already helped fix the Santa in the public's mind."

Santa Claus was not a trademark and as a public domain any company could use his image to promote its products, no matter how incongruous the connection. Bowler writes of ads at the beginning of the 1900's where Santa is shilling rifles:

"No smoke, no noise and perfectly safe in the hands of any boy."

Companies may not have gained any actual sales from employing Santa as pitchman, but they would have gained some positive publicity and goodwill having the jolly old elf as an endorser. Who would doubt the testimony of Santa Claus? Would he lie to you about the safety of firearms in the hands of your child?

I found the chapter about Santa in the movies and in popular songs to be a boring list of titles. This opinion is influenced by my prejudice that I am not a movie person. Bowler listed dozens of silver screen moments featuring Santa Claus, be they from a specifically Christmas movie or not. The section on songs about Santa was slightly more interesting, and the author certainly covered all the crushingly awful Santa songs written in deliberate bad taste. I was disappointed that Bowler didn't write about "Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year" by Tiny Tim, one of my (and John Waters's) favourites.

This book included many black-and-white illustrations showing the evolution of Santa Claus, although the majority of these images were print advertising. I especially liked the first print ads, where Santa didn't look anything like the red-coated rosy-cheeked morbidly obese elf we know him as today.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes

Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of The Great Lakes by Andrea Gutsche and Cindy Bisaillon is another book I have had kicking around for years yet never got around to reading in its entirety. I acquired the book, which came with an accompanying 72-minute VHS video, when it first came out in 1999. I was fascinated by the often forgotten, if not entirely unknown tales from the Great Lakes islands, yet I only read about the islands I was immediately drawn to (for example, Middle Island, Pelee Island, Manitoulin Island, and Isle Royale). Mysterious Islands is divided into five chapters, one for each Great Lake, moving from east to west. The book is filled with black and white photographs throughout its 296 pages, but unfortunately many are too small or of poor quality to make much of them. At times I even stood holding the book directly under a lamp, or worse, shining a flashlight on certain pictures in order to see what they depicted. The book was surprisingly heavy, but that was due to its high quality of glossy paper. Ever the armchair editor, I was struck by the number of typographical errors in Mysterious Islands. That the authors named no less than two proofreaders in the Acknowledgements only made me roll my eyes heavenward. I do wonder what it is that proofreaders actually do.

On to the islands. Middle Island, the speck of Canada lying south of Pelee Island lays claim to the title of being the southernmost part of Canada. It was the hub of a thriving bootlegging and smuggling ring during the time of Prohibition. The chapter even had a photo of the Middle Island clubhouse, where all the boozing and gambling took place. A closeup of Middle Island and its crumbling clubhouse can be found here. There was plenty to read about Pelee Island, but I was shocked to find only four pages devoted to Manitoulin. Wouldn't the largest island in the Great Lakes merit more than this? Manitoulin also claims several lakes of its own. I have cycled around these lakes within a lake, and even seen the islands within these lakes. I thought that the authors would surely give at least a cursory mention to Lake Manitou, the world's largest lake-in-a-lake.

Sugar Island, located in Lake Huron, has an unusual claim to fame: it was one of twenty-two spots in North America selected as a possible site for the new United Nations headquarters. Former Michigan governor Chase Osborn proposed the site based on how it was peacefully acquired by the US in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Osborn believed Sugar Island fulfilled the spirit of the new UN pledge, "to settle international disputes by peaceful means, to refrain from the threat or use of force". The UN instead settled on another island to build its headquarters: Manhattan.

I love to read lighthouse stories and Mysterious Islands had plenty of them. Caribou Island, the most remote of all the Great Lakes islands, lies in Lake Superior, 100 km from the nearest port. It thus had the most isolated lighthouse. Caribou was uninhabited, although the rock 1.6 km offshore where the lighthouse was actually located housed only the lighthouse keeper and his family. Imagine living on a rock--quite literally--with no one else around for 100 km. There wouldn't have even been other land to visit, unless you rowed out to Caribou. This might be the closest an Ontarian can come to feeling what it's like to live on Tristan da Cunha. See Caribou Island here, and the speck of white on the offshore rock which is the lighthouse.

In 1917, the government stopped transporting lighthouse keepers and their families back home in December. In effect, their employer just abandoned them. Lighthouse keepers had to make their way back to the mainland themselves. I read this time and time again, and sometimes the keepers suffered tragic results. The Caribou lighthouse keeper refitted a sailboat yet was trapped for eight days in Lake Superior's ice and storms. It was another five years before the government reintroduced winter transport home.

Mysterious Islands spent an admirable time reporting on the history of the Great Lakes islands before European settlement. The authors reported on the alliances and treaties made between settlers and the First Nations. The islands were home to mines, cults (more than one), prisons and countless shipwrecks. It is my hope to visit some of these islands and I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn so much of their history.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! 101 Joyful Stories about the Love, Fun, and Wonder of the Holidays

I always start decorating my house for Christmas the week of the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. It takes me several weeks to get my house in the festive spirit and I am happy to say that I finished decorating this year rather early (early for me): the entire house was done by November 30. I was filled with Christmas spirit and wanted a light, leisurely feel-good Christmas read so I grabbed the latest Christmas collection in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I had never read such a collection before, yet I knew what they were like. Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! 101 Joyful Stories about the Love, Fun, and Wonder of the Holidays was 406 pages of delightful Christmas stories covering a variety of topics, such as Christmas miracles, Christmas and pets, bittersweet Christmas memories and holiday hijinks. Whether a happy story or bittersweet, the tears flowed copiously in It's Christmas! It did seem overwrought, how much crying there was in all of these stories. The humour was however more abundant and I had a chuckle over the following spelling error:

"There were candles in the widows." (from "Clay Baby Christmas").

One of my favourite stories told of the generosity of neighbours at Christmastime. In "It Takes a Village", after the family dog ate the twenty-pound turkey meant for a feast for thirty guests, neighbours went up and down the streets asking families for dinner donations. Some donated a drumstick, a wing and so on, each family giving up a turkey part so that one family and their guests could enjoy a Christmas dinner of their own. I also enjoyed "The Stinky Gift that Kept on Giving", about a joky exchange of a jar of limburger cheese that lasted for eighteen years.

The stories in It's Christmas! were not long, only three to four pages each. Cartoons separated each themed chapter. For a lightweight read to put you in the Christmas spirit, read this or any Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas collection.