Monday, December 19, 2022

What even is Santa?

 When I was a kid, my dad read to me the classic Christmas poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas."  In this poem, there is a line which describes Santa as a "right jolly old elf."

As I kid I really pondered a lot on this line.  Santa is obviously in charge of the elves.  The elves are short, but Santa is human sized.  But according to the canonical poem, Santa also is an elf.

The way my child brain understood this was literally in analogy to the Great Goblin from the Hobbit.

The Great Goblin is the biggest goblin, and so is king of the goblins.  Likewise, Santa is the biggest elf, and so is king of the elves.

It makes perfect sense, really.  But also probably isn't how most people like to think of Santa.

But then again, how should we think of Santa?  In fact, what even is Santa?

Is he an elf?  Is he the king elf?  Is he a human?  Or what exactly?

If an elf, why is he so tall and fat?  If a human, why is he still alive after all of these years?

Obviously Santa isn't really anything at all.  He is at best an amalgamation of several mythological figures (plus one Christian saint), and the precise blend is inhomogeneous across nations, families, and Hollywood adaptations.

So I would like to offer up my own explanation of Santa.  I originally posted this for Christmas ten years ago, and it's time to revisit it.

About 180 years ago, around the time of the robber barons and the rise of major corporations in the US, there was a particular eccentric recluse, of old New York Dutch stock, who invested in the New York Stock Exchange and won big.  This man, Sinter Klaus (named after the Christian saint), quickly became the wealthiest man in the world.

Sinter was a crazy inventor, similar to Edison or Tesla at the time, and he used some of his profits on the stock market to invest in a laboratory in the arctic circle near the North Pole.  His interest was in the potential for geothermal heat differences as a free energy source.  The "elves" are really just researchers at the lab.  Some are full-time researchers.  Others might be graduate students, conducting experiments for their dissertations.  Others of the "elves" are employees driving fork lifts (now, that is) or maintaining equipment.

Eccentricity and philanthropy often go hand-in-hand.  Sinter Klaus never married or had children, but recalling his own childhood of poverty and thin broth for dinner, broken only by the magic of Christmas with its big meal of ham and rich bread, Sinter dedicated a large portion of his winnings to establish an endowment known today as simply "the Present Fund."  The Present Fund was meant to provide children the world over with toys on Christmas, to make sure every child can experience a little bit of joy.

With the Present Fund, parents around the world can register their children to receive free gifts.  The parents write down the name and address and gift requests, and volunteers within the Present Fund make sure they get delivered on time.

No one is turned down due to income, wealthy or poor.  But as the Present Fund is an established charity, wealthier parents are asked to make a donation to the Fund, to make sure it can remain operating.  This is why rich kids get nicer presents; their parents probably donated to the Present Fund.

In times past, the toys were made by the "elves" -- by the researchers and technicians at the arctic research station.  However, in the modern era, it's a lot easier to just buy the toys and ship them to the houses.  The researchers also managed to develop a hover craft -- which they call "the Sleigh" -- running off of geothermal energy.  Each year, Sinter Klaus would actually fly the Sleigh to one lucky town or city drawn from a raffle around the world and hand-deliver the presents to the children there.  Our town won before, back before you were born; it probably won't happen again this year, but maybe next year.

the CEO and CFO of Santa Corp 

Of course, the original Sinter Klaus passed away years ago.  But not before establishing his research enterprise as a corporation, Santa Corp., which along with the endowment to the Present Fund lives on after  him.  The CEO of Santa Corp. is the one who plays the role of "Santa" each year, maintaining a long white beard, and donning the original Mr. Klaus' coat to fly the hover craft each year to the boys and girls of the lucky chosen city.  

Santa Corp. owns the rights to the likeness of Santa.  However, each year they agree to license out the rights to different Hollywood adaptations, or for commercials.  It helps fund the research, but also funds the Present Fund.  Sometimes the actual CEO (i.e. the real Santa) will appear as himself in one of the films.  The guy at the mall may even be the real Santa (he sometimes does the lap sitting thing for fun).  They are pretty loose with leasing the rights of the story for creative adaptations, so it's changed a lot over the years.

And that's what Santa is.  He's the CEO of a research corporation based in the North Pole, originally founded by a wealthy eccentric and philanthropist.  And he's also the likeness of the original founder, which can be leased by movie and ad producers.

Obviously, none of this is any more true than any given movie adaptation.  But at least it explains what Santa Claus is.  And at least it makes sense, and accounts for all the inconsistencies across stories.

It explains how Santa gives children Legos for Christmas, even though it's supposed to be elves in the workshop making them.  It explains how Santa knows what everyone wants, how he gets the gifts to them, why he's at the North Pole, and why he's in so many commercials, and yet also why he always looks different in each movie and commercial.

It also accounts for all the other trappings of the story, which are just exaggerations by different writers or producers adapting the real story.  For instance, the poem that started this blog post, "Twas the Night Before Christmas"; it wasn't implying that Santa visited every house, only the houses in the city of the poem (which had won that year).

It's the kind of Santa story that is completely consistent with reality as we understand it in the modern age, and requires almost no suspension of disbelief to accept.

In fact, I am willing to bet a child raised to believe in this version of Santa would not start to seriously doubt Santa's existence until well out of high school.  Even if Santa stopped bringing you presents, it still makes sense; you got too old to be registered with the Present Fund.

I don't intend to tell my children this story, or really any story, other than that it's an imagination game adults like to play.

But if you're planning on playing the Santa game with your kids, at least consider my version as a possibility.

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