Early Christian history shows a lot of attempts by Church leaders to attract followers by setting their holidays to coincide with existing festivals and celebrations. In the case of Christmas, the Church chose December 25, as it coincides with pagan winter solstice festivals that were popular in most cultures. As such, most of the folklore surrounding Christmas is an amalgam of both Christian and Pagan traditions. Examples include Christmas trees, mistletoe, and, of course, Santa Claus.
Santa Claus, as we know him, can largely be traced back to the poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas, published in 1823 and written by Clement Clarke Moore. However, Moore was pulling from a long tradition of Christmas gift givers, which were, in themselves, pulling from older pagan traditions. And while our current vision of Santa is jolly, many of the precursors are more varied. We all know about the "naughty or nice list", but we generally shy away from graphic descriptions of what happens to the naughty. Many older traditions did not. Case in point, the Finnish "Joulupukki", which translates to "Yule Buck" or "Yule Goat".
One of the reasons pagan cultures chose to celebrate the Winter solstice is that the shortest days of the year are in December, and once you reach the solstice, the days start to get longer again. In Finland, these festivals would celebrate the return of the daylight and would often feature a personification of the evil spirits that were leaving as the days got longer. These spirits were often wore goat skins and horns and demanded presents. It was a loathsome creature, and it frightened children (which parents no doubt used to their advantage, getting their kids to act nice). Once the Christian traditions reached Finland though, this somehow got flipped around, with the spirits now benevolent and delivering presents instead of wreaking havoc.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a new Finnish movie that wonders what would happen if we discovered the original "Joulupukki". According to the research of the film's main character, young Pietari, the original Santa was not a very pleasant character, so villagers tricked him into freezing water, then covered the resulting ice cube in sawdust and so many rocks that they created a new mountain. Cut to present day, and a crazy American businessman is attempting to find the real Santa, and is excavating a nearby mountain, much to the dismay of local Reindeer ranchers. Pretty soon, their Reindeer show up dead and children start to go missing.
This is not your typical holiday movie, nor even is it your typical holiday horror film, a subgenre I've been exploring over the past few years. It takes a while to get going and while I enjoyed the ending, it was a bit of an anti-climax, as you never really get to see the true horrific power of Santa (on the other hand, I do wonder if that sort of explicit explanation would lose something)... That being said, the film has a dark, dry sense of humor that isn't quite explicit, but which made me laugh out loud several times. This is the debut film of writer/director Jalmari Helander, and it's clear that he has a good eye for interesting visuals and while he does not resort to many horror tropes, he does manage some creepifying visuals, such as the weird wooden dolls that Santa's little helpers leave behind while they're kidnapping naughty children or, heck, even Santa's little helpers themselves.
The ending of the film escalates into the absurd, but in an entertaining and welcome way. My favorite part was when young Pietari suddenly turns into an 80s action hero and starts dropping one liners like "It's either me or Santa. I suggest Santa." (OK, fine, that was 2 lines, but still.) I'm still not entirely sure what to make of the epilogue, though it's still a wonderfully absurd notion.
In the end, I don't know that this is up there with the Christmas horror classics like Black Christmas, but it's probably still an upper tier picture, and it's well worth a watch for fans of dark holiday shenanigans. ***
Update: After the movie, I headed over to the local beer bar, Eulogy, and had a nice Austrian beer called Samichlaus. Guess what that translates to.