Learned #39: Santa-esque

In which we dress up a bit.

I’ve played Santa exactly twice in my life: when I was nine, for the school Christmas play and again last week for a local pre-school’s Christmas party. All in all, the second experience was a lot better if for no other reason than I got paid.

I’ve been asked several other times over the intervening years to take on the role, but, the thing is, being Santa is a terrible gig. And I’m not talking about babies peeing on you or older kids trying to yank off the beard or besotted grannies trying to sit on your lap. No, what I mean is it’s the worst kind of immersive, improvisational, free-form role there is. No matter what you do or how you do it, you’re doing it wrong for at least some part of your audience.

Christmas has become a little bit of a battleground in the culture wars in recent years, and I’m not going to get into all of that nonsense, but I as I accepted the gig last week, I wanted to look a little bit about the role of Santa. We have lots of ideas about Santa. Who he is, where he came from, what he means to the season and to kids the world over, and all those answers vary from culture to culture.

So, as I set out to don the red hat and assemble the reindeer, I thought we’d take a look at just who is this Santa guy, anyway?

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Have Suit, Will Santa

  • What We're Reading: Three Christmas Books

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Santa Facts

Let's get to it.

Photo by Roberto Nickson (@g) on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Have suit, will Santa.

Santa. Red suit, black boots, big belly, booming laugh, sack of presents. It's a pretty familiar image. It's also one created almost entirely through advertising. And those reindeer? They only have names because of a nineteenth-century poem and a twentieth-century novelty hit. What about cookies and milk? Pretty much only in America. In fact, it turns out that just about everything we know about Christmas' non-secular traditions (Santa, his elves, and reindeer) is completely fabricated and recently at that.

How great is that? For me, this means that I can pick and choose from every little bit of Christmas lore I've ever heard, add in my own ideas and stories, stir it all together and, presto-chango, here's a new take on Christmas!

Not that this is a new idea. Every year there are dozens of hot-takes on Santa and everything else Christmas in the form of new movies, t.v. specials, holiday-themed episodes of sitcoms, books, comics, probably podcasts, too... But, for a lot of us, those major media versions have a weight behind them that usually gets summed up as, "someone got paid to make that, therefore it is more legit than my cobbled together version."

The author gets ready for work.

But the cobbled together stories are the really fun ones. Take, for example, my recent dive back into the red suit: I met with the daycare staff and they ran me through their concept. Santa's sleigh had become stuck in the ice. The children at the daycare found out about this catastrophe when Santa answered their letters saying he wasn't sure he would be able to deliver presents to them in time. The kids then wrote another letter giving suggestions for how to get unstuck, including directions for making a fire.

The idea being that when I, as Santa, appeared in the school, well, you get it. Christmas saved, presents inbound, cookies and milk, ho ho ho, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

I had some questions:

  • Where is Santa from?

  • How many reindeer pull his sleigh?

  • What does he like to eat and drink?

  • Is he married?

  • Are the elves his kids or his friends?

Now, if you know me, this might sound like just the sort of pretentious, actor-y, getting-into-character crap you would expect from someone who takes any sort of creative work too seriously. However. I've been working with small kids for a while now, and I've been around Japan at Christmas time for even longer. Thus, here are some of the things I have been told about Christmas by Japanese kids, here in Japan:

  • Santa is from Norweigh.

  • He has anywhere from two to one-hundred reindeer.

  • He likes sushi and green tea.

  • He is not married.

  • But somehow, the elves are all his children.

As it turns out, the daycare's custom take on Santa hewed closely to the standard American: North Pole, nine reindeer, cookies and milk, Mrs. Claus, friends & co-workers.

As it turns out, I didn't need any of that information. Instead, I stuck to the script. I made my entrance with a hearty "Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas!" and found my seat and told the kids that I was very grateful for their letters because I had copied their instructions for making a fire and freed my sleigh from the ice. I read out their names, handed out presents, and skedaddled. All's said and done, I've made less money for harder work.

But I'm glad I asked. Because even though it was a case of me over-thinking things, it reminded me how much fun it can be to take all the folklore and myth-making that surrounds Christmas and tailor it to your own situation, be it teaching, for your own kids, or just because you felt like it.

With that in mind, I’ll say Merry Christmas and hope that Santa, or your conception of him anyway, brings you everything you want and maybe even something you need. Cheers.

What We’re Reading:

We’ve got a troika of books this week, all dealing with the origins and traditions of Christmas.

The Battle for Christmas

by Stephen Nisselbaum

From the Amazon description:

Anyone who laments the excesses of Christmas might consider the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts: they simply outlawed the holiday. The Puritans had their reasons, since Christmas was once an occasion for drunkenness and riot, when poor "wassailers  extorted food and drink from the well-to-do. In this intriguing and innovative work of social history, Stephen Nissenbaum rediscovers Christmas's carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism. 

Christmas, a Biography

by Judith Flanders

From the Amazon description:

Christmas has always been a magical time. Or has it? Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, the Pope was already warning that too many people were spending the day, not in worship, but in partying and eating to excess. By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically remembering Christmas in the old days, certain that it had been better then.

A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions

by Mark Forsyth

From the Amazon description:

We don't know that the date we celebrate was chosen by a madman, or that Christmas, etymologically speaking, means "Go away, Christ". Nor do we know that Christmas was first celebrated in 243 AD on March 28th - and only moved to 25th December in 354 AD. We're oblivious to the fact that the advent calendar was actually invented by a Munich housewife to stop her children pestering her for a Christmas countdown. And we would never have guessed that the invention of crackers was merely a way of popularising sweet wrappers.

All three of these books offer the history of our Christmas myths and stories without making it a battle (titles aside). There’s no insistence that we say Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays nor urging to do things “the right way.” Instead, we’ve just got three takes on history and how it collides and blends with culture resulting in new ideas and new traditions.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Santa Facts

Alright. I’ve talked a lot in this issue about the facts and history of Santa. Here are several lists of sources, written for different ages and with different aims. They’re all pretty interesting. Just remember that, just this once, it’s okay to make up your own.

Santa is based on a real person.

Saint Nicholas was a Greek Christian bishop born sometime around 280 A.D. (approximately 1738 years ago) near Myra in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia (now located in Turkey). He was famous for his generous and anonymous gifts to the poor. He once helped three impoverished daughters of a local Christian with dowries (dropping a sack of gold through their window each night) so that they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes.

St. Nicholas gave gifts and charity.

One of the most legendary acts of kindness of Saint Nicholas was that of saving three sisters from being sold into prostitution. The girls were from a poor family and their father couldn’t afford to get them married and hence, decided to sell them into prostitution. It was Saint Nicholas who gave their father enough money to not only get them married but also to pay for the dowries their husbands asked for.

The department store Santa is a 120-year-old tradition

In 1890, Massachusetts businessman James Edgar became the first department store Santa, according to The Smoking Jacket. Edgar is credited with coming up with the idea of dressing up in a Santa Claus costume as a marketing tool. Children from all over the state dragged their parents to Edgar's small dry goods store in Brockton, and a tradition was born.

“Merry Old Santa Claus,” by Thomas Nast, 1881

A cartoon helped spread the popularity of writing to Santa.

If one work can be credited with helping kickstart the practice of sending letters to Santa Claus, it’s Thomas Nast’s illustration published in the December 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The image shows Santa seated at his desk and processing his mail, sorting items into stacks labeled “Letters from Naughty Children’s Parents” and “Letters from Good Children’s Parents.”

Santa has not always lived at the North Pole.

In the mid 1800s, poet Thomas Nash wrote a poem that famously placed Santa's home in the North Pole, even though the original saint lived in Turkey. Nash most likely chose the North Pole because, at the time, there were several scientific explorations to the North Pole, a region that was seen as a type of fantasy land, mysterious and just out of reach.

The Dutch version of Santa Claus is a little different.

Sinter Klaas…is much thinner than the American Santa Claus. He rides a white horse and gets help from numerous Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) handing out gifts and candy. He arrives the first Saturday in November by Boat. In the evenings, Dutch Children sing songs in front of the fire place or in the living room and leave their shoe with a present (drawing for Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet or a Carrot for Amerigo Sinterklaas' horse) In the mornings they will find their shoe filled with candy and small presents. On the 5th of December Dutch households have a “Pakjesavond” (Presents night) and exchange presents.

Santa gets his look from Norse mythology.

The physical look of Santa Claus is largely based on the pagan god Odin. According to folklore, Odin the gift bearer rode a ghostly procession through the sky called the Wild Hunt during the celebration of midwinter known as Yule. Even today, the word for Christmas in Scandinavia is still Yule.

And for those who like quick lists…

That’s it. Merry Christmas! Stay safe, stay healthy. Learn something.