Just getting in the way?

CHARLIE GILLIS December 26 2005

Just getting in the way?

CHARLIE GILLIS December 26 2005


Are there movies Santa would rather not have appeared in? 'Well, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was ill-conceived, let's put it that waya' SANTA CLAUS TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE

Gerry Bowler is the author of the engaging new book Santa Claus: A Biography. His previous books include The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. He lives in Winnipeg, where he teaches at the University of Manitoba. Maclean’s is grateful to Mr. Bowler for putting us in touch with Santa at such a busy time of the season.

QSo, start Santa. inkling I guess at the beginning, We that we had you should some were out there through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution. There are surviving images of Christmas beings such as shaggy bogeymen, ghostly figures in white, men clad in fur and goatskin. But it wasn’t really until early 19thcentury America that we figured out exactly who you were, is that correct?

I think that’s pretty fair to say. Since the 1100s, there were always magical gift-bringers at Christmastime, most of them travelling by donkey or wagon or on foot. I don’t emerge clearly until 1821.

And the man we can thank most for our understanding of you around that time, and for the most complete picture of you, is a poet named

Clement Clarke Moore, author’ of“’Twas the Night Before Christmas. ”

Yeah, Moore is the one who gives me the eight reindeer and sends me down a chimney, and separates me from the extremely judgmental figure I had been up to that time.

I think Moore’s genius lies in the benevolence of my countenance, the round belly, whereas hitherto I’d been a rather austere bishop. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head—my head—soon gave Moore’s protagonist to know he had nothing to dread.

Right. Who was Clement Clarke Moore and why was he the guy to figure all this out?

Well, he was part of a group of conservative upper-middle-class New Yorkers-John Pintard was one, Washington Irving another—who wanted to domesticate Christmas, to take it off the streets where it had become violent and drunken, and move it indoors to make it domestic and child-centred and suitable for the better-off class of citizen. And in order to do so he’s got to have some kind of magic taking place inside the home and focusing on parental-child relations— that’s what his poem is about.

Even though Moore painted a clear picture of you, it was some time before his characterization became the generally accepted one. Through the 19th century there were still a lot of people who wanted to see you as a harddrinking, rabble-rousing Santa-about-town.

Exactly. People always have to negotiate the two aspects of Christmas, the mid-winter festival and the more spiritual side of things, and the Santa Claus that I was deemed to be by the late 19th century covers both of these aspects. The raucous part was given up very reluctantly by a lot of people in New York.

Now, later in the 19th century there was a guy named Thomas Nast whom I know as probably the greatest political cartoonist in the his-

tory of print-famous for his caricatures of corrupt New York politician Boss Tweed and that gang—and he also played an important role in your career. He expanded on your character, told us a lot about how you live, and brought you to even greater fame.

AVery have he to ian. starts He’s much remember off as a German so. a BavarYou that immigrant, and he brings with him memories of the shaggy creatures that accompanied St. Nicholas in Germany. So, when he starts doing Santa Claus, it’s in the middle of the Civil War, and he rightly perceives that I would be a wonderful gift to the Union side, because if this figure of benevolence—me—is fighting on one side, then surely that’s almost like God’s approval. So in a series of cartoons in Harper’s he manages to portray me delivering treats to the Union troops, but also being a consoling figure back on the home front, so I can bridge both the home and the battle front. In doing this, the Civil War actually spreads awareness of me and I become even more well-known throughout the United States and the South after the Civil War. Southern kids had to ask the question why I couldn’t make it to them, and of course the answer was the Union blockade.

Nast kept drawing you after the Civil War. He’s the one who placed you in your workshop at the North Pole. He’s the one who figured out you had a giant telescope that helped you

know who was being naughty and nice...

Yes, and mybigbookwith everyone’s name in it. He does quite a bit. He was uncertain, at first, about how big I was. He had me sort of medium-sized, dwarfish. By the end of his career in the 1890s he has me as an adult. But the lovely face, the wide, beaming bearded face, it’s all there. He took earlier hints that I was an Arctic dweller and actually fixed me at the North Pole. He’s not the first to give me elves, but he is the first to show the sort of home workshop atmosphere that I have up at the North Pole. As technology moves on he has me even talking to children on the telephone.

One of the roles you’ve played over the years has been not simply gift-giver but something of a quasi-parental figure, keeping children in line, keeping them conscious of good and bad. Is that something you’re comfortable with?

Yeah, I do remind children there is a difference between right and wrong and there are consequences to their actions, but that’s less so as time goes on. I tend to accommodate myself to parental mores. Where the switch [as punishment] was liberally used early in the 19th century, I was quite prepared to de-

'Parents use me in a number of ways.

I allow them to be generous at Christmas and thrifty the rest of the year.'

liver some of those. As time goes on, and parenting becomes softer, I have pretty much abandoned that, and by the 20th century I’m very nonjudgmental. But that doesn’t mean I’m not useful to parents. They still use me in a number of ways to distinguish various times

of the year. One of the most useful things, often overlooked by social historians, is that I allow parents to be generous at Christmas and to be thrifty the rest of the year. I show them that you can express your love through giving at Christmas but still try to teach kids responsibility and self-restraint at other times.

You’ve abo evolved with social and political mores. Your image has been appropriated over the years by all kinds of causes, from white supremacy to...

... the Socialist Sunday School movement, the Viet Cong, the Nazis. But it’s not always me, you know?

Does thb unauthorized use of your image do you harm?

Alt also portant certainly speaks I does, to am how in but imthe it world. When, for example, the Ku Klux Klan used my image, it was their way of recognizing the fact that I stand for benevolence and decent human behaviour, even though that’s hypocritical on their part. When the Viet Cong threw down propaganda brochures to be found by American troops in Vietnam to weaken their morale, it was acknowledgment of just how big a role I play in the fabric of American families. So, while I certainly am not happy to see myself used by the Nazis, nonetheless it’s kind of a backhanded compliment.

You’ve also been a great pitchman over the years. In fact, you were probably the original commercial pitchman, long before Ronald McDonald, Betty Crocker, or all of those others. I mean, you were it!

I’m still it. I pretty much dwarf—pun intended-all the rest of these characters-comelately. Yeah, I was the first. I’m still the most powerful, and the most universally used, I would say. I don’t think there’s any kind of good or service that I haven’t been used to portray. Not always with my permission, though. The Brazilian edition of Playboy magazine, for example, put me on the cover, and the Santa’s helpers all across Brazil protested and started wearing black arm bands on their fur uniforms to protest. There’s scarcely a vice I haven’t been associated with, I’m afraid.

I’m told you once did a campaign with Coca-Cola, before my time, that was a particular hit. In fact, it’s a legend in the marketing industry. Can you tell me about it?

Sure. In the 1920s Coke was undergoing a lot of attacks from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—very curiously, they didn’t like all that caffeine—and there was a U.S. senator who claimed that Coca-Cola caused sterility in women and affected brain power. So Coca-Cola was looking around for something to brighten up its image, to make it more wholesome, less medicinal, and something that would encourage soft-drink con-

sumption during the winter. The company hired a commercial artist, Haddon Sundblom, who did magnificent paintings from the ’30s to the ’60s. He really captured my expansiveness, the richness of my furs, my folds of fat, my jollity. Those ads are interesting because they portray Santa not only as a deliverer of goods but actually as a consumer. If you look at those ads, I’m always portrayed going through somebody else’s refrigerator, you know, or playing with their toys.

In addition to all of these other careers, you’ve abo had a wonderful run on the silver screen. If you don’t mind me saying so, some of the films were better than others. What are the highlights and what are the low points?

Well, I take pride in the fact that almost

'Not all the Christmas songs portray me in a favourable light. Some allege a drunk driving episode that never happened. Absolutely not. Lies, all lies!'

as soon as cinema was invented I was chosen to be one of the subjects, so I started off in the 1890s and continue to the present day. The high points would be, for me, Miracle on 34th Street...

What was special about that one?

Oh, it’s the story of a department store Santa who may or may not really be me, and he teaches a very skeptical, hardened child and her mother the importance of the intangible or the immaterial, of belief and vulnerability, in a world where the material and consuming is far too predominant.

QThbba but for it’s been Santas, department bit no? of a You a hard tangmt, store must time feel some sympathy for them—all these rules that have kids sitting in chairs rather than on Santa’s lap, and...

Yes, Santa’s hands have to be visible at all times. [Sigh.] It’s dreadful. It’s all part of a sadly heightened paranoia about things sexual. Did you see an airline recently was requesting male passengers not to sit next to unaccompanied children?

That’s the world we live in.


Getting back to movies. Some that you’d rather not have appeared in?

Well, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was ill-conceived, let’s put it that way. Apparently Martian children had been watching Earth TV and had learned of my existence

and so forces on Mars kidnapped me, took me there. Luckily I was able to save the day, but it was a dreadful piece of work. All the Santa-Claus-as-slasher movies—those are pretty bad, and there’s no end of them. Apparently the sight of me can traumatize kids into becoming axe murderers. Who knew? Television movies are also pretty bad. One of the worst is a Canadian CBC production called Must Be Santa—apparently one of the most expensive CBC productions ever. It falsely alleges that Santa is not just mortal but when he gets old and crotchety he has to be sent to the Santa Senate.

A cruel fate, isn’t it?

A little humiliating.

Yet another fantastic career you’ve had is in the music industry. There have been so many Christmas songs written about you and mentioningyou.

True, but not all of them portray me in a favourable light. Some allege a drunk driving episode that never happened.

Which one was that?

Santa Got a DWI. In the States that means Driving While Intoxicated.

Didn’t happen?

Absolutely not. Lies, all lies! My name has also been taken, well, not quite in vain, because I do have a sensual side, but the blues and jazz segment of the musical world has been using Santa Claus as a symbol for sex and good times.

What songs are those?

Oh, Santa Baby, for example. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’, Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney.

But you sound okay with that.

Well, I’m a married man, I know the attraction of the opposite sex.

Do you have an all-time favourite song?

I don’t, really. I don’t think there’s a really great Santa song the way there are great Christmas songs or great Christmas movies. I like the ones Gene Autry did in the late 1940s, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and his version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but there hasn’t been a real classic piece of Santa Claus music the way there have been classic Santa books and pictures and the like.

Is it true you were lynched in Florida not too long ago?

Oh, in effigy, certainly. Yes, several times. You see, there is currently a struggle for the soul of Christmas. There always has been. Christmas has been a topic of negotiation for the past 2,000 years. It is always getting reinvented and redefined, but this is one of the harder periods for both Santa and Christmas. We’re coming under fire from secular fundamentalists who want to clear religion out of the public sphere altogether, and at the same time we’re coming under attack by religious fundamentalists—chiefly of the Calvinist persuasion—who see Christmas

as pagan and idolatrous, and me representing all kinds of evil forces, including even the arch evil one himself. It’s all quite, quite, quite untrue, but occasionally I am lynched, and there are anti-Santa hymns written linking me to the demonic, which is a bit of a cheap shot. “The devil has a demon, his name is Santa Claus.” [Sigh.]

That’s not fair at all. Let me read something that will lift your spirits. It’s an editorial from the old New York Sun replying to a question from a young female reader and, personally, I think it’s the nicest thing that’s ever been written of you. It goes like this: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas, how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. ” You’re familiar with those words?

Oh, God bless Francis Pharcellus Church— he was the editorial writer—and bless little Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to him in 1897. Yes, they’re wonderful words. They really do sum up one of the important reasons for my continued popularity, which is the beauty of the supernatural and the immaterial. “Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.” Yeah, that’s absolutely the truth.

Looking toward the future, who’s most important in terms of keeping Santa Claus central to Christmas, is it children or parents?

A fully Parents. something important Santa that Claus is to awparis ents, because they can express their love in a way that demands no reciprocity. It’s sort of re-enacting the old Christian concept of grace, of unmerited favour. It gives children so much more than simply the gifts. Santa brings them wonder and magic, a heightened sense of the passage of time. It ties families together. And even when children come to an age in which they’re not prepared to believe in me anymore, most often—overwhelmingly so—they become part of the intergenerational conspiracy that passes me along from parents to children. You very seldom see older siblings who discover something they think they know about Santa rat out Santa to the kids that are younger than they are.

Can I ask you just a few quick practical questions?


Nobody has chimneys anymore.

Very few chimneys, but then, as St. Nicholas

and my predecessors were, we’re very clever about getting into all kinds of places.


Through windows, doors, keyholes.

So you can ?nanage.

Oh yeah, there’s no problem.

There’s always been some confusion in my household about what kind of snack to leave you.

Well, I like an ethnic variety. In England I am wont to be left mince pie and a little

glass of sherry. I get cold beer down in Australia. When I’m in this part of the world, I’m very partial to cookies and milk, particularly shortbread.

Do you ha ve a favourite reindeer?

No. No, I must never show any favouritism at all. But don’t forget the carrots for the reindeer.

Do you expect a busy Christmas this year?

Always. No end in sight. My cult—if I may call it that—is spreading about the world. There are more believers, and more and more requests every year.

You’ve been a wonderfid sport. Thank you very much.

My pleasure. Merry Christmas, Ken. Ho, ho, ho. M

ON THE WEB Read an excerpt from Santa Claus: A Biography,