On Christmas Eve, 1823, a mysterious, white-haired stranger appeared in Montfermeil carrying a large bundle. From this bundle, he magically produced the exact doll that a sweet little girl had been longing after.
What I’m saying is that Jean Valjean is pretty much Santa Claus.
But what about the part where he leaves town with a freed child in tow? That might seem like a sinister sort of Santa, but it turns out that’s a much deeper part of Saint Nicholas lore than the reindeer or red suit. Before St. Nick became fat, jolly, and commercialized (more on that in a moment), he was revered as a fourth-century Turkish bishop with a soft spot for the poor and oppressed. This extended beyond mere alms-giving; he straight-up helped people escape slavery.
If you’ve ever listened to David Sedaris’ so-funny-you’ll-cry “Santa Claus and the Six to Eight Black Men,” you know that the Dutch Santa is always portrayed as being accompanied by a guy named “Black Peter.” And okay, yeah, depictions of Black Peter can be pretty awkwardly racist, but to focus on European caricatures of him is to miss the point that this is a man whom Saint Nicholas freed from slavery. The saintly bishop was so horrified when he saw a slave market in his hometown that he flew into a rage against the slavers and bought Peter’s liberty. Peter was thereafter so devoted to the man who saved him that he became Nicholas’ constant companion.
But whence the chimneys and the gift-giving? Surprise, more opposition the slave trade! Nicholas got wind that a poor man in town was about to sell his “spare” daughters into (presumably sexual) slavery, so took some bags of gold from the church (hi, Bishop Myriel!) and threw them down the man’s chimney so that he wouldn’t need to exchange his children for the money he needed to pay off his debts. This gave birth to the tradition of special almsgiving in the weeks leading up to Christmas for centuries to come.
Secretly giving money to the poor…rescuing little girls from servitude…something about a tricky bishop who makes unapproved use of church money when vulnerable lives are at stake… The Valjean we know and love is starting to come into focus. But it’s super intriguing how Valjean’s sack with Catherine the doll points towards today’s Christmas myths, so let’s take a quick look at how the commercial Santa took shape, at least in the US.
The Santa floodgates were released with the printing of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (now better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), which was, in an almost Hugolian coincidence, published in a New York paper for Christmas of 1823 – the same night that Valjean rescues Cosette. That charming tale of Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinte Klaas for St. Nicholas) was an instant hit, but gained further iconographic steam from the likes of Thomas Nast in the 1860s and the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. I don’t know enough about how that Santa has spread around the world, but AFAIK he’s the dominant children’s myth in cultures that celebrate Christmas. Now the “jolly old elf” in a silly hat is far more a part of our consciousness than the Myriel-like bishop who diverted church funds to help the poor.
And it is so intriguing to think about where Valjean stands in this development, because he isn’t purely the liberating churchman; he’s not Myriel. He’s a layman in a funny outfit who materializes at the perfect moment with gift for the abused “good little girl” but who leaves nothing for the bullies who torment her. Éponine and Azelma find themselves on the naughty list.
Now, I’ll confess that these musings are pretty US-centric, and I’d need to learn a lot more about the development of Père Noël lore before saying anything about what Hugo was trying to accomplish with Valjean’s stint as Father Christmas. But if I were to try to retrospectively identify the literary pivot point between Saint Nicholas the liberator and Santa Claus the gift-giver, I couldn’t help but linger on Jean Valjean’s actions on Christmas Eve, 1823.
TL;DR Valjean is Santa, but, like, the old-school, slave-freeing Saint Nicholas. And “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written for Christmas Eve 1823, the night when Valjean saves Cosette, which is some pretty crazy stuff. Merry Christmas!
I will never understand why this Christmas song goes so hard.
OKAY MOTHERFUCKERS LISTEN UP
BECAUSE THIS SHIT IS NOT CAROL OF THE BELLS
IT IS CHRISTMAS EVE/SARAJEVO 12/24 AND IT IS SO MUCH FUCKING MORE THAN CAROL OF THE BELLS.
SO DURING THE BOSNIAN WAR (WHICH WAS THIS NASTY-ASS CONFLICT IN BOSNIA AND HERZGOVINA) THERE WAS THIS BADASS CELLO-PLAYING MOTHERFUCKER NAMED VEDRAN SMAILOVIC. HE WAS FROM SARAJEVO WAS UPSET ABOUT ALL THE SHIT AND NASTINESS THAT CAME ABOUT THROUGH THIS WAR (THIS WAS FULL-ON BROTHER-KILLING-BROTHER SHIT) THAT HE WENT AROUND TO BOMBED-OUT, BLOWN UP BUILDINGS AND FUNERALS—WHERE HE WAS AT RISK OF FUCKING SNIPER FIRE—AND PLAYING THE CELLO. THIS GUY WAS SO SET ON PROVIDING ONE TINY SPOT OF BEAUTY IN A SERIOUSLY NASTY WAR HE WAS RISKING BEING FUCKING SHOT OR BLOWN UP.
AND THIS IS THE GUY WHO INSPIRED THIS SONG.
HE’S WHY THERE’S THE CALM CELLO PART AT THE BEGINNING BEFORE EVERYTHING GETS ALL VIOLENT-SOUNDING. IT’S THEMATIC.
THAT’S WHY THIS CHRISTMAS SONG GOES SO FUCKING HARD.
Hands down best holiday song. Love the background. ❤
Oh thank goodness there’s still time for this.
Oh who am I kidding it’s always time for this.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Vol 2, Book 3
- joly buying souvenir christmas baubles everywhere he goes
- joy having the biggest collection of cheesy christmas movies
- joly mixing practically deadly christmas drinks insisting that they’re great cures for colds
- jbm taking ridiculous selfies in the snow (bossuet has fallen over like five times and has a black eye) (chetta is wearing the earmuffs joly bought her and she complained but she actually loves them and she looks adorable)
- feuilly always makes things for his friends’ presents and throughout winter joly is frequently seen covered in a mountain of hand knitted hats and scarfs and gloves to stay warm (and also because he loves them and feuilly always picks lovely colours) (he also wears nothing but the awful christmas jumpers jehan has bought him over the years)
- being determined to find ways to make his friends enjoy christmas even if they think it’s a capitalist mess or that it always ends up with the family getting drunk and arguing
- joly and bossuet trying to untangle fairly lights
- he has socks that play christmas songs
when you can’t find the star for the tree but you’re les mis af
(also featuring the knitted rosette I made because I didn’t have any ribbon. if you like imagine the abc knitting club preparing for the revolution)
The only video you need to watch in order to get into the Christmas spirit.
Some random Les Amis Christmas headcanons:
- Marius eats his own body-weight in chocolate coins and ends up falling asleep, covered in bits of foil, on Cosette’s shoulder – this happens every year without fail
- Bossuet and Joly make their own Christmas crackers, and the jokes they come up with are always terrible (they end up snorting with laughter into each other’s shoulders while everyone else just groans)
- Jehan isn’t allowed to decorate the tree by himself again after that time he made his own ornaments out of glitter, ribbon, and real skulls, and freaked out pretty much everyone
- Courfeyrac insists that they do Christmas karaoke, which always ends up being at turns brilliant and hilarious. The hilarious is his and Bahorel’s annual duet, the most memorable of which are their version of “Baby it’s Cold Outside”, and that time they roped Joly and Bossuet into joining them so that they could do the Mean Girls “Jingle Bell Rock” dance (during which Bossuet did indeed accidentally kick the stereo at someone).The brilliant is Combeferre, who has a voice like caramel and could make anything sound amazing. And then there’s Grantaire, who doesn’t just sing, but also accompanies himself on the guitar – the first time he did this, Enjolras got so flustered that he left the room half-way through
- Combeferre, Cosette, and sometimes Grantaire, usually do most of the cooking – Feuilly always offers to help, and Cosette never lets him (“you were working Christmas Eve, go sit down and have a rest, you ridiculous man”)
- One time Bahorel and Eponine got Enjolras drunk on really bad wine, resulting in him getting very emotional about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and giving a half-sweet, half-embarrassing speech in which he told his friends how much he loved them all, and how glad he is that they’re nothing like all Santa’s other reindeer in the song. Then he tripped over the coffee table and landed in Grantaire’s lap, and that is why Enjolras has never been drunk since
A very special Santa Killy set, inspired by the lovely @grumpyfaceurn. 😀