Santa Claus, the most prominent visage in the world this time of year, is in fact a true International Man of Mystery.
How much do you really know about the stranger walking around your darkened house each Christmas Eve? You go to extravagant lengths to filter the content of the internet your child surfs, but you have no qualms about letting the kid be photographed with this old fat guy offering the promise of future gifts as the inducement for a few minutes of private conversation on his lap. What is the matter with you?
Fortunately, the Weekly’s ace
research staff, on loan from Glenn Beck, has sifted through rock candy
mountains of data to elicit the truth about the reclusive
philanthropist. (And like Beck, if they can’t uncover any truth, they
just make something up.)
Claus, alias Kris Kringle, Sinter Klaas, Pere Noel and Babaghanoush, traces his lineage to a Catholic prelate from the vicinity of Turkey around 300 A.D. Maintaining a rather different relationship with kids than certain priests of a later era, Nicholas became a patron saint for children and also sailors, and the legend of his generosity was celebrated by believers throughout the centuries on his feast day, December 6, often by hiding fruit, nuts and candies in children’s shoes.
When America cranked up in the Seventeenth Century, a lot of those immigrants who had fled Europe for religious freedom started celebrating the season in more secular ways. After the Revolution, Christmas was often celebrated in the New York area by getting drunk and breaking things. As Michael Grady explained in his witty 2007 essay on “How Santa Saved N.Y.”, “Because city laws forbade groups of lawless thugs, locals would form ‘Callithumpian Bands’—groups of lawless thugs with musical instruments. (It’s like a home invasion, but your burglar is carrying a French horn.) These ‘bands’ would serenade/pillage the city in the week before New Year’s. In 1820, ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ meant ‘your house has been ransacked.’”
Enter Santa Claus to mellow out the mad scene. In a Washington Irving satire, then in a Clement Moore poem, the persona of the jolly old elf bringing toys to good little children began to take shape, as did the nocturnal gift-giving practices. Two graphic artists gave Claus his most durable depictions; Thomas Nast, the legendary Nineteenth Century editorial cartoonist, who drew Santa as a Union sympathizer, and Haddon Sunblom, a commercial artist who for 35 years in the Twentieth Century painted Santa’s suit the same color as the Coca-Cola logo in famous ads that made the old gent appear even more like “a peddler just opening his pack.”
So on one hand, a child today is indoctrinated by the traditional tale of that kindly soul whose boundless annual generosity is tempered only by the child’s own moral shortcomings, and on the other, he is daily beset by a barrage of images portraying Santa as uber-huckster for everything from the Salvation Army to Norelco razors. It’s surprising more kids haven’t been driven to pick up a dreidel and play with the other team.
To clear up some of the misinformation that encircles Santa’s story like the secondhand smoke from that stump of a pipe he affects, here are the Kris Kringle FAQ:
Q: Does Santa Claus live at the North Pole?
A: Yes and no. Due to global warming, the permafrost near his original domicile has become problematic, so he has moved his residence over to the East Siberian side of the Pole, in order to be a little closer to his workshop, which, due to fluctuations in world currency, relocated to Shenyang in 2008.
Q: Is the sleigh actually pulled by eight reindeer?
A: Yes. You may remember the furor a few years ago when Jose Canseco went public with his use of steroids and implicated not only Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi, but also Blitzen, whom he allegedly taught to shoot Anadrol in an Oakland locker stall during the off-season. After the buzz died down—Blitzen was off the sleigh in 2005 and 2006, replaced by a Rolls-Royce turbine—the legal adviser for Claus and Associates, Robert Shapiro, quietly negotiated with international authorities and arranged for Santa’s team to be exempt from drug-testing, in exchange for promotional considerations that included Santa doing a series of TV commercials for Suntory whisky in Japan.
Q: Does Rudolph guide the sleigh each Christmas Eve?
A: Rudolph is a fictional character in a song by Johnny Marks. That you believe a mammal could have a nose that lights up brightly enough to meet the FAA minimum 20-400 candlepower for anti-collision illumination is vaguely pathetic.
Q: Our house has a chimney that’s been blocked up for structural safety reasons. How will Santa get in?
A: A little-known government agency called the Office of Nocturnal Chimney Access regulates these special cases. If your house has been surveyed and approved by a contractor certified by the ONCA, your presents will arrive right on time. If not, it’s a good idea to move the Christmas tree to the carport Saturday night.
Q: We hear so little about Mrs. Claus anymore. What’s she up to?
A: Aside from occasional appearances at Bonnaroo, she shuns public life these days. An unauthorized biography by Kitty Kelley entitled Santa’s Claws is slated to be published in 2012.
Q: Will Gardendale state senator Scott Beason get anything under his tree after screwing over Alabama voters with that shameful rewrite of the ethics laws to allow lobbyists to essentially keep doing business the way they always have?
A: According to a document released through Wikileaks last week revealing confidential discussions between St. Nick and his screeners, gift expectations for all Alabama lawmakers should be downgraded for December 25, since, under the new rules, every day is going to be Christmas for them from here on out.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist.
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