St. Nick of Time

Half-Patron, Half-Sales Pawn:
The Split Origin of Santa Claus

Just about this time of the year, stories about Santa Claus begin to peter out. It’s the culmination of yet another December ritual, along with the fight to control the holidays by Christians, atheists, Jews and everybody else: the retelling of Bishop Nicholas of Myra’s origins in the 4th century C.E., and how he became a patron saint for Russia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and Greece.
It was when his legend was brought over to New York in the 17th century, though, on board of Dutch settler ships, that the image of a kind old man who’d grant gifts to children became forever linked to his name. What’s ironic is that it’s exactly such material connection to the so-called Christmas spirit what’s been deplored ever since the New World Puritans time.
Elements of this gift-giving attributes were already part, with variations, of many stories compounding the growing reputation of Father Nicholas, or Noel, in Europe in the 1200 or so years that preceded the tale’s arrival in America.
In fact, even as he inspired the popular Santa, the real Saint Nicholas has developed his own, completely separated and purely religious, following. Bari, across the Mediterranean from Myra, still marks the theft of his bones, not long after his death, with an annual procession.
Santa, on the other hand, found fertile ground in New York. Writer Washington Irving, by rebooting the old Sinter Klaas, left behind the religious link and updated his image to be in synch with the vibrant new nation that was emerging in the 1800s.
Through time, other elements were added to what’s now integral part of the Santa Claus iconography: the reindeer, the flying sleigh, smoking chimneys, and the association with Christmas.
To be sure, nothing did more to imbue the American psyche with such an idealized folk tale than the 1823 “The Night Before Christmas,” generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, and the classic The Sun’s editorial “Yes, Virginia, There’s a Santa Claus,” 74 years later.
Both texts are accurate albeit unrealistic representations of the confluence of pious virtue and quaint expectations of life in the 19th century U.S.
Traces of their heavily crystallized sugar trail reach all the way to the Great Depression and later, almost a century later, in particular in George Seton and Frank Capra movies.

Santa Claus is the official patron saint of children and virgins, and also of an often-unmentioned unsavory bunch: pawnbrokers, pirates, thieves, brewers, pilgrims, fishermen, barrel makers, dyers, butchers, meatpackers, and haberdashers.
That’s perhaps why, although having named more churches than any of the apostles, he’s no longer welcome in the holiday rituals of traditional church. In fact, we keep going back to this dichotomy of a flesh-and-blood historical figure, fused with that of a Church-sanctioned bishop and patron saint, and back to a near pagan idol status, not welcome in the temple and outside any religious context.
In the U.S. specially, since the mid 1800s, Santa Claus became in fact one of the most utilized sales-pitch figure, at the service of some of the largest soda, tobacco and automobile corporations. It’s still the single most recognized advertising icon that up to these days overwhelmingly takes over the media and airwaves, selling a multitude of commercial products.

It’s also this time of the year that the backlash against the jolly old man starts and at times reaches vicious intensity; just as the most politically correct parents find themselves giving in to the pressure and inviting their children to open yet another video game package.
This time around, the privilege of bashing the prefab tradition was self-appointed by writers Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, of 3 Quarks Daily. They wrote a buzz-killing piece denouncing Santa Claus as “one of the most nefarious figures in America,” delivering “toys to the children of well-off parents rather than life-saving basic goods to the most needy.”
Oh, boy, we just hope that they’ve already made their peace with the fact that someday it may be their own kids who’ll denounce their work, to either pop therapists or best-seller tabloid books.
Aikin and Talisse go from cranky to half-joking tirades, about Santa breaking into our homes “by any means possible,” which only shows that he “does not respect our privacy.” They do manage to get some of their criticism on target, though, when they compare the myth to a “ever-watching nanny-state.”
But then, in a surprisingly conservative twist and just like a 1600s Puritan, they deplore “Santa Claus’s stranglehold on holiday tradition. Christian parents who embrace the Santa myth make idolaters of their children.”
Similar conclusion wouldn’t be out of place in the holiday sermon of many a modern prelate, however academically respected or disgraced by allegations of sexual abuse of children. So much for religious piety and reclaiming moral rectitude from an obviously invented and generously profited from holiday figurehead.

It’s also the time of the year for corny and diabetes-inducing heart-burning stories. A slightly scorched letter to Santa written 100 years ago, was recently discovered, for example, in a Dublin fireplace. A brother and sister asked for “a baby doll and a waterproof with a hood and a pair of gloves and a toffee apple and a gold penny and a silver sixpence and a long toffee.”
They even wished Santa good luck, bless their little souls, and placed the letter in the chimney of the fireplace in the front bedroom so that he’d see it as he made his way into the household. The children have, since, being identified, but there’s no word as to whether they ever got what they wished for.
But, alas, as they say, children are definitely different today. An industrious 13-year-old Bedford girl has written a letter to Santa Claus threatening to kill him if she’d fail to receive at least two gifts from her list, which included a Blackberry (after all, this was 2010) and “the real-life Justin Bieber”.
Just so there wouldn’t be any doubts about what she meant, the virtuous teenager also vowed to “hunt down” and kill Santa’s reindeer so that she could “serve their meat to homeless people on Xmas day” and signed off the note with, “Remember… two of these, or you die”.
In explaining her letter, the talented schoolgirl said she didn’t see why she shouldn’t get what she wanted. And her mother, proving that the jolly old pops is as real as the rapture in that cozy household, said she’s all the intention of helping out her little pumpkin, for “the last thing I want is for her to kill Santa.”
We could, of course, go on and on about this subject, but we suddenly decided to take another look at our own kid’s list, lest nothing too drastic to happen on the other side of Holy Night. We leave you with some fuzzy feelings and an interesting take on that old picture of Santa Claus making his final arrangements to cater to the estimated 3.5 billion children expected to track his movements tonight.
It’s a commercial too, but of the good kind, for Unicef Sweden. Santa is in his workshop, wrapping gifts, when he comes across a parcel full of medical supplies, which he imagines, it may be for poor children of Africa or something.
Once he gets the idea, which is to buy those much-needed ‘products’ from Unicef, which will send them to Africa, and send you a card, acknowledging your donation, he says something that wouldn’t be out of place coming from one of the One Percenters of America.
Come on. I don’t do poor countries.

* Originally published on Dec. 24, 2010.
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* Xmas Leftovers

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