Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world. In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost). As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era. As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness. Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam). Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous. Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.
The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole. All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa: he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus. Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics. A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.
Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife. Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).
Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding. He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt). Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.
A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist). Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts. The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?
Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable. Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity. The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.