Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Santa Claus Phenomenon.

Hey, kids!  We grown-ups are just going to talk about boring things here using big, technical terms like “motif” and “archetype”.  You don’t want to hang around here.

They gone?

Good!  This is because we have to talk about the whole Santa Claus thing. 
Thomas Nast's Santa Claus
Why?  Well, because Santa Claus is a sort of folklore.  An unusual bit of folklore from a modern perspective, too.  At a basic level, Santa Claus could maybe be considered a legend.  I mean, there was a Saint Nicholas, right?  So, he is based on a real, historical figure of some sort.  However, over the years he’s picked up bits and pieces from other places as people have chosen to reinterpret this legend.  Not all these influences have been all that folk-y either.  The Saint Nicholas Center claims the first use of the saint as “Sante Claus” came in 1821 with the publication of the first lithographed book in America entitled The Children’s Friend.  This book depicts the saint as a man who visits children on Christmas Eve and leaves gentle toys like dolls, tops, balls and books to good children and left a “long, black birchen rod” for the parents of naughty children so that they may make them get back into line (and you thought a lump of coal was bad).  The History Channel actually fills in some other gaps crediting Clement Moore and his poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” with Santa’s method of entry (chimney), transportation (sleigh and “eight tiny reindeer”) and his depiction as “a right jolly old elf”.  They also credit illustrator and political cartoonist Thomas Nast with giving Santa Claus his home at the North Pole, red suit, wife Mrs. Claus and lists of naughty and nice children. 
Thomas Nast himself.
Santa’s elves likely first appeared in a poem in Harper’s Weekly entitled “The Wonders of Santa Claus”.  Some credit Christmas elves as first appearing in an unfinished work by Louisa May Alcott entitled Christmas Elves while others say it was in engravings in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1873.  However, these are just a handful of the people who have interpreted the Santa Claus legend among many others including advertising artists with the Coca-Cola company.

But one thing I want to talk about is what the Santa Claus legend is.  For you see, I keep using the word “legend” even though it doesn’t fit with how we usually see the idea of a legend.  Usually, a “legend” suggests some kind of folk narrative.  However, there really is no story for Santa Claus except the ones that authors wrote for him.  I could call it a tradition, but it’s a unique tradition that has a sense of character to it and personality.  To many children, Santa is viewed as a real entity and not just something that people do during the holidays.  So, he’s not quite a folk story and more than a tradition.  The folklore tradition surrounding traditional gift givers and sometimes punishers of naughty children (and there are plenty of both) is a rather unique one in general.  I'm not even sure what I'd call it.

This brings me to my next question.  Is perpetuating the Santa Claus tradition/character/legend a good idea?  People are split on this one.  Lots and lots of people love the idea of Santa Claus and promoting belief in him to their children.  Others see it as a form of manipulation as well as lying to children.  One is reminded of Natalie Wood’s character from Miracle on 34th Street and her rather cynical mother.  I can see where they’re coming from to a certain extent.  There is some degree of lying and sneaking involved.  These are things that many parents would consider to be negative in any other circumstances.  So, there is probably some feeling by parents that they are being hypocritical.  Also, unlike most other forms of folklore, this is one of the few where some sort of results are expected to be delivered.  Sure, there are legends that people claim actually happened.  There are also ghosts stories in which people claim things are still happening.  However, it’s only in the legend of Santa Claus and other ceremonial gift givers that parents are expected to provide gifts and eat cookies as a sort of proof that the legend has some veracity all while leaving the children none the wiser.  There’s got to be some pressure there.  Maybe this is pressure that parents do not want.  I don’t know.  Personally, I’m pro-Santa.  It’s generally my belief that there is a difference between believing a lie and believing a legend.  While lies fool us and lead us astray, legends often tend to lift us up and point us toward being better.  More than a didactic means of teaching children good behavior, I see Santa Claus as a way to teach the rather Christmas-y values of hope, faith, kindness, goodwill and generosity.

So, where do you weigh in on the whole Santa Claus situation?  Pro-Santa?  Anti-Santa?  Somewhere in between?  Let me know with your reasons in the comments section below.

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