Happy holidays from the Internets Melanie Baker December 24, 2015 Columns, Featured, M-Theory The problem with the “real” world is that the curation is terrible. You go outside and whatever’s trending is shoved down your throat, whether you’re into it or not. 12:01 a.m., Nov. 1 – guess what? It’s Christmas! Indefinitely! Now online, you have a bit more control to filter your holiday experiences, including when, how, and how much festivity you want. There’s also a lot of really interesting stuff to learn, and some cool ways to experience well-worn traditions. (Or just really weird ones…) For those of us who aren’t Jewish, it can be hard to figure out when Hanukkah is. Sure, it’s eight (crazy) nights, but it moves around. Fortunately, you can just ask Google. Same with Kwanzaa. And you can find out what Nguzo Saba are. (Actually, from November through January there are oodles of holidays celebrated by various religions, so we’re only scratching the surface here.) Now, back in my day, you might find out that Santa had started his rounds if they talked about it on the TV news. But as we know, TV news broadcasts today exist as a source of YouTube blooper clips and idiocy on Fox. Fortunately, Google has also turned its considerable technical resources to enabling kids to know exactly where Saint Nick is, via the Santa Tracker. Of course, it only shows an animation of him on his travels, but as anyone with a basic grasp of physics knows, Santa’s travelling much too fast on Christmas Eve to actually see him and the reindeer with the naked eye, so it’s all good. Oh, and as much as I’d approve of all of Santa’s reindeer being female? It’s not exactly true. But hey, learning some zoology is never a bad thing. Of course, as Christmas traditions go, Santa’s actually pretty new. Well, in some ways. Saint Nicholas – the actual one – was a fourth-century Greek bishop in what is present-day Turkey. Ho ho ho? Over the centuries, he’s evolved in a number of ways, depending on where you live and what you believe. We’ve got Father Christmas and Sinterklaas and even elements of Odin. We’ve also adapted Santa to geographic requirements. Australia isn’t well known for its white Christmases, or its reindeer herds, which makes a sleigh problematic. So while living there I was informed that Santa drives a ute. But the fat, jolly dude with the big, white beard and the red suit and such? He didn’t really exist, as we know him, until 1931. Previously, he’d been everything from a tall, gaunt man to a small, elfin figure. And then Coca-Cola made some magic. Yep, the Santa we know and love today? Basically designed to sell soft drinks. Of course, if you’re in Toronto, Santa’s job might be more to raise money for the SickKids Foundation. And look good in really expensive clothes. (Apparently Canada’s role in the world these days is to bring all the sexy…) So why do we leave out milk and cookies for Santa instead of Coke? Well, that goes back to those Santa prototypes of yore. For Yule, people used to leave out hay and oats for Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, to gain Odin’s favour during his great hunt. (Pick your preferred source of Norse history and myth on that one – it’s endlessly interesting stuff. And thanks to Marvel, culturally relevant!) It also ties in to the feast of St. Nicholas, when kids would leave out offerings of food and drink for the saint and his attendants on Dec. 6, still one of the important days when Christmas traditions are observed. Leaving cookies and milk also reflects old German traditions, where trees used to be decorated with things like apples and gingerbread. Eventually this got Christianized and became the modern Christmas tree, though Christmas trees have been around for a thousand years or more. Thanks to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the trees got really popular in Britain mid-19th century (and thence to the colonies and beyond). Now, once you get to Queen Victoria, it’s not much of a leap to Charles Dickens and another great bit of tradition: A Christmas Carol. (The Muppets did my favourite version.) And since this column tends to have a geek shine at any time of the year, here’s a performance of said tale by one of our patron saints, Neil Gaiman, who dressed as Dickens when he presented it. If you’d like to download and keep a copy, you can do so here. Speaking of classic tales, you’re likely familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, and published earlier this year, Go Set a Watchman. Those books likely wouldn’t exist today were it not for a Christmas gift Harper Lee received. You may have heard of some controversy over the publication of Go Set a Watchman, but it was a short-lived teapot tempest compared to the debate that rages every December, it seems, over one particular song. Baby, It’s Cold Outside: flirty or rapey? Which side are you on? Admittedly, the world was a different place (in some ways…) in the 1930s when the song was written. The line “What’s in this drink?”, for example, didn’t mean then what we assume (thanks, Bill Cosby, et al) it means now. And now we get all wacky sometimes and gender swap things. There’s some interesting context about the song in this piece, or you can stay on the safe side and just enjoy the somewhat briefer and more modern feminist version. Speaking of modern versions, I presume you’re aware that a new Star Wars movie has been released? I really enjoyed it, but I know plenty of folks haven’t seen it yet, so I won’t say any more. Perhaps until they get a chance to get their butts to a theatre this will tide them over. It is, in its way, a classic. Photo: Texture Red No. 37 by Elné is licensed under CC BY 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.