This is not about that twee “elf on the shelf” which has become a seasonal tradition nearly (but not quite) as omnipresent and annoying as Pumpkin Spice Season, but about the “right jolly old elf,” Santa Claus. I’ve outgrown Santa long since, though he serves as a symbol of the secular end of the season (despite being inspired by a saint or two), but that doesn’t mean I want him to go away. A little visual history of Santa, or Father Christmas, as the English call him. Perhaps they are not identical, but have a kindred relationship, like Zeus and Jupiter, having grown from related but not identical sources.
I particularly like this version (above) of Old Father Christmas by the British artist Robert Seymour, from 1836. There’s more than a little Bacchus or Dionysus in it, and precious little of our commercialized Santa. His smile is not reassuring, and what modern parents would want a goat-riding old man carrying their child away?
(I have to do more research at my source; that child in his arms appears to have five o’clock shadow. This just gets stranger with every look.)
Clement Clarke Moore cemented the image of Santa Claus with his famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (1823), with Thomas Nast giving a definitive look to the old gent starting in the 1860s (above). Illustrators favored the elfin quality of Moore’s Santa, depicting him as a small figure, scarcely larger than the children he brought toys for. Father Christmas was generally a large man, on the order of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol. The incongruity of a giant fitting down a chimney would have been too much for even children to bear.
Over time this elf returned to greater stature, as the Coca-Cola company refined Nast’s vision into something suited to soft drink advertising in the 20th Century. Since then there has been precious little change. What might be called “anti-Santas” have emerged, the most successful of which being the Grinch in Dr. Seuss‘s How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957). Even there the Grinch adopts the red, fur-trimmed suit of the conventional American Santa Claus.
So what is 21st Century Santa Claus to be like? Not the Russian-inflected Santa of William Joyce‘s The Guardians of Childhood, played on film (entitled Rise of the Guardians) by Alec Baldwin. Not the shallow, gag-oriented anti-Santa of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003 and, God help us, a sequel), but there might be a smidgen of something – a really thin smidgen – to draw on. It’s time for a Santa with a more adult sensibility – while keeping the Santa of childhood intact. There are occasional cartoons, mostly in Playboy, about what Santa really does when visiting nubile maidens (but no gay Santas, so far as I know), but those are one-track, simple jokes. Santa Claus should embody the richness and diversity of the Christmas experience, good and bad.
My nominee for our next Santa role model is Orson Welles as Sir John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965). Falstaff is a blustering, boozing, wenching rogue, unreliable, but deep in his devotion to those he loves. Santa has a bit of that erratic quality – haven’t you ever gotten socks at Christmas when you really wanted something else, or failed to get the socks you needed? That round belly Clement Moore spoke of could be called Falstaffian, and the wink of an eye that says “that’s life. Might as well enjoy what you can, and don’t let the rest get to you.” Perhaps adults don’t need an adult Santa – it’s never been proven that children need the children’s Santa – but having one, to adopt or not, is to leave open space for a little bit of wonder in the midst of grown-up worry. Like a sweater that is trotted out for special occasions, a luxury with no special use, but enjoyed just the same, Santa Claus should be there when we want him, however old we are.