Monday, December 24, 2012

What IS Santa?: a proposal for a modern understanding


For as long as I can remember, every Christmas, I have been confused by what exactly Santa Claus is.

Historically, Santa Claus is St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian archbishop in modern-day Turkey who lived during the Roman persecution of the Church and was present at the Council of Nicea.  He was claimed to be a wonder-worker, and was also well-known for his anonymous gifts to the needy.  He has historically been honored on the 6th of December, and because of his generous reputation convents and monasteries began a tradition of sneaking out at night and delivering gifts to the poor. (see here, here, and here for references, the middle one being especially fantastic)

Among the hundred or so other things of which he was patron saint, one of them was sailors.  For this reason, sailors would often find themselves back home on the 6th, and be able to give a present obtained at sea to their children "from St. Nicholas".

That all makes sense to me.  Santa was a really cool guy who loved the poor and Jesus, and he was such a great guy we still do nice things for children and the poor because of him.  "Here's an extra toy, son, in honor of this really great guy."  Awesome, sign me up!

What doesn't make sense, though, is the weird Santa of American folklore, the guy who lives at the North Pole with a cadre of elves, who flies around in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer and sneaks in to your chimney to deliver gifts to all the kids all over the world.

I mean, what is he?

goblin --> elf, Great Goblin |-> Santa
This is literally how I understood
this as a child
The Night Before Christmas, arguably the progenitor of the modern mythofigure, describes Santa as a "right jolly old elf".  As a kid, I took that to heart and assumed Santa was like the Elf King by virtue of being the tallest and fattest of the elves, and that makes him in charge (I guess the same way the Great Goblin in the Hobbit is king of the goblins).
But in most portrayals, Santa and the elves come across as distinctly different.  The elves aren't just shorter, but have glossier, plasticy facial features, and also talk in high pitch whines and behave youthfully, whereas Santa is bass-voiced and mature and has the skin tones of a really albino human.  So it doesn't seem like Santa is actually an elf, not even the King Elf.

But he can't be a human either.  Santa was old when my dad was a kid, and he's just as old today.  The Santa Clause with Tim Allen offers some kind of explanation, at least, for how this keeps going on; but I don't know how "canonical" that is.

So Santa is just some old guy who lives at the North Pole with his wife Mrs. Claus, and he's always been old and will still be old a hundred years from now if this silly tradition of ours continues.  He's not an elf, not even the king of the elves, but just a really, really old human.

I know I'm overanalyzing this, but I'm told by every holiday movie, year after year, to "believe" again; and kids especially have the myth reinforced by hundreds of movies, telling them to just believe in the magic of Santa because it's good to believe in Santa.  So if people are going to make a point of insisting I believe, they might as well explain what this guy is.

Some people like the ancient Norse had beliefs that were similar.  They had the god Odin, who looked just like Gandalf the Grey, who during Yule would ride on a flying horse at night and give gifts.  And while Odin is just as real as Tim Allen's Santa, it at least presents a sensible story.  There's some god who looks like an old man (or is an old man?) who flies around on a horse because he's a god and can fly, and he gives children presents because he can do whatever he wants.  I can see how a pagan Norseman could tell his pagan Norsechildren about Odin coming on Yule to give them presents or coal with no cognitive dissonance.

I cannot see how a modern American, Christian or unaffiliated, could tell their kids about Santa without extreme inner conflict.  This guy - elf or human, we don't know but probably human - this really old guy, maybe a thousand or more years old, but still spry and healthy and able to move around - this guy lives at the North Pole, cut off from all civilization, with his wife and a workshop full of elves (not Lord of the Rings elves, but more like Keebler elves, which are real but only at the North Pole) and through his omnipresence (or elfen spies?) keeps tabs on all gentile children the world over, sorting them in to binary categories of "naughty" and "nice" -- but really he just calls them all "nice" anyway.  For the "nice" children, his elves manufacture copyrighted toys (or Santa buys them with his Visa card?) appropriate to the socioeconomic stats of the "nice" children's parents, and then Santa uses flying reindeer to pull a sled (sometimes depicted as having car-like controls and mechanical features that somehow impact how the reindeer fly?) and deliver these.

I mean, I'm stressing how absurd it is, because the entire thing is absurd, start to finish.  But of course it is.  No serious adult believes in Santa.  It's just a kids thing.  It's superfluous to explain how ridiculous the story is; who am I even talking to?

So if it's so ridiculous no serious person would believe it, why does it exist in our culture?  We have no cultural paradigm that can account for the fantastical things we claim happen the night of the 24th; we don't believe in gods, or elf-men, or the miraculous.  We don't believe archbishops can live forever on earth, or that they are can mass-produce copyrighted products and distribute them for free.  We don't even believe in binary morality systems of "naughty" or "nice" anymore, or "good" and "evil", but a "gray" morality where little Susy might be mostly naughty outwardly, but conflicted by struggles at home, and wanting to be nice, yet finding lacking the inner confidence to express these positive attributes.  And who's this Santa jerk to judge?

I guess all I'm saying is, we need to get our story straight.  We live in an age keenly disposed to discarding traditions and legends that no longer suit us, why was this one not the first to go?

If we want to keep it, let's at least adapt it to fit a modern American worldview.  Maybe Santa is a reclusive eccentric who invested and won on the stock market?  He used some of the profits to build himself an awesome mansion at the North Pole where he has groups of scientists and engineers working on geothermal power development - the next big thing - but the rest of the profit and the revenue from stock sales goes to purchasing gifts online and then he has them delivered to the kids' houses.  Parents register their kids, giving names, addresses, and lists, Santa orders them from Amazon, then the parents and wrap them and put them under the tree; but the gifts are still resolutely "from" Santa, since he ordered them.  When you register, you're also asked to make a donation to a "present fund", and wealthier parents can give more, and hence get larger kickbacks with the gifts.  I don't how he's alive after all these years, unless you make him Santa Corp., which is the research laboratory he founded with his stock winnings, and his image just remains as the company mascot after he passed on.  The movies and storybooks were made in coalition with Santa Corp., and fictional, but are fun and entertaining anyway and that's the only reason why they make them.  If you wanted, you could throw in that the scientists and engineers developed a hover craft, and once a year Santa (or the CEO of Santa Corp.) gets in the hover craft and physically delivers presents to one lucky city somewhere in the world each year, but only ever one, if you wanted to keep that element.

Of course it isn't any more true, but at least it makes sense in terms of modern America.  It explains how Santa gave me LEGOs for nine years in a row (despite his elves allegedly making them), how he knows what the kids want, how he gets the gifts to them, how he affords it all, what he's doing at the North Pole in the first place, and even why he appears in so many flippin' commercials hawking products and yet how he looks different in them all.

I'd bet a kid told that would not catch on until he was in his twenties, and only after his friends started teasing him and he went on wikipedia to fact check.

I don't like that version of Santa, but I could at least keep a straight face while telling that story to a child (if not grinning from my own cleverness); everything adds up and makes sense, and only suffers the defect of being factually inaccurate.  Which is a step up from factually inaccurate and ridiculous.

The version of Santa I intend to tell my kids (assuming I ever have kids) is the first one about St. Nicholas being a really nice guy honored for his generosity, and we give you extra presents in memory of him.  Coincidentally, this suffers neither of the defects above, being both sensible and factually accurate.

But if you're going to go with the guy at the North Pole, maybe consider my explanation?  Or at least come together and figure out how to make sense of the guy.  I did my part to try.

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