Kidnapping The Myth
A 1,600 year political tug of war is still trying to decide who owns the final version of Santa Claus. The pagans? The christians? The corporations? Jim Carey goes undercover to investigate.
12th December 2003
Dressed in the full furred-lined regalia and pitched onto the streets of one of London's more multi-ethnic boroughs was a sure way to test the enduring appeal of an old illusion. Seven hours as Santa Claus in the crowded shopping centre of central Lewisham was enough to prove that the ol' wizard still inspires an unquestioning loyalty amongst kids of multifarious ethnic backgrounds.
The second piece of, perhaps unsurprising, news is that Harry Potter merchandise was by far the most requested items from Santa's Lapland warehouse. The Coca-Cola corporation would undoubtedly have welcomed these findings. As we'll explore later, the corporation played a major role in the creation of the modern image of jolly fat Santa. In 2003 it also paid a staggering $281 million for the exclusive rights to use Harry Potter on their products. The lucrative concoction of rituals, wizardry, marketing and the unmitigated loyalty of children. And Santa might have a few words of advice for young Harry. For at every twist and turn of his evolution through history there has been a grapple to harness the magic man's powerful appeal.
The origins of Santa Claus become ever more indistinct the more you trail the genealogy. Once upon a time there was the Norse god Odin, the Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune and Teutonic god Hold Nickar. And somewhere amidst this amalgamated melee was the notion that a certain benevolence was deifically exercised during Planet Earth's darkest seasons. The spirits of gods and dead people lived in the trees, so we 'touched wood' for good luck and brought a tree into the family dwelling during the dark months. Food was scarce so we upped the concept of sharing and generosity.
The most emphatically traceable origin of the man called Santa begins with the Christian church and St Nicholas. Born in 280 AD, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (now Turkey) at young age of 30. Legend suggests he was a benevolent man who was kind to children and used his father's fortune to feed the poor. With more churches named after him than any other saint, he is now the patron saint of Russia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and Greece. His legend also helped secure him an extensive and eclectic list of saintly patronage including pirates, brewers, pilgrims, fishermen, barrel-makers, dyers, butchers, meat-packers and haberdashers.
To honour his mythical generosity, Europeans began giving gifts on his anniversary day, December 6, and in the middle ages Christian churches sent out a man to distribute gifts to the locality in his honour. Pope Julius declared Jesus' birthday to be the same as the pagan's mid-winter festival and the pagan gods of winter were usurped. St Nicholas was the man. The example he set has, however, often been forgotten since his death. The city of Bari in southern Italy now claims to be the final resting place of the world's most celebrated saint, despite the fact that to our knowledge he never set foot in Italy. Seven hundred years after his death, and with a personal following of immense global importance, forty seven armed men supposedly set sail for Asia Minor, overcame four monks and nicked the saint's holy remains. They sold them to the Catholic Church who promptly installed them in the cathedral at Bari. According to the story, the Catholic Church never stumped up the cash they promised to the thieves.
In 1642, when the Puritan's seized power in Britain they outlawed many of the acts which they considered to have no genuine Christian basis. By this stage Christmas was thoroughly associated with a multi-layered mish mash of ritual, merriment and mead. So an Act of Parliament attempted to abolish popular customs and riots ensued.
Not surprisingly we have the United States of America to thank for Santa's hasty descent into full scale commercialisation. Whilst the British wrangled over the genuine Christian nature of the festival, the Dutch thoroughly enjoyed lengthy Christmas celebrations with Sinterklass (St Nicholas) at the centre of it all. Sinterklass was tall and gaunt, wore the traditional dress of a bishop with mitre and shepherd's staff, and rode a donkey. On St Nicholas eve children left their clogs filled with hay for the donkey and awoke to find it replaced with presents.
In 1626 the Dutch 'new world' colonisers founded New Amsterdam where they clung to and developed their Dutch ways of life as a form of self identity in a new land. Sinterklass lost his clerical garb and became the jolly little elf they needed to cheer themselves up. Renamed New York by the British colonisers who took over the city in 1664, the celebration proved enduringly popular. In 1809 Washington Irving wrote about Sinterklass in his "A history of New York", describing him a little fat man in a typical Dutch costume with knee breeches and a broad brimmed hat who travelled on horseback across the sky. In 1822 the theologian Clement Moor Clark further established Santa's identity in a poem called "A visit from St Nicholas" which included notions that the elf rode with reindeer and popped down the chimney to deliver his Christmas gifts. For twenty years Clement Moor Clark refused to admit he was the author of the poem, apparently afraid such an admission would ruin his standing in the eyes of the 19th century academic establishment. His wife however, loved the poem and was singularly responsible for its widespread circulation and powerful influence on the public perception of Santa Claus. The poem was printed in several popular journals in 1823 and introduced a "tiny sleigh" as Santa's new mode of transport in similarity to that used by New Englanders, with the horses replaced by the slightly more exotic "eight tiny reindeer".
The emerging American twang turned Sinterklass into Santa Claus and, from 1860 to the late 1880's, the American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, penned a succession of cartoons for Harper's Weekly which further defined Santa's look, adding the notion that he hailed from the North Pole. Santa also came to look a little less like an elf and more like Nast himself, dressed in a woollen suit of varied colours often black and white. Asked by Abraham Lincoln to come up with a version of Santa to boost the morale of Union troops in the American civil war, Nast depicted a rolly polly man with a star-spangled jacket, striped pants and a cap With Santa rapidly turning into a version of the American dream, Europeans made one more pitch to reclaim him when it was discovered in 1925 that there were in fact no reindeer at the North Pole. In 1927, Markus Rautio, the compere of children's hour on Finnish public radio, declared that Santa lived on Lapland's Korvatunturi Mountain on the Finnish-Russian border. At 500 m high the mountain is more of a hill but his claim has endured as part of the myth.
However, the American grip on Santa's image tightened considerably in 1931 when the Coca-Cola corporation commissioned a massive Christmas marketing push. Sales of their cold drink dipped badly in winter. So who better to push the winter relevance of their product to children than ol' Santa Claus himself. The final traces of cocaine may have been removed from Coca-Cola in 1929 but the corporation were keen to suggest their caffeine and sugar drink would still help Santa dive up and down millions of chimneys. To this end they commissioned a Swedish advertising artist called Naddon Sundblom to paint a soft drink swilling Santa Claus. Using a Coca-Cola sales rep called Lou Prentice as a model, Sundblom painted a fat rosey-cheeked human being dressed in the red and white markings of Coca-Cola. The image was splashed all over magazines like Post and National Geographic. From 1931 to 1964 Sundblom painted a Coca-Cola Santa Claus every year, impacting the image on the world. Throughout history Santa's clothes had been various colours including green, black and white, furs and some red and white. But now they were definitely red and white. The Dutch elf who had been fattened a little by Thomas Nast's self depictions was now fully obese. Despite looking moments away from heart attack or hernia he was still apparently able dive up and down millions of chimneys in a single night. A variety of commercial interests compounded Sundbloms' Santa in the US with adverts for everything ranging from credit cards to cigarettes. In 1951 a crowd gathered in Dijon, France, to execute an effigy of Father Christmas in the cathedral precinct. A supportive heretic wrote in the local newspaper of how Father Christmas had "insinuated himself like a cuckoo in the nest........infiltrated state schools from which Christ's crib had been scrupulously banished." So......"At three o clock in the afternoon the crowd set fire to Father Christmas' white beard and he vanished in a puff of white smoke." However, the very next day Father Christmas devotees donned their red and whites and paraded on the roof of Dijon's town hall in Liberation Square. The parade is continued to this day.
An attempt to complete the corporate image overhaul came in 1996 when the Coca-Cola corporation had the historical gall to celebrate Santa Claus' 65th birthday.
So the Christians usurped the pagans. The corporation usurped the Christians. And the heretics pop up and have a go every now and again throughout history.
However, as I waddled into my changing room to remove the belly cushion and itchy white beard at the end of Santa's session in Lewisham, a singularly significant fact struck me. I'd asked each child whether they'd leave me a little something at the bottom of the chimney on Christmas eve. Come the wee hours of Dec 25 Santa can look forward to whiskey, brandy, tea and hot chocolate to help him on his way through south-east London, but not one child offered any Coca-Cola. The corporate take-over is apparently incomplete.