Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dark And Disturbing Christmas Legends

There's a traumatic memory in your childhood: Your parents drag you through a line in a crowded store to sit on the red velvet lap of this monstrous stranger. Back then you just knew he lived in a dark, dark world. You spent the rest of your life unlearning this fact. But you were right. Santa and Christmas are surrounded by the kind of messed up legends not even James Ellroy has the balls to write about.

St. Nick And The Pimp. According to The Darkling by Jan Perkowski, the story of St. Nicholas begins with child prostitution. A man crushed by poverty was planning to sell the sexual favors of his three lovely young daughters. That's when Santa intervened, anonymously donating purses of gold so the girls could find good husbands instead. Everyone ended up happy. But that had to have made Christmas dinners awkward for years. There is a French folktale that's even darker, about Santa as a homicide investigator who discovers that a butcher has killed a several children and chopped them up to be salted pork. It's something we covered last December.

Reindeer? No, Werewolves. Sabine Baring-Gould's Book of Werewolves, a 19th century classic on lycanthropy claims that Polish villagers believed Christmas was one of the times during the year when werewolves raged over the countryside. Many people in Germany thought that if you were born on one of the twelve days of Christmas you were actually doomed to become a werewolf. And also for people to forget your birthday.

Coffins For Christmas. St. Stephen is traditionally associated with the holidays and featured in carols like Good King Wenceslas, because his feast day is December 26. But his past is ugly -- because he was the first martyr, killed by stoning, his symbol is a pile of rocks, and he is the patron saint of coffin makers. Maybe if you die around Christmas you can get some sort of discount.

Season's Beatings. Christmas carollers used to be bands of young Clockwork Orange-style thugs who would shake you down and vandalize your house if you didn't ply them with food and drink. And the practice of carolling, or "wassailing" used to involve animal sacrifice. Some folk legends claim the warm beverage or "wassail" that you'd quaff was from the blood of the animal you'd just slaughtered.

Holiday Corpse Hounds. In British folklore, the holiday was said to be the time when a band of spectral hunting dogs with flaming eyes would appear in the sky -- they were known as the Gabriel Rache, or corpse hounds, and those who saw them would soon die.

Christmas Ghosts. There is a rich tradition of ghosts who appear at Christmastime. Anne Boleyn is believed to appear at Haver Castle in Kent every Christmas Eve. And Roos Hall in Suffolk has a legend of a ghostly coach with a headless groom that arrives on the same night.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A CIA Spy Talks About "The Great Satan" In The Mideast

Last week I wrote about the role of the devil in American politics during the Civil War. We will be heading to other periods in US history soon, but first I wanted to explore a more modern topic -- the use of the devil in Middle Eastern rhetoric. Specifically, America's designation as "Great Satan." Who uses this language, and why? I contacted Bob Baer, retired CIA case officer and author of The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower. Here's what I learned from him:

Sunni militants are much more likely to view us as a tool of the Evil One than the people who first tagged us as the "Great Satan."
Iranian revolutionaries came up with this label, and their Shiite proxies in Hezbollah continue to oppose us. But "the Shia are less likely to believe the rhetoric," according to Baer. "They think it's
a political power play." The Shiite groups we fight are more pragmatic, more accepting. It's the Sunni groups who look at us as "pure evil." They see themselves in a Manichean struggle against the forces of darkness. It's why you see them using tactics like suicide bombing to slaughter people indiscriminately.

The rhetoric came out of the needs of the 1979 Revolution.
"To really mobilize the street you've got to have a simple message," says Baer. We made the perfect enemy for them -- because of our support for the Shah, and because of our decadent Western morality.

Muslims believe in Satan, but he's not much of a player.
"I don’t see the Muslims I've known invoking the name of the devil like Christians
do," he says. "If Allah is truly all-seeing and all-knowing, there's much less competition."

Iranian President Ahmajinedad gets more press for demonizing us, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the one who really hates us.
"He truly believes we're evil," Baer says. "He thinks we're responsible for blowing his hand off." (The New York Times has more information on the 1981 incident, in which a bomb hidden in a tape recorder wounded Khamenei). Khamenei is quieter because "Ahmajinedad has got to say crazy things to get attention," according to Baer. "Like Rick Perry." And the irony of course, is that we've turned him into the devil.

Photo by Bertil Videt of anti-American artwork in Tehran; License information

You Gonna Finish Those Brains?

I mean, it’s cool if you are. You just looked like you were going to throw out most of that cerebellum, and I love it. No, man – you don’t have to split it with me. I’m not that hungry, really. I just wanted to make sure it didn’t go to waste. A lot of people don’t like that part. It’s kind of like the goopy stuff in the middle of a lobster. But it has a wonderfully complex flavor.

Seriously, I’m not begging you for a piece or anything. I’m not even that hungry. I mean, I worked up an appetite running that guy down, especially since he almost trepanned me with the garden spade. You don’t see many people who can use a hand tool that well. Usually they give you a good jab in the arm or something, and by the time they realize they’re not having an effect, you’ve got them. But I’m really okay. I only wanted a lobe to snack on.

You think there are more people in this apartment complex? I don’t mean we should go after them now. I was just saying maybe we ought to remember this place. Come back later.

Hey, you’re not even touching that thalamus! No, no, I couldn’t. I’m just saying you should go ahead and eat it. It’s got a nice intense bite. If we had a bottle of some good Cab that would be something. All of those deep red wines go great with thalamus.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. But you’re letting a lot of it go to waste. It’s not like it’s easy to go out and get brains. You should learn to expand your horizons a little. And don’t be afraid to get messy – that’s what napkins are for. Here, I found a mallet in the shed. Crack that baby open and really get into it. Nah, none for me. I swear I’m not hungry! I just want to make sure you appreciate the brain in all its culinary glory. After all, that guy took most of your nose off before we bit into him. Remember: Every time you try to kill a brain that brain is trying to kill you.

Man that looks good. It’s got the perfect amount of marbling. I bet he was a heavy drinker. I bet he was still in college. They say alcohol does something to the tissue – smoothes out all the flavor notes so they blend together. If we had a little gas grill and a cast-iron pan I could show you a trick I saw in a movie once.
Look, for the last time I do not want a – well, okay. Fine. If you’re sure you can’t finish it all. I just don’t want you to go hungry. You worked as hard as I did, trapping that guy in his bathroom. Just that little bit over there – that’s plenty. Thanks a lot! You sure? Right, right.

Hey, give me a second. I saw some mustard salt when the dude knocked over his spice rack trying to bludgeon us. It will make this perfect.
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