Nine years ago in Burlington, North Carolina, a group of decent, Christian, hard-working folks who called themselves the Truth Tabernacle Church held a trial featuring the well-known elf Santa Claus as defendant.
They charged Mr. Claus, represented in court by a stuffed dummy, with all sorts of high crimes and misdemeanors. They charged him with paganism. They charged him with perjury for claiming to be Saint Nicholas. They even charged him with encouraging child abuse by appearing in whiskey ads. Worse yet, they found him guilty on all counts, for basically being a jolly old elf -- i.e., a pagan god trying to steal Christmas from Christ.
It wasn't the first time Mr. Claus got the boot from a Christian congregation. Pope John XXIII threw the suspiciously merry old clown out of the Roman Catholic church back in the late 1960s. The Jehovah's Witnesses have always denounced Santa for his unsavory pagan past. (They also recognized Christmas trees as phallic symbols long before Freud.) Many fundamentalists believe that all pagan gods are basically one false god -- the same demon in different disguises -- and they think the disguise is thin in the case of this particular elf. It only takes a minor letter switch, they point out, to reveal Santa Claus as SATAN Claus.
I sort of think the fundies have it right for once. Santa not only has an unsavory pagan ancestry but a rather criminal family history all around. Let me Illuminize you...
As Weston La Barre pointed out a long time ago in his classic Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion, you can find remnants of a primordial bear-god from the bottom of South America up over North America and over the North Pole and down across most of Europe and Asia. This deity appears in cave paintings from southern France carbon-dated at 30,000 BC. You can find him and her (for this god is bisexual) disguised in Artemis and Arduina and King Arthur, all unmasked via canny detective work by folklorists -- and etymologists, who first spotted the bear-god when they identified the Indo-European root ard, meaning bear. You can track the bear-god in dwindling forms in a hundred fairy tales from all over Europe and Asia. And you can find the rituals of this still-living god among the indigenous tribes of both American continents.
And Santa, like Peter Pan and the Green Man of the spring festivals, and the Court Jester -- and (in an odd way) Chaplin's beloved Little Tramp -- all have traits of the god that walks like a man and acts nasty sometimes and clownish sometimes and who was ritually killed and eaten by most of our ancestors in the Stone Age, who then became one with their god and thus also became (if the ritual worked) as brave as their god. See Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough for the gory details.
And I swear the same god-bear tromps and shambles through every page of Joyce's masterpiece of psycho-archeology, Finnegans Wake. If you don't believe me, consult Adaline Glasheen's Third Census of 'Finnegans Wake.'
Most folklorists recognize "the cannibal in the woods" as a humanized relic of the bear-god. The heroine, in 101 tales, meets him while on a mission of mercy. He generally sets the heroine to solve three riddles, and when she succeeds, instead of eating her he becomes her ally and helps her reach her goal. One variation on that became The Silence of the Lambs. Another became Little Red Riding Hood.
What? Hannibal Lecter another of Santa's uncouth family?
In some rustic parts of Europe and probably in Kansas, Santa retains traces of his carnivorous past. Children are told that if they are "good" all year, Santa will reward them, but if they are "bad" he will EAT THEM ALL UP. Yeah, the Boogie Man or Bogie or Pookah or Puck are all of somewhat ursine ancestry, although other animal-gods got mixed in sometimes.
As Crazy Old Uncle Ezra wrote in Canto 113, "The gods have not returned. They have never left us."
Jung might state the case thusly: Gods, as archetypes of the genetic human under-soul (or "collective unconscious"), cannot be killed or banished; they always return with a new mask but the same symbolic meaning. Related example: Young ladies in ancient Greece were often seduced or raped by satyrs; in the Arab lands, we note a similar outbreak of randy djinn; it India, it was devas. In the Christian Dark Ages, it began happening to young men, too, especially to monks. They called the lascivious critter an incubus. Now it's happening all around us, and the molesters come from Outer Space. The sex-demon, like the Great Mother and the Shadow and our ursine hero, and the three brothers hunting the dragon (Recognize them in Jaws? Spot them doing their Three Stooges gig?) -- these archetypal forces always come back under new names. Sir Walter Scott called them "the crew that never rests."
And the bear-god seems wakeful lately. He has appeared prominently in three recent bits of pop culture (the movies Legends of the Fall and The Edge as well asStephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon) and snuck into Modern Lit 101 not only via Joyce but also via Faulkner's great parable "The Bear." He also pops up to deliver the punch line in Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam?
We will see more of him, methinks.
Meanwhile, Santa, the Jester/Clown/Fertility God aspect of Father Bear, is doing quite well also, despite getting the bum's rush by some grim, uptight Christers. He has quite successfully stolen Xmas from X and brings pagan lust and pagan cheer to most of us, every year, just when we need it most, in the dead of winter. His beaming face appears everywhere and if we have a minor cultural war going on between those who wish to invoke him via alcohol and those who prefer their invocations per cannabis, we all share the pagan belief, at least for part of a week, that the best way to mark the solstice and the year's dying ashes is to form a loving circle and all get bombed together.
As a pagan myself, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Robert Anton Wilson is the author of 32 books, including Everything Is Under Control, an encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, and maintains the Web's strangest site @ www.rawilson.com. He also serves as CEO of CSICON (the Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal).