One night in December, a definitely real man will deliver presents to children in many parts of the world. This is the result, variously, of the internal politics of third century Rome, European imperialism and, most recently, American cultural dominance, and if it all seems terribly unfair to parents that they make the effort and spend the money only for some drunk boomer with bad dress sense to get all the credit, then we are where we are.
Here’s the thing though: the identity and iconography of that not-at-all mythical figure have historically varied greatly depending on where you are in the world. So has the date on which he arrives.
The original English Father Christmas had a crown of holly and was a symbol of feasting and merry-making, and sounds a lot like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present. The Dutch Sinterklaas showed up on 5 December and had some interesting views on race relations (his helper Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete” usually appears as a blackface character). Martin Luther once tried to persuade large chunks of Europe that the gifts came from the unseen baby Jesus himself, in a transparent attempt to win support for the Reformation. And so on. (All this and more is explained in my book, The Compendium of (Not Quite) Everything, which I’ve been very good about not mentioning in this column, even though it makes a perfect Christmas present for the lovable nerd, curious child or dad in your life, or indeed for anybody else you happen to know.)
In recent decades, though, an unlikely conspiracy between Hollywood and the Coca-Cola company has collapsed all those traditions into a single image of Santa Claus. Nowadays, the Christmas gift-bringer is pretty much always the same bloke in a red suit, who lives in the North Pole with elves, keeps reindeer and rides a sleigh. No one has yet made a blockbuster Christmas movie about the adventures of the traditional Swedish yule goat, or the 13 pranksters known as the Jólasveinar (“Yule Lads”) who invade Iceland every year, which strikes me as something of a shame. Mass media means there is only one Santa.
But something has occurred to me: Santa isn’t always the same. OK, those cultural differences have been flattened out, and today there’s a shared set of iconography that everyone telling a story about him ends up using, just as every version of Batman has pointy ears and a cape. But there are elements of his character that evolve, too, often in ways that reflect the time the stories are made.
So, Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947 to viewers exhausted by war, combines world-weary cynicism with a sort of desperate longing to believe. Santa Claus: The Movie gives its hero Santa an origin in the Middle Ages (though not, oddly, in fourth-century Turkey), but then skips forward to 1985, when he’s exhausted by the rat race and needs to hire an assistant before he can do battle with an increasingly soulless corporate America.
In Elf, released in 2003 at the height of a financial boom, the critique of both the corporate world and Santa’s own business practices feels much softer. Arthur Christmas (2011) reflects the crisis in the financial sector by remaking the North Pole as a long-standing family business in danger of becoming dependent on overly complicated tech. Klaus (2019) clears away the North Pole/workshop/elves, and provides an entirely new origin story for its hero, one that is fundamentally about love and grief and the social value of being nice to people (and also, weirdly, of having a decent postal service). If you haven’t seen it, a warning: you will cry.
I don’t want to overstate this. I don’t think you can find correlations between stupid Christmas movies and GDP growth or something. But I do think these stories reflect the mood and anxieties of the world in which they were made: a pre-crash film about Santa looks very different to a post-crash film about Santa.
You can see this in other stories we tell from generation to generation. A production of Shakespeare will reflect the world in which it is performed because the actors and the director are inevitably shaped by that world. The 1951 Scrooge with Alastair Sim is very different to the 1988 Scrooged with Bill Murray, and neither film looks much like the BBC’s unsettling 2019 A Christmas Carol with Guy Pearce. In the same way, the profusion of Santa-based stories in recent years means he’s no longer just a character we teach children about. He’s something more akin to a myth, a story that can be retold and readjusted to emphasise certain elements or entirely dispense with others.
There are other characters, whose stories are told over and over again, in ways that often reflect the concerns of their time. Except these are neither semi-mythical children’s characters or from works of high literature, but franchise heroes from film, TV or comics.
In other words, in the 21st century, Santa Claus has less in common with the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy than with James Bond or Batman.
Anyway, please buy my book. It’s Christmas after all.