Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Christmas Got from Jesus to Santa Claus

Centuries before Jesus was born, people were already celebrating light and birth during the winter season with various traditions. One celebrated among the Norse people was “Yule” and came around the time of the winter solstice, December 21st.

Yule Traditions

One of Yule traditions involved the men and their sons dragging evergreen trees into the house as remembrances of life. They also burned logs in the fireplace to symbolize good fortune – also called Yule logs.

Pagan God Mithra

Ancient Rome had its own winter festivals. Soldiers and government officials worshipped the pagan god Mithra, the Sun God. Mithra’s birthday was on December 25th and was the most important day of the year to his followers.

December 25th Selected as Christmas Day

By the first century AD pagan beliefs were being seriously challenged by Christianity which was sweeping across the empire.  Christ’s birthday was unknown and not documented in the Bible.  Since Rome already celebrated December 25th as Mithra’s birthday, it appears that the Church adopted this date for the birth of the Christ child. By the 4th Century it became official as the Church made it the feast day of the nativity.


Church Adopts Pagan Traditions

The pagan traditions of this time period were too ingrained for the Church to outlaw during Christmas so they merely adopted them to fit Christianity. For example, the evergreen trees they took and decorated them with apples so that they would symbolize the Garden of Eden. These eventually morphed into the ornaments we put on our Christmas trees today.

Saint Nicolas and Sinterklaas

It was during the 4th Century that the legend of Santa Claus gets started. A Turkish bishop by the name of Nicolas was known for his giving nature. There were many stories of his kindness in giving to others. The date of his death, December 6th, became “Saint Nicolas Day” and was commemorated by giving good children toys and nothing to the children who misbehaved.  This tradition lived on throughout Christian Europe until it merged with the celebration of the Christian Holy Day. Saint Nicolas went by many names throughout Christendom.  In Holland he was called “Sinterklaas.” Later when the Dutch settled the North Eastern part of the America’s his name became “Santa Claus.”

Clarke Moore and the “Night Before Christmas”

1500 years later an American, named Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of oriental and Greek literature, took the legends of Nicolas and Sinterklaas and wrote a historic poem called, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” later changed to, “The Night Before Christmas.”  It was a 58 line poem that created the modern American vision of Christmas.  In his poem Santa was neither a Priest from the 4th Century nor a Norse-type Odin character like Sinterklaas. Instead Moore dressed him in furs, and he made him more elfish with a twinkle in his eye and a pipe between his teeth.  He toted a sack on his back full of toys for the children. Moore is also responsible for creating the sleigh and the eight reindeer that pulled it through the sky – including the names of each one of them.

Thomas Nast Puts on the Finishing Touches

Santa Claus, as we know him, was on his way thanks to Moore, but he still lacked a place to live (the North Pole) and Elves to help him in his workshop, not to mention and naughty and nice list. These and other details came from the imagination of another New Yorker named Thomas Nast. He took Moore’s Santa and made him much more like we see envision him today. In 1862 an American Magazine called “Harpers Weekly,” commissioned Nast to draw its Christmas illustrations. Nast transformed Moore’s jolly old elf by making him taller and much grander. His images depicted Santa living at the North Pole and reviewing a naughty and nice list and eventually gave him elves and a host of other characteristics which are part of the icon of Santa Claus.

Of course the legend continues to grow today with cartoons, and various stories of how Santa got his start and how he involves himself in the lives of people who doubt his existence.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Joss Whedon TOP 10 Writing Tips

Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.

Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.

Structure means knowing where you’re going ; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes ? The thrills ? The romance ? Who knows what, and when ? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around : the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.

This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys ?’

Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue : you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny ; not everybody has to be cute ; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.

Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.

When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.

Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly ; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie ; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet ?’

Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system ; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction ; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up : they’d started talking about a different show.

The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie : if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are : that’s called whoring.”