Caution: This is a political Blog, and may offend or depress certain readers looking for something “Merry” in regard to Christmas. Therefore, read further at your own risk as this posting will be making a political point about commercial manipulation.
Recently, there has been some discussion in the social media and on FOX news about the race – the skin color-- of Santa Claus. Apparently, an African-American blogger raised the issue and one (or more) of Fox News “reporters” turned it into a white supremacy debate by telling children that Santa is definitely WHITE. Not originally, say others. They say he was of Mediterranean heritage (from an area that was Greek and is now Turkish). According to the “Stories behind the Great Traditions of Christmas” by A. Collins, the man who was the actual Saint Nicholas (on whom Santa Claus is based), was from the town of Patara, Lycia, now part of Turkey. When his rather wealthy parents died, he took his family’s fortune and distributed it to needy people in his hometown. He became a monk at age 17, and then he was chosen as the Archbishop of Myra when in his early twenties. In his role as Archbishop, his legend grew with stories of saving lives and healing the sick. But it was his generosity that caught the most attention from his followers, and that made him into a legend right on into our own time. One of those stories went something like this (according to Wikipedia):
The old story talks of 3 young women whose family had no money which means they had no dowries which were a necessity in order for them to be married. The father was going to sell one of the daughters into slavery, so his other two daughters would have dowries. St. Nicholas heard of this family's situation and decided to help. The legend states that St. Nicholas threw three bags of gold down the chimney. The girls had their stockings hung by the fire to dry and somehow a bag of gold landed into each stocking. This gift gave each girl their much needed dowries and allowed them to be married.
St. Nicholas’s Day, Dec. 6th, is still observed in several countries (such as Bulgaria, Ukraine and Italy) with gifts exchanged in honor of his generous spirit. With the help of a Christian author and historian of the 10th century, stories and legendary tales about Nicholas spread across Europe and a mythical character resembling St. Nicholas began showing up in each of the European countries. In Germany, “Weinachtsmann” (Christmas Man) helped the Christ Child deliver gifts to children. In France, Pere Noel emulated St. Nicholas, and placed mainly cakes, cookies and candy in children’s shoes. In Russia, St. Nicholas became Father Frost who distributed toys. In England, Father Christmas, an elderly man with a long beard carried a large sack filled with toys that he distributed. After the Protestant Reformation, there grew some opposition to saints and celebrations, which made it difficult for St. Nicholas and his gift-giving to gain a foothold amongst the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled in the New World. Puritans actually made it illegal to sing carols, exchange gifts or light candles at Christmastime.
Due to Dutch and German influences, there were stories in colonial newspapers in 1773 of some Christmas celebrations in immigrant homes. Some of the articles mentioned a “St. A. Claus” and spoke of his impact in some of those homes. Thirty years later, the New York Historical Society chose St. Nicholas as their patron saint and its members began to practice some of the older Dutch customs associated with Christmas, including the giving of gifts. That latter act got the attention of English-speaking children who became interested in Sinterklaas, but pronounced it as Santy Claus. After several more years of this mis-pronunciation, Santa Claus became the accepted Americanized name.
In 1808, Washington Irving wrote about Sinterklaas in “A History of New York” describing “a rotund little man in typical Dutch costume with knee breeches and a broad-brimmed hat, who traveled on a flying horse-drawn wagon ‘dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites’ on the Eve of St. Nicholas.” This opened the door to the delivering of gifts to children in December, but it was a theological seminary professor, and eventual Bishop, who made Christmas Eve the time of gift-giving with the arrival of old St. Nick. The Rev. Samuel Clement Moore wrote a poem for his children called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve 1822 – “a poem that would change the face of American Christmas forever.”
However, Moore really didn’t give a very detailed description of his “jolly old elf.” He could have been short and fat or tall and skinny; old or young. He could have been any color, have a beard or be clean-shaven. In the 1840’s when department stores began to hire individuals to portray Santa, there were a variety of costumes. And so it actually fell to Thomas Nast, a famed illustrator and caricaturist in the 1860s to 1880s, to flesh-out the appearance of Santa Claus. When asked to illustrate Moore’s poem in 1863, he ended up giving the world a Santa Claus as an elfin figure dressed in red with very human qualities of kindness and gentleness. For the next twenty-two years, Nast added details about the man who filled stockings and who created a ‘nice and naughty’ list. He even drew Santa’s home and workshop and illustrated children tracing Santa’s journey from the North Pole to the United States (on actual maps, not computers).
An editorial in answer to an 8-year-old’s letter to the New York Sun in 1897 made newspaper history. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” was an answer that helped move the legend forward, as did the Coca-Cola ad in 1931 that constituted the final makeover of Santa Claus, featuring a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. The artist was Haddon Sundblom whose cheery Santa replaced Nast’s somewhat sterner Santa. His popular magazine and billboard adshelped to establish Santa’s grandfatherly image and standardize his Coca-Cola inspired red and white attire as well as the red and green color scheme we now associate with Christmas.
This Santa spent 35 years “showing that Coca-Cola was a drink to drink any time of the year.” Coke's version of Santa was sent around the world, even to Europe where St. Nicholas was still the celebrated version of "Santa Claus.” Here’s where the genius of Coca-Cola comes in. First, Sundblom’s image of Santa Claus hit the right buttons in terms of stirring the hearts and quenching the thirst of consumers everywhere. Modeled on a retired salesman named Lou Prentice, Sundblom’s Santa had just the right combination of happy wrinkles, prompting Coca-Cola to hire Sundblom to create Coke ads using this model over the next 35 years. Also, Coca-Cola orchestrated an attack on the market with Santa-Coke propaganda. Magazine advertisements were particularly effective, considering that during that era, print publications had the influence TV does today: They were able to communicate over and over and over again the same image and slogan to a mass audience.” (according to MadamePickWick blog from Dec. 2010).
If we want to have a debate about Santa’s skin color, we have to recognize that we don’t have any way to know the skin color of the original St. Nicholas. We can only speculate that a person from the old Asia Minor area was possibly darker than most Europeans. However, when the legendary stories began to move across Europe and the emulations of St. Nicholas appeared in European countries, the imaginary characters probably would have taken on a lighter hue. That whiteness would become even more prominent once the American Santa was associated with the North Pole, and considering that a very large number of immigrants to the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s were white European descendants. The evolving legend also teaches us some things. One, Santa is invisible and therefore can be any color in one’s imagination, just as Moore’s St. Nick left room for that same creative image-making. In spite of the NY Sun editor’s answer to Virginia, there is no Santa Claus – he’s made up and can be anything one wants him to be. Thus, in the end, it really matters very much what color Santa is for those children and adults of color who never get to see any other than a white image in most illustrations of the legend.
For some, the debate about a black or white Santa is a reflection of a real anxiety about the changing demographics in this country, not about a real figure. There are some white citizens who simply can’t accept the diversity that exists in our times, and so they make inane remarks about Santa being white to hold on to an image they have of a white, Protestant Christian, homogeneous country that is fading as we speak. Moreover, there are some, like Rush Limbaugh, who want to protect and promote our economic system of capitalism to such a ridiculous extent that they are willing to declare that Pope Francis is a Marxist because the Pope has taken the side of the poor and bemoaned capitalism’s flaws and abuses. Does it seem strange that the Pope is proclaiming the essence of Jesus’s message and Rush has taken on the defense of the rich who don’t come off so well in the scriptures, especially in the Gospels? (See my blog of 4/10/2011 for further exposition of this point).
After all that I have written here, I want to make an entirely different point about Santa. The original St. Nicholas is not a best-seller. The Christ child in a manger is not much of a seller either (commercializing religious figures is fraught with difficulties). But, the jolly white man from the mysterious snowy North Pole, dressed in red and sporting long white hair and an equally long white beard, flying around in a sled being pulled by reindeer -- this guy is a seller! What’s more, his story, his legend, his narrative can be easily molded and expanded and made even more appealing to both children and parents.
And therein lies a tale. Coca Cola may have been the original catalyst, but many more corporations and businesses have followed suit, because, in fact, this guy sells. That’s most likely why you won’t find many manufacturers or retailers arguing about white or black Santa’s. As far as they are concerned, they can’t be bothered. They will, most likely, at some point, change their Santa hiring policies in order to bring more minority shoppers into their places of business to visit a Santa who resembles them and who is not white, but that’s just good business! Santa has been the impetus for transforming Christmas into a secular commercial holiday so that the availability of a multitude of products and the buying of gifts can be associated with a major Holy Day without giving offense. Who could ask for more? So, let us make a few points:
1) Santa Claus is a gift to the business community because the fabricated legendary figure removes the religious aura from the holiday and makes it easier to sell the whole idea of commercial enterprise. Ever since he became a myth instead of a real person; ever since he became associated with Christmas instead of Dec.6th (St. Nicholas Day), Santa Claus has been a successful commercial enterprise.
2) Christmas as a religious observance is confined to church rituals (as it should be), but many of those churches are shrinking in membership. The other Xmas is a secular holiday taken over by profiteering enterprises, and it is growing. On-line shopping has boosted this commercialization by leaps and bounds, and again, not by accident. The commercial Xmas is probably celebrated by more people than one would find in churches on Christmas.
3) Despite attempts to make him fit a religious groove, Santa’s visits to children, along with gift-giving to family and friends, are not the “essence of what Christmas is about.”
4) The American Xmas is not religious (except in enclaves here and there). It is commercial. On the MSN homepage, for instance, there are 20 items listed, “without which it isn’t the Holidays”; not a mention is given to anything religious, but a visit to Santa is prominently displayed!
5) When Santa Claus became associated with Christmas Eve instead of with Dec. 6th, it was a fatal blow to both St. Nicholas’ special Day and to the meaning of the Christ Child’s birth.
Those authors who wrote about St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas or Santa Claus, in an attempt to capture the legend in a new light, probably did not intend to secularize or commercialize Christmas. That venture was intentionally undertaken by Coca Cola. Their commercial ad campaign was certainly not an attempt to promote Christmas as a religious holy day. Their intention was to sell more Coca Cola by using a Christmas legend and icon to endorse their product. In modern parlance, this was a “celebrity endorsement.” This opened the flood gates, so to speak, for the use of Santa Claus as the key to selling many items associated with Santa and gift-giving, like early 20th century beer mugs or steins, Christmas cards, lunch boxes, art tiles, drinking glasses, jig-saw puzzles, and some clothing especially for children.
But, as we know all too well, since that Coke campaign began in 1931, there has been a plethora of products associated with Santa Claus and a wide range of movies, DVDs, records, radio and TV shows, and popular songs all dedicated to furthering the legend of Santa Claus so that he can sell even more merchandise. We have even seen a couple of major advances in the legend: the tracking of Santa’s journey by NORAD, and the now famous reindeer, Rudolph, guiding the way with his red nose.
So what is the political point to all this about the commercialization of Christmas by means of the Santa icon? Well, it is important to understand, I think, that a global company-- Coca Cola -- undertook an ad campaign that changed the way people view a legendary figure, but, more importantly, influenced a change in the nature of the most widely celebrated Christian Holy Day! Should it not concern us, then, that the current undertakings of several corporations and corporate leaders, to change our democratic representative system into a plutocracy or perhaps an oligarchy, are gaining ground? How so? Let us count the ways:
1) The negative ads against candidates by third party groups, mostly PACs and Super PACs designed to destroy the candidacies of certain individuals of a progressive bent. The supporters do not have to reveal themselves and the ads do not have to be truthful, but they can easily tilt an election by their distortions.
2) Citizens United is the impetus now for being able to spend enormous amounts of cash in elections without any transparency. The richest 1-2% get to control the outcome of so many elections that the average voters (women, minorities, students) have to turn out in much greater numbers than one can count on;
3) Election and voting laws and procedures are being attacked with such ferocity in 37 states that the one man/woman-one vote standard is going down to defeat. First, part of the Voting Rights Act was declared invalid by the SCOTUS, and then the states jumped in to restrict and deny the vote to certain groups. We all know the drill: change voter locations, restrict registration days and locations, stop early voting, no more same day registration/voting, require IDs that are hard to obtain, reduce the number of voting machines and poll watchers.
4) Attempts to count votes proportionally instead of winner-take-all in electoral districts would wreak havoc with the vote count and the division of electoral votes in a state.
5) Gerrymander as many districts as possible to give white conservative Republicans an advantage
6) To top it all off, use corporate profits to elect those candidates who oppose every tax, law, regulation, and procedure that does not give an advantage to Wall Street, the banks, large corporations and the richest among us.
The changing of a religious icon, who stressed generosity, into the commercial magnet of the Santa Claus of today is a feat of strength and manipulation that must not go unnoticed when it is applied in the political arena to change a representative democracy into a government of the rich and powerful. Think about it. What is the overall aim of the big corporations and their rich leaders? It is to get you to buy their products and their services, and not to complain about their prices or the wages they pay, their sometimes shoddy, sometimes illegal, practices or the extraordinary wealth and power they are accumulating, and the lies they are telling you. And how do they do this? They manipulate your senses, your emotions, your attachments, your beliefs and your minds to get you, not just to buy what they are selling, but to buy into what they are promoting as to the meaning of life, liberty and happiness. Those principles enumerated in the Declaration of Independence are not what you might think when re-interpreted for you by the conservative Right.
So be aware of their manipulations. If they can get a sizable portion of the population to consume their products in spite of the fact that some of those products can threaten life itself; equally, if they can get a nation to accept Santa Claus and conspicuous consumption (“gift-giving”) as the symbol and the prime principle of Christmas, they can surely take from us the essence of our democratic government. They have effectively begun that quest by their false electoral “reforms” (see above) that attempt to hide the outright suppression of the voting rights of groups that just happen to vote mainly for Democrats.
The basic tenet being forced upon all of us is the non-distribution of wealth in this country to anyone who might use it to help themselves in times of crisis or when they experience an on-going need. The other side of that coin is to influence every possible avenue to gain more wealth and more power. The 1% don’t mind re-distributing money from the bottom up just not from the top down. More especially, the bigwigs don’t mind at all extracting money from the tax system and government contracts and favorable treatment so they can use the tax money from the poor and the middle class to feather their own nests!
Rather than wish you a “Merry Christmas” – which seems to me to reflect the visits of the “jolly old Elf” and the excesses of commercial enterprises rather than the arrival of a Savior – let me wish you a “Grace-filled Christmas Season” and a “Joyous New Year” in which it is hoped we can all find additional ways to give back to others less fortunate out of thanksgiving for what we have been given; that Gift to us is at the crux of the “meaning of Christmas!”