About a decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, I was editing Maclean’s magazine and looking for something to lift our spirits before the holidays. I called author Gerry Bowler (above), a professor of history at the University of Manitoba, whose books include Santa Claus: A Biography (2007) and The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (2005). Prof. Bower kindly arranged for me to interview Santa.
This is what I got. It seems timely given that we’re now amid another crisis, and while I feel a bit guilty about re-running an old piece, it’s not like anyone else has interviewed Santa since.
Q: All we’re hearing is bad news about people losing jobs and offices canceling Christmas parties. Should we just write off Christmas this year?
A: Oh, not at all, no. It’s actually in the times of economic depression and social turmoil that we need magic.
Q: But how can we afford the magic?
A: Santa Claus always operates in conjunction with parental resources, and the prime directive of Santa is that he never outstrips the ability of parents to provide. The important part of my job is to deliver things magically, and it’s the magic that’s more important than the particular gift.
Q: So is the magic in figuring out ways to still give kids what they want, or is it finding other ways to satisfy them?
A: There are all kinds of ways of expressing love at Christmas that don’t involve material things, and children are remarkably flexible in accepting and expecting and, if they’re talked to in advance, I think they’re seldom disappointed with what they get.
Q: Does Santa himself have to cut back during these downturns?
A: It has happened. If we look at my experience during various wars there have been places that, because of conflict and blockades, I haven’t been able to get into. During the American Civil War, for example, southern children were deprived of much that I would usually have brought them, but parents were able to encourage kids to defer their expectations to the time when the war was over. They were told that General Lee had asked me to take the toys and convert them into supplies for the injured troops.
Q: But we’re not in that bad of a situation at the moment.
A: Oh, certainly not, but you can look at similar things in the Great Depression in the 1930s where things were scaled back. But the belief in Santa was even more important then—and this was one of the golden ages of Santa Claus, with appearances in department stores, for example, that would eventually lead to depictions such as Miracle on 34th Street.
Q: Is it of any consequence to Santa that office parties are being canceled? Does Santa have a place in the office?
A: No, he doesn’t. Cheap imitators show up there, and I’m often sorry to read about what these counterfeits have gotten up to under the influence of too much eggnog.
Q: Is there any concrete evidence that Santa’s going to be less of a presence this year? Are sales down?
A: I’m hearing mixed news. I know that personally—traveling incognito in malls and their parking lots—there doesn’t seem to be any kind of reluctance of parents to hit the shopping precincts, at least not yet.
Q: Is Santa himself any less visible in the places we see him before Christmas, on TV pitching products, or in movie theatres?
A: Not that I can tell. Remember that this is not me, these are merely the ghosts, as it were, that are conjured up by Madison Avenue. There’s no sign my image is any less important to the economy than it has been in previous years. Where it’s in retreat is thanks to the umbrage industry, those people whose job it is to be offended on behalf of others who see in me a threatening religious figure and thus a sign of exclusivity and bigotry.
Q: Are those the people who lynched you in Florida a few years ago?
A: That’s one branch of it, certainly. There’s always been a tendency inside the Calvinist wing of Christianity to cast a jaundiced eye on Christmas and on me, but the stuff that I’m seeing tends to come out of government offices, school systems. England is particularly under siege by these characters.
Q: And who are these characters?
A: Well, the other day in England a woman was told by an employee of the local city council that she had to take down her Christmas lights because Christmas lights were by definition an act of exclusivity that might offend her neighbors, and when she complained she discovered that the local council had no such policy in place at all, but we see here the tendency to self-censor, to have minor officials feel they’re empowered to ask for Christmas trees to be removed or for kids dressed in Santa Claus outfits not to be allowed at costume parties.
Q: It’s one thing to object to a nativity scene or some Christian symbol, but Christmas lights?
A: It’s getting worse and worse every year.
Q: There’s another group of anti-Santa types out there who simply see Christmas as a capitalist plot, who take an anti-consumerism view of you and the season. Are they still out there in force?
A: Oh, they’re certainly in Winnipeg — this is the world headquarters of the Buy Nothing Christmas.
Q: That’s right in your backyard, right?
A: It is, I’m afraid. I think they were planning on assaulting a mall this past weekend with anti-consumerist carols. “I’m Walking in a Consumer Wonderland” was one of them. Yeah, for these people I’m the mall’s puppet, I’m a heterosexual white overeater who should not be emulated in any way, but these people absolutely miss the point of a midwinter festival. Christmas is a midwinter festival; it shares religious meaning—deep religious meaning—with the whole tradition of wanting, at the very darkest time of the year, to be surrounded by light and heat and greenery and plenty. To ask that capitalism essentially collapse itself in December for the sake of some misplaced notion of thrift is unreasonable. These attacks are really Marxist in origin. If you go into the website of some of these groups the question is posed: if we don’t buy at Christmas won’t a lot of retailers suffer, and the answer given is yes, and that’s what they want, they want to destroy the retail industry and rebuild a fairer, juster, greener world out of the rubble.
Q: The kids will be really happy with that.
A: Yeah, I’m a little ticked off about it too.
Q: I’ve been reading recently about church attendance being up because of the economic times, and a lot of churches are expecting strong attendance this Christmas. Is a movement back to church at Christmastime one that takes attention away from Santa?
A: Not at all. Santa Claus is a quasi-religious figure. I have godparents like St. Nicholas, I’m a descendant of the movement in the Middle Ages that saw gifts brought by saints for the Christ child. Many churches will have Christmas trees in them, which are not an overtly Christian element, and the kids in these services will have two kinds of magics to contemplate on Christmas Eve. They’ll have the nativity play and all the miracles associated with that, and they’ll have the expectation of a magical gift-bringer.
Q: Is there any reason to expect, given the times we’re in, that people would be more likely to follow Santa’s example and give of themselves? Would we expect more people to put money in the Salvation Army boxes, or volunteer at charity dinners for the homeless?
A: I think it depends on how long the recession lasts. The impulse to charity is embedded in Christmas. Christmas has always been the great time of finding ways to distribute charity, and that will never disappear. I do worry, however, about the tendency by certain retail outlets and by malls to make it harder for organizations like the Salvation Army to operate on their premises.
Q: You mean the anti-bell-ringing campaigns that we’ve seen in recent years?
A: Yeah, or those who feel that it’s a religious thing and they ought not to be exclusive or that there are certain kinds of liabilities that might legally fall on their heads. Whatever it is, it’s certainly been harder for these groups to find places that will take them.
Q: Santa’s always been a little bit judgmental. There’s a who’s-naughty-and-who’s-nice dimension to his presence, and if kids do wind up receiving less this year, are they going to just think they’re not as worthy?
A: The judgmentalism attributed to me has slackened off in the last hundred years. I don’t even carry coal or horse manure or long black birchen rods that I used to have to carry in the 19th century. The only thing that I might do is delay the visit to a house where a child is intentionally wakeful, but I certainly wouldn’t put anything less under the tree.
Q: The whole world’s going green and one would expect that Santa, living in the North Pole, is aware of the effects of global warming. Has it changed your style of operations?
A: I’ve been green since day one. I travel by reindeer, for crying out loud! Do you know how much dung a reindeer produces in the course of a year?
Q: That’s a lot of methane isn’t it? You’re contributing to the problem.
A: No, that fuels the mighty furnaces at the North Pole. Actually, I tap into geothermal heat for most of the year.
Q: There have been a lot of bad Santa movies out in recent years. How do you feel about that?
A: Well, it is a backhanded compliment, and the fact that they are so cheesy and reach ever farther and farther beyond the bounds of what people know to be the authentic Santa story shows just how deeply embedded the belief in me is in the culture. If you take a look at, say, the last 10 years of Santa movies, they’ve abandoned certainly the Miracle on 34th Street kind of approach about faith or not faith. We now have all kinds of children attributed to me whom I don’t have, daughters, one’s an evil twin and one’s a good one, or they’re fascinated by the notion of how Santas might pass on the magic from one generation to another. Wake up, folks, it’s just me! I don’t have children, I don’t have successors, and insinuating that you put on the suit and you’re forced into some kind of involuntary bondage as Santa—or that when I retire, according to the CBC, I go to the Santa Senate—this is all just pure nonsense.
Q: Were there any great songs or movies of you during the Great Depression?
A: There were no good movies, but the greatest addition of the 20th century to the canon of belief in me was the addition of a ninth reindeer on the part of a Chicago department store that handed out flyers toward the end of the 1930s and alerted the world to the presence of Rudolph, my backup guide.
Q: Just to sum up, you’re in good shape, you’re not going to be in that lineup for a bailout with the car companies and everyone else?
A: Not at all. I’ve been working out, I’ve been running the reindeer through their paces, and it’s going to be a great Christmas.
Q: Anything special you’d like as a snack?
A: Ooh, shortbread. I’m partial to shortbread.
Courtesy of Maclean’s, January 5, 2009