(Repost! This is a repost of an earlier posted blog that was lost in a server crash and upgrade)
From Mav: Back when we asked for suggestions for future episodes, one of the ones that came up (suggested by John Darowski) was to talk about Santa Claus in Popular Culture. As we get closer to the Christmas holidays, I’ve been thinking about this more and more, and the question I keep coming back to is: how much longer will Santa be a thing? Seriously… Is Santa over? Have we cancelled him? On a different kind of show we might look at the history of Santa as a myth… how did Santa come into being? But while that might be worth talking about a little… I’m more interested in looking at the flip side of that. What purpose does Santa serve in modern culture? And actually… does he?
“Back in the day” it seems like Santa was a little different than he is now. He was sort of culturally “protected” by parents and non-parents alike. If there was any controversy at all, it was “how do we explain to kids why there are eight different individuals proclaiming to be Santa while ringing a bell and collecting for charity in a four block radius… and why do six of them smell like bourbon?” And you’d just say “Look… he’s magic, don’t worry about it, now stop crying, go sit on the smelly fat man’s lap, and smile so Mommy can take a picture for the the Christmas card!” Parents used to live in abject fear of the day their kids would stop believing. I remember watching the news in the 80s and even 90s, long past the point when I had stopped believing in Santa Claus, and yet there was a still this unwritten rule that broadcasters pretended he was real. Much like we do with the Muppets, he’d be interviewed and the reporters would pretend that he was the real deal. On Christmas Eve, Weather forecasters would put up a map tracking where the magical sled was in the world right now (NORAD continues to this to this day). If Santa appeared on a sitcom, it was under the pretense that the characters were interacting with the real-live Santa in that world. It was as though we wanted to make sure that there was no possibility that any four year old could ever possibly accidentally stumble upon a piece of grown-up media and have Santa’s secret ruined for them.
In 2019… we’ve decided fuck that! Why?
You’d think that as we further and further secularize the idea of Christmas away its Christian and Pagan roots, the idea of Santa would become MORE common instead of less. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. Part of it might be changing attitudes for parenting. Certainly in the 21st century, there is concern about the ramifications of lying to children about a fictional man breaking into your house on Christmas. Some parents want to be honest with their children. I totally get that. But that doesn’t really account for the general cultural shift in the way we treat Santa overall. It feels like there’s now a sort of unwritten rule that we try to humor the kids who do believe in Santa, but we more or less look down on them as idiots and the rest of us enjoy the meta-narrative of Santa instead. Santa’s television appearances are more about deconstructing the myth: asking why we have mall Santas that smell like bourbon, asking what it means for a regular guy to become Santa, theorizing that Santa might be wacky or violent or crazy or in some other way not match up to the classic myth of Santa. Lots of parents teach their children that there is no Santa, but encourage them to keep the myth alive for other — presumably stupider(?) — children. We have Santa flash mobs. We have Santa comics and graphic novels. We sort of treat the myth of Santa more like Superman now than the way we treat Jesus.
So… yes Virginia, there was a Santa Claus… but for some reason we decided to kill him!
I want to know “why?” What’s the purpose of Santa in the modern world? Is there one? For a lot of parents, I get that there is a desire to not lie to their children. That makes sense. And several years ago, a coworker of mine once told me something to the effect of “I worked my ass off to make money so I could buy that bike and that playstation, I’ll be damend if my kid is going to think that it came from some magic dude who dropped it down a chimney.” I get that too… But if we’ve grown beyond the myth, why do we keep it alive in any sense? What is the purpose of the meta myth of Santa? Is there a reason to have kids believe in Santa at all anymore? And in a world where three-year-olds have cell phones with Google does it make any sense to try to pretend the myth is at all real?
From Wayne: One of the dark secrets of my past is that I was once a department store Santa. Really. I was young and needed the money. I’ve written about it on my blog (which we’ll link to in the show notes), so I won’t go into detail here. As a result of my experiences though I do tend to have a more Romantic take on Santa than I would have otherwise. I saw first hand the genuine joy Santa brought to children. Okay, to be fair, some genuine terror at times as well.
I do see this changing in our popular culture, but then I don’t have small children in my life right now. I suspect it is still an important right of passage for many of them. Our modern version of Santa was born as an advertising icon, and perhaps is the perfect cultural deity for late capitalism. That wasn’t always so, and I don’t know that he has to be merely that. In the podcast I do want to touch a little on the history and myth of what Santa is and where he came from
The loss of the Myth of Santa, or the change in it, is yet another aspect of an increasingly secular culture. I say that as someone who doesn’t really want a specifically religious culture either. But I think a belief in magic, in a metaphorical sense, is important at any age. So, how is this changing? Are we lying to our children, or are we teaching them not to believe in anything? Any cultural myth, in order to survive, has to grow and change to reflect a new era. Is Santa doing this? The return of Krampus as a well known figure of Christmas plays into this as well, I think.
I am not a giant Christmas guy, with the decorations and the presents and the tinsel and eggnog and whatever. Because of my experiences, I do believe in the magic of Santa.