When you grow up you realize that there isn’t really any Santa but the monsters are still around. – Anna Quindlen
Every year on Saint Nicholas’ Day I publish a column about him, not merely because of his association with Christmas but also because he happens to be the patron saint of prostitutes. If you’re wondering how on Earth the same man could come to be associated with both whores and holidays, read my first column for this day from two years ago, which mentions that this popular saint is also considered the patron of archers, children, merchants, sailors, students, repentant thieves and several cities including Amsterdam (where St. Nicholas’ Church lies immediately adjacent to De Wallen, the famed red-light district). In a comment to that column Sailor Barsoom pointed out that “there’s something beautiful about the same saint being the patron of both those society holds as most innocent, and least,” and I wholly agree; moreover, in his modern form of Santa Claus, he belongs to the whole world. Though associated with an ancient and widely-observed holiday some selfish Christians have tried to hoard as exclusively theirs, St. Nick truly symbolizes the spirit of giving, and of peace on Earth to all of good will, not just Christians. And that’s why it irritates me so badly when people try to compel Santa to shill for their own agendas, even when those are in stark contrast to what he really stands for.
Now, I’m not talking about the use of Santa in advertising; despite what some anti-Santa Christians claim, he was not pushed as a symbol of commercialism, but rather the opposite: advertisers used his image precisely because it was a beloved and instantly-recognizable one with strong positive associations. For example, Coca-Cola started using Santa Claus in its advertising in the 1920s because the company experienced a sharp decline in sales over the autumn and winter; Coke was widely viewed as a warm-weather beverage and so Santa – associated as he is with snow and midwinter – was picked to put the idea into people’s minds that the soft drink could be enjoyed in cold weather as well. It was only after the ads proved so popular that the company decided to publish them every year, and in 1931 the highly-regarded commercial illustrator Haddon Sundblom was hired to make the rather stern-looking Santa of the first few spots more “jolly” in keeping with the way he was described in Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. But these paintings neither damaged nor subverted Santa’s reputation; in fact, they established Moore’s description of Santa (with a strong Thomas Nast influence) as the image of the “jolly old elf”, even in the minds of people who never drank Coca-Cola. The Santa-haters claim that Sundblom was ordered to make Santa’s suit red and white because they were Coke’s colors, but this is specious humbug; though it is true that earlier illustrators had sometimes depicted him in green (like the traditional English costume of Father Christmas) or more rarely in other colors, red was always the most common in the New York tradition inherited from the Netherlands, where Sinterklaas wears the red robes of a bishop.
No, the Santa-traffickers I’m griping about aren’t the ones who merely employ his good reputation in order to attach a positive association to some commercial product, but rather those who cynically try to change some part of his image that they don’t like in order to promote their pet social engineering schemes. A few months ago we heard that a (mercifully small) publisher had decided to bowdlerize “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” in order to remove the now-politically-incorrect detail that Santa smokes a pipe. And at the height of neofeminist influence in the early ‘90s, some deranged “women’s studies” professor actually published a ripoff of the poem (intended not as a parody, but to be read to children) in which a bizarrely-young Mrs. Claus divorces Santa and wins custody of the castle, reindeer, gift-giving role and several unnamed dependent minor children. Apparently, that version even revolted most feminists because I was unable to turn up even a reference to it either on Google or in a database of almost a thousand “Night Before Christmas” parodies.
But though these over-the-top perversions are annoying, they are ultimately no more damaging to Santa’s image that any of the thousands of commercials that use it every year (as evidenced by the disappearance without trace of that “Santa’s divorce” abomination). They can’t hold a candle to the most twisted misuse, namely that of the Salvation Army. It may be that most of the money collected by their ubiquitous bell-ringing counterfeit Clauses goes to the poor as promised, but even if that’s true the campaign frees up other funds (which might otherwise have to be used for the poor) to be spent on hateful persecutions of those whose sexual behavior offends the Salvationists. The beloved image of the bringer of peace and joy is used to trick people into supporting a movement which believes some people deserve death for sexual preferences, and the bearded visage of the patron saint of whores disguises a crusade to wipe us out.