Saturday, December 5, 2009

Santa Grateful for Job Security

    Wandering through a Christian bookstore last week, I discovered amid the stacks of Bibles and discounted Sarah Palin books this foot-high ceramic centerpiece. A truly weird clash of universes—the blissful religiosity of Jesus in a manger, and Santa Claus, the patron saint of the department store, kneeling reverently at his side. Clearly, Santa is thankful at the prospect of steady work for the next 2,000 years, though the idea of him sliding down ancient Roman chimneys or piloting his reindeer over the sleepy suburbs of Bethlehem is kind of a mind-warp. (Watch out for that big miracle star thingy.)

   What’s more, Santa is already a sage old elf in full regalia, which makes you wonder what he was doing during all those previous Decembers. It also raises the question of what the Three Wise Men bearing gifts thought of him being there. Kinda stealing their thunder, isn’t he? Especially since Santa tends to bring cool gifts like Nintendo Wii instead of frankincense and myrrh—which are forms of dry tree sap used in perfumes. Not really at the top of most wish lists.

   I’m sure somebody finds this little statuette charming. I find it vaguely creepy, like a painting of the Easter Bunny seated at The Last Supper.

To be sure, Christmas is a time to demonstrate our lack of good taste in everything from garish snowman broaches to tacky sweaters bearing giant snowflakes or reindeer. But, wow, this really pushes the envelope. It’s the kind of fractured idea dreamed up by fundamentalists who bend everything into a cultish worship of their savior—even if it doesn’t jibe with their own religious mythology.

   The last time I heard of this kind of Santa abuse was from a friend who came back from a Japan a few years back. He had been there over the holidays. Being 95% Buddhist, the Japanese are not much into Christmas, yet in major cities they still gussy up the shopping malls with festive trimmings to lure in the western tourists. But someone got their Christian legends mixed up because, among the decorations at this one mall was a life-sized figure of Santa Claus…nailed to a cross. Yeesh. Imagine the expression on the faces of visiting six-year-olds.

   Just for the record, the original Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. His reputation as a traveling gift-giver made him popular throughout the Middle Ages. December 6th was deemed St. Nicholas Day, when the good children would be given presents while the naughty ones came up empty handed. Santa became training wheels for their relationship with God—an unseen, supernatural dispenser of rewards for those who obeyed the rules.

   The Dutch called the legendary saint “Sinter Klaus” and, once they brought him to America, the name morphed into “Santa Claus.” In 1822, Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopal minister, embellished the Santa legend with his classic, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, better known as ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. Moore is the guy who named the eight reindeer and had Santa slipping into the house through the chimney. (You know, between Santa, the Easter Bunny, and visits from various angels, there’s a lot of breaking-and-entering in Christian lore.)

   There was no consensus on what Santa looked like, but Moore made him a jolly, jelly-bellied elf. Years later, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who became famous for drawing caricatures of Boss Tweed and other New York robber barons, decided to draw the generous Santa Claus in the same tubby profile as the city fat-cats. The image stuck. The red-and-white uniform was one of several Santa used to wear, until a Coca-Cola ad in the 1930s popularized the one that bore the company colors.

   Maybe next year, Nativity scenes could include Rudolf hanging with the sheep, and Joseph and Mary sharing a coke and a smile. And instead of lame gifts from the Wise Men, Santa could pop in with a diaper genie for Mary and a subscription to Playboy for Joseph. (After all, he's going to spend the rest of his life married to a virgin.)


  1. When I saw this picture I was reminded of a similar item at Target store a couple of seasons ago. Walking past an aisle in the Christmas department, my eye caught a package containing a figurine with the bold words "Nativity Lighthouse" on the front.


    Inside the package was a frosted plastic figurine of a lighthouse, with an LED in it. When activated, it glowed and changed colors--running through the entire spectrum, from violet to red. I called my husband over and asked him exactly when a lighthouse became part of the nativity. A woman passing on her way down the next aisle turned to me with a look on her face that questioned my sanity, and I spoke to her:

    "You've got to see this--I'm not kidding" as I beckoned to her.

    I handed the package to her and in disbelief she looked at me, then burst out laughing. I felt vindicated but still mystified by the object. We parted ways, still chuckling. David and I headed for the check out with our string of lights. I commented that the Chinese workers in the factories where they churn this "stuff" out, must laugh all day at us and what they're sending to us in America.

  2. Goes to show..we buy all their crappy stuff. Wonder how many people who purchased these things are now underwater on their mortgages.