It is my pleasure to introduce my guest writer, Dawn Deme, leader, editor and video producer at Villagers Media Productions in Toronto.
On October 30, 2018, I found myself sitting in the Ottawa studio of Maria Saracino, working, at long-last, on a commission to create Mother Christmas, an artistic and visual partner to Santa, the one that has sat on my Yule time mantle for the past 21 years.
It was lovely in the early hours of meeting Maria to encounter an artist/ kindred spirit, complete with a magical wonder-filled studio, almost what one imagines Santa’s workshop to be like. In Maria’s case, it is clear that amongst many beloved subjects, she has a special heart for visages of earned wisdom. AKA old people whose excellent lives have marked them with a strange wrinkled beauty and power.
Exactly why we love Santa.
And Maria’s studio, along with her recent book (The History of Father Christmas), dazzle with new original-by-Maria imagery and new insight into this ancient man of empathy and action.
So why do we need a Mother Christmas?
Father Christmas, all by himself, has been more than enough to bring annual winter joy and wonder to billions, and over centuries. He did start out as Bishop Nicholas of Myra (270-343 AD) and therefore, as a celibate Catholic priest, would not have had a wife.
As I looked around at all the beauty of Maria’s creations, I nevertheless felt more than a little foolish. It would take me weeks to confess this expedition to friends and family. Why this obsession? Why go to so much trouble?
It all began 21 years ago, November, 1997. My husband Steven and I, video and TV producers, had just moved into our new (and present) home-with-studio. We wandered into the annual Toronto One-of-a- Kind show and there, promptly, met artist Jan Nicholson of Port Stanley, the now-retired creator of heirloom Santa dolls. One Santa jumped out at us and home he came, to preside over the mantle every Christmas since. He was our talisman of new beginnings. At the end of that first Christmas, and from then on, we tucked little messages (highlights of this Christmas, hopes and dreams for the coming year) into his red suit lining before packing him away for another year. Father Santa has been at the core of our Christmas psyche all this time.
And from the beginning, this niggling question: should there be a Mrs.?
“We will be back to commission Mother Christmas,” we said to Jan Nicholson in 1997. But, by the time we resurfaced, Jan was retired and politely told us we will have to look elsewhere.
Our video production company specializes in social justice and world religion history; projects that often take us into the creative underground for years at a time. Only at Christmas do we park our work and have time to think about something else. Like: who is Mother Christmas? I am a born researcher and over the years found myself more and more compelled by the research highways and byways of my question.
How Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus is one big story. Soon one is reading about how, despite the early Church’s determination to erase all traces of pre-Christian beliefs and gods and goddesses, Santa’s characteristics, by the 1300s, included several mystical attributes of the ancient gods: in particular, being all-knowing, able to fly, and go down chimneys. In other words, in mythic mind, we need Santa and we change him according to how this need changes, often including reclaiming the very ancient capacities of the pre-Christian gods. Especially the science and art of gift-giving. Gifts, according to the old ways, are best-given anonymously, invisibly, silently, without expectation of reward or return. Gift giving must also be specific to the recipient. Just what they need, what they are ready for.
Nicholas, the story goes, worried about the fate of three young sisters too poor to have dowries and therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Bishop Nicholas took portions of his own inheritance and turned them into balls of gold (precursors of the little globes of glass and metal we hang on our Christmas trees today) and, late at night, threw them through the family’s windows, thus saving the day for the three sisters. There are many stories about Nicholas and his determinations to see need and intervene, quietly, without fanfare.
Over the years, I found a few artists who specialize in creating heirloom Santas and sometimes Mrs. Santa. But Mrs. Santa was never right. She would be the happy (and usually very young), fat peasant serving cookies. Or, like the Empress of ancient Russia, dressed in jewels and ermine. Or she would look too placid or too smug or just too subordinate.
I discovered there are old traditions about Mrs. Christmas, also originating in pre-Christianity, like that of Nicholas, and amalgamating with the beliefs of the new religion. Old traditions that are still alive today. About women of spirit who did good, knew how to fly and go down chimneys. These antecedents crept into Christian culture and showed up with similar stories and differing names. Befana in Italy. Babushka in Russia. Lucia in Sweden, Holda, Germany. Perchta, Austria.
Befana in Italy is one of these stories. According to legend, she was an old woman in the time of Jesus’ birth. She turns Joseph and pregnant Mary away from her pristine Inn, thinking the imminent birth would be too messy. Then, the three men of the desert, the wise men carrying gifts, come by, informing her of her mistake. Befana (shortening of Epiphany which means encountering the Divine, celebrated by Christians on January 6) goes perpetually and fruitlessly on her flying broom in search of the Baby Jesus, treating well-behaved children wherever she goes. She was a Rome-based Christmas legend until, thanks to the bombastic determinations of one Benito Mussolini, leader of Italy’s Fascist Party (1922-43), she became the famous replacement for Santa Claus throughout Italy. Mussolini outlawed Santa as too American and elevated Befana into a national Mother Christmas. Today, utterly removed from relations to her erstwhile fascist promoter, Befana, the Christmas Witch, remains more important than Santa to Italians all over the world.
What then should Mother Christmas be for me? In late October 2018, I was guided to the website of Maria Saracino. Two things came together all at once. Her array of Santas were dazzling, filled with artistry and sensitivity. But it was her visualization of Canadian Catholic Saint Marguerite d’Youville that stopped me in my tracks. Maria had been asked by the Marguerite d’Youvile Elementary Catholic School in Ottawa to create a wall mural that would meld her own artistry with that of all the students in the school. The installation would include hundreds of painted Marguerite-related symbols produced by the school’s children and under Maria’s tutelage. At the centre is Maria’s three-dimensional portrait of Saint Marguerite.
Marguerite’s face simply blew me away. This is her! This is what I am looking for.
I wrote Maria on a Sunday afternoon, October 28, and said I would like to meet her. She offered October 30 plus several dates over the month of November. Only October 30 was free for me. That would be in be two days! I think we were both a little unnerved.
My thoughts about Mother Christmas, icon of feminine compassion, companion to Father Christmas, and developing in my mind over two decades, had suddenly crystallized, thanks to Maria’s Marguerite. And they continue. Perhaps you have read the Wikipedia on Marguerite. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie-Marguerite_d%27Youville Note Pope John XXIII called her “Mother of Universal Charity.” AKA Mother Christmas?Much I did not know is included in this Wiki piece, including her marriage to a no-doubt-sexy bootlegger! But, I did know about her early days as a young widow, founding an organization of women to take care of the poor, especially children and women, eventually starting one hospital, and then, as her community (known alternately as Sisters of Charity and the Grey Sisters) continued, founding hundreds of hospitals and schools all over North America.
Over my lifetime, I have thought a lot about religious women founders, especially in Canada. We have produced many hours of these histories and current initiatives for TV. Few know that, without the efforts of these women, we might never have achieved the level of health care and education for all we have today. I call it Organized Compassion. In this post-modern era, the term Organized Religion can produce many a frown. Not so with our nuns, our founders of organized compassion. And we mourn their loss as their final generations are now disappearing, along with their visible presence of social caring.
Perhaps you have heard of Youville Centre for pregnant teens in the Sandy Hill area of Ottawa (http://www.youvillecentre.org/), founded by Betty Kinsellla, Grey Sister (she passed away last summer). My company had an opportunity to film her and her new center many years ago. Never forgot her.
Now I can imagine a new installation from Maria Saracino that again salutes Marguerite, this magnificent woman of compassion. This one would include contributions from all the young mothers who have successfully begun their families at Youville Centre under Marguerite’s heavenly gaze?
Also a long time ago, in another life, I produced a significant magazine article on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, each place setting representing an important woman in history. Can you imagine a Mother Christmas dinner party, representing great women of compassion and courage? Marguerite would be there. Many religious women founders would be.
And so my story ends and also continues. Maria’s Mother Christmas arrived here a few days ago and now resides on the Christmas mantle until at least Valentine’s Day. We have at last found her. And, in Maria, an artistic soulmate.
Take a look. Her Mother Christmas is magnificent. Everything we had wished for.
Santa needed her to be there. We all do.