The Cult of Santa

The yearly complaints about the commercialization of Christmas are once again echoing throughout the land. Thankfully, we can now turn to Penne L. Restad's book "Christmas in America" for relief. Restad effectively silences the seasonal curmudgeons who view Christmas as a once-pure American holy day taken over by secular forces out to profit from the good will of citizens. Capitalism, it seems, has "always" been a vital part of the holiday. While Christmas remains a potent celebration of religious belief for many and, in its secular guise, still serves to unify a diverse nation (albeit briefly and superficially), a surprising number of the traditional elements of Christmas derive not from ancient folkways, but from the actions of individuals eager to make cultural or monetary capital out of the yearly celebration of the birth of Christ.This interplay of invention and tradition has produced, along with the greeting card industry and other businesses, the cult of Santa, which, while often shamelessly profit-driven, nevertheless retains elements of the belief at the heart of Christmas.The modern Santa Claus derives from St. Nicholas (aka St. Aclaus, St. Iclaus, Sancte Klaas, St Class, Santeclaw and St. a claus), whose popularity as the protector of children enabled him to survive the Reformation in Protestant countries; he flourished especially well in Holland. Dutch colonists brought the saint with them to the Hudson valley, and when Washington Irving and others looked for a character with which to promote New York City in the early 19th century, St. Nick was the obvious choice. Because he emphasized its Dutch past, Nicholas gave NYC historical resonance, an invaluable tool for those eager to advertise their city's importance.At this stage Santa dispensed both presents and punishment. In a woodcut distributed at the New York Historical Society's 1810 meeting, St. Nicholas carries both a money bag and a "Birchen Rod." Instead of leaving a lump of coal for bad boys and girls (this was the threat in my childhood), proto-Santa evidently delivered a licking.Soon, however, the saint softened. In his 1822 poem, "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" -- first published in the Troy, New York, "Sentinel" -- Clement Moore virtually invented Santa as we know him today. Borrowing from a number of sources -- including the depictions of chubby, red-cheeked Dutchmen in Irving's "History of New York?" -- Moore gave Americans a jovial St. Nick more concerned with largesse than salvation who wore red, rode in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, and entered homes through the chimney. "This Santa," Restad notes, "had no precedent in history."On the strength of Moore's poem, Santa Claus grew in popularity, and by the Civil War had eclipsed his rivals: the St. Nicholas of European tradition as well as Belsnickel and Christkindel -- figures who, like St. Nick, came calling (mostly in communities settled by Germans) with presents for the good and pious, and a switch for the wicked and ignorant.From the mid-19th century on Santa Claus has served a dual function. Presiding over a huge manufacturing operation staffed by happy workers, and rewarding the good behavior of the faithful, he puts a jolly face on both capitalism and Christianity. Kinder than a robber baron and less frightening than either God the Father or the crucified Jesus, he acts as cultural and religious training wheels for future entrepreneurs and believers alike.In her assessment of Christmas, Restad focuses on the 19th century. What of contemporary Santas? What current concerns are reflected by this most versatile of cultural symbols? As usual, Santas abound in shops and stores this season. In addition to the expected Santa Christmas tree ornaments and cookie cutters, there are Santa paperweights and Santa earrings (what better sign of his quasi-religious status?). As if to embody the material productivity of Santa's own North Pole work shop, his image comes in all the substances known to manufacturing. Crystal Santas vie for shelf space with Santas constructed of ceramic, wood, papier mache, metal and plastic.Most suggestive is the trend toward vintage Santas, marketed as authentic relics of bygone Christmases. Dressed in muted Gap colors (midnight teal or rustic taupe) instead of the traditional red, crinkly-eyed retro-Santas peer from inside big fur-lined hoods or lug strange vegetation in the place of the usual toy sack. Of course, the irony of this trend is that old- fashioned Santas harken back, not to an unsullied Christmas, but to the moment that Santa Claus emerged as a marketable product. They celebrate commerce as well as Christ. And it's troubling that the vintage Santas hover uneasily between the rough love St. Nick of old and the tamer Santa of Moore and his imitators. Often, the authentic Santas wear a stern expression and carry a stick, ambiguously rendered. Is it a walking stick or a birchen rod? In this day of mandatory sentencing and nostalgia for in-school paddlings, perhaps the market is sending a subtle hint to parents of unruly youngsters, offering a Santa who is a beneficent proponent of corporal punishment not unlike the alternately coddling and abusive psycho step- father of "This Boy's Life". After all, what naughty tot wouldn't vow to mend his ways if admonished by a mall Santa to "shut his pie hole" or else receive a candy-caning?Now that Governor George Pataki has reinstated the death penalty in New York state -- the cradle of Santa -- I suppose it only seems proper for the "right jolly old elf" to start dispensing some good old-fashioned justice of his own. Maybe "Escape from New York", in which NYC has become a penal colony, will soon join "Miracle on 34th Street" as a seasonal favorite, a means of tempering the buoyant Christmas spirit with a dose of discipline. Those of us who have strayed from the path of righteousness of late might want to hang our stockings by the chimney with special care this year.

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