Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How Tito Killed Christmas . . . with Santa

When winter first rolled around, I noticed that the McDonald's in downtown Skopje began to put up a large, American-style Christmas tree. I just assumed that, since McDonald's is the unofficial American cultural embassy, they were just following the corporate line.

Since that time, Christmas shops - Western, Santa-and-sleigh, Rudolph and all - have been popping up all over Skopje. There is now a Christmas tree in the main square, and one in the main shopping center. People are selling Christmas cards (which say Mary Christmas - close enough) for charity.

This is all extremely unsettling - our American-style Santa isn't even that prevalent in Western European countries, as they generally have their own Santa-like traditions (or, in his place, a frightening goblin-demon that eats terrible children). So how did our over-commercialized, Holiday TV-special, Bing Crosby Christmas transplant itself wholesale to the Balkans? A professor at my institute was able to provide the answer:

The communists did it.

Communism is, of course, a materialist, atheist sort of philosophy that stomps out religion wherever it can. Yugoslavia was no exception. So imagine you are the communist dictator of a country full of deeply-ingrained religious and folk beliefs. Christmas, with all its traditional neo-pagan folk connotations and overt Christian meaning, is going to be tough to take down. You could pull a Stalin and just start shooting people out behind the barn, but that isn't your style. You need some help. Has anybody else successfully undercut the religious aspects of Christmas, and turned it into a completely secular, materialist holiday?

Can you see where I'm going with this?

The Yugoslav government adopted our secular Santa, our materialist 'X-mas', to help knock the Christ out of Christmas. Traditional Orthodox practices and folk celebrations were discouraged, subverted, or absorbed entirely into a new set of holiday 'traditions' in which good old Kris Kringle played a large part. He's known as Grandpa Frost here, by the way, since the real St. Nicholas was martyred in Turkey - a little too close for comfort.

Obviously, I find this absolutely hilarious, and not just because a nominally communist nation adopted the symbol of the most commercialized, capitalistic time of year in America. I find it very amusing that, in doing so, they were able to strip our Santa tradition down to the most fundamental elements - secularism and materialism - and use him to undercut a real religious tradition.

Because, after all, this is something that was put upon the people here by the communist government. We created and adopted this sort of Santa ourselves . . .

How does that reflect on us?

(Full disclosure: I'll be spending the evening at the British Ambassador's Residence, eating mincemeat pies, drinking port and mulled wine, and enjoying some Victorian Christmas caroling . . . the perfect start to the expatriate holiday season.)

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