Every year as winter sets in, people go through a yearly ritual called the Holidays. For some, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, a religious event. For others, it’s a secular season of gift giving and receiving. For most, it’s a consumer driven event. Weeks prior December 25th mainstream media revives images of a mythical Santa Claus to set in motion a festive mood that will entice consumer spending. In most minds Santa Claus is an American icon rather than a fictional alteration of Saint Nicholas. A character conjured up by newspaper articles and advertising. As a result he has been known as a secular icon rather than a Saint. This beckons the question: How did this transformation of a Saint into a marketing ploy occur?
Christmas and 25 of December
In 274 AD Emperor Aurelius decreed the celebration of Sol Invictus –Unconquered Sun, god patron of soldiers of the later Roman Empire– to be celebrated on December 25th. Less than a century later the Christian hierarchy had settled in Rome. And in 354 AD, in order to settle a growing dispute regarding Jesus’ birth date and foster peace among the increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds of Christian converts, Pope Liberius dedicated December 25th as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. The Church had no factual evidence on the historical date of Jesus’ birth, nonetheless the magisterium decided that a reasonable way to displace the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus would be to replace it with the commemoration of the birth of the Son of God.
Enter Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra during the 4th century AD. He was known for his kindness and generosity to children. One account of his life reveals that he gave gold coins as a marriage dowry to three girls in order to save them from prostitution. Legend also has it that he threw money from windows to poor children while remaining hidden. Regardless of his kindness, he was imprisoned during the most ruthless persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He was later released from prison during the rule of Emperor Constantine. He is officially celebrated on December 6th, the day of his death. The Church documented several miracles that occurred during his life. And he was canonized and became a patron Saint of children.
Soon after Saint Nicholas’ death his reputation grew home and abroad. He was buried in Myra and by the 6th century the burial grounds became the site of a popular shrine. In 1087, a band of Italian sailors who heard stories about Saint Nicholas stole the Saint’s remains and brought them back to their home town of Bari. Once his remains were in Italy, the Saint’s popularity spread all over the country. A basilica was built to shelter Saint Nicholas’ relics and in time the shrine became one of most popular pilgrimage centers in the country.
A few years later a French knight named Charles Aubert traveling through Bari took a piece of the relic and brought it back home. The relic became a sanctuary and the site of the basilica of Saint-Nicholas Le Port near Nancy, France. From Bari, the celebrated protector of children made its way north. Over the next 700 years his cult would spread to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond – so much so that a great part of Europe celebrated Saint Nicholas.
The Reformation put a hold to the saint’s devotion in Germany and throughout the Protestant world. Martin Luther did not look kindly on the domineering power of Rome and its veneration of saints. Nonetheless, the devotion to the saint persisted in the Netherlands. In order to circumvent Luther’s admonition, the saint became known as Sinterklaas, a man dressed in a long red robe with a white beard who brings gifts and candy to children on December 6th.
Sinterklaas and Santa Claus
Centuries later, a number of Dutch immigrants who sailed to the New World brought the devotion of their Saint with them. They landed on a location they named New Amsterdam. It did not take long before the prized piece of real estate was coveted by English-speaking settlers. In the aftermath of the Anglo-Dutch war, the city became known as New York. The varied nationalities established themselves in different neighborhoods and coexisted somewhat peacefully. The Dutch kept their cultural traditions, including the celebration of Sinterklaas. The English-speaking population took a liking to the patriarchal figure and adopted him. In time he became known in its English pronounced version of Santa Claus.
Christian faithful of the New World ended with two holidays dedicated to children in the same month; the first on December 6th dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and the second on December 25th celebrating the birth of Jesus. Americans, known for their propensity to simplify things, combined the two holidays into one: The celebration of a Saint and of the birth of Christ became a festivity dedicated to children and gift-giving.
In A History of New York, a book written by Washington Irving in 1809, Saint Nicholas was no longer depicted as “lanky bishop,” but portrayed as a portly bearded man who smokes a pipe with a peculiar habit of coming down chimneys. The book was meant to be a parody about the overindulgence of New York City inhabitants. Nonetheless, the account of a chubby character who was able descend a chimney ironically became part of Santa’s accepted behavior.
On December 23, 1823, the Sentinel, a newspaper based in Troy, New York, printed a Christmas poem by Clement Clark Moore entitled, A Visit From St. Nicholas. The story depicted Saint Nick as a broad faced character, “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” dressed in white fur spotted with ash and soot. The poem introduced the idea of Santa traveling through the cold night skies in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. The American poem seemingly captured the imagination of readers and its popularity spread all over the country. Santa Claus was slowly overshadowing the story of an old Bishop riding on a cart pulled by an aging donkey.
What Moore conjured up with words, Thomas Nast framed Santa’s image with sketches. Nast’s portraits of Father Christmas were seemingly inspired by New York writers and journalists rather than by a concern of reproducing a historic Saint. Over the years he added varied details of his own about St. Nick’s personal life, including that the he lived in the North Pole. From 1863 to the turn of the century, Nast’s depictions eventually established a framework of what Santa Claus would look like. One memorable print shows Santa depicted with children sitting on his knees enumerating their Christmas presents wish list.
During the course of the nineteenth century, Santa was depicted wearing costumes of varied colors. Prior to red, he was pictured in white, green and purple dress. In Nast’s first sketch, Santa was dressed in a patriotic star and stripes costume. In his later renditions the red suit was the preferred color, perhaps to keep with the tradition of Sinterklaas’ long red robe. However, Santa could hardly take care of business wearing a long robe, so the Americanized Father Christmas was dressed in a more sporty attire consisting of a short coat, bonnet, sizable belt and boots to face winter and sneak down chimneys.
Further contribution to imprint Santa’s image was introduced by Louis Prang with his Christmas postcards. Prang is known as the father of the Christmas card for starting this commercial tradition of buying and sending Christmas cards. This custom originated in England in 1874 and it spread to the United States a few years later. His first Christmas card was created in 1885 depicting Santa in a red costume.
A side note: The bodily contrast between the meager Saint and the portly Santa reflects that corpulence has been regarded throughout the ages as a sign of wealth and material abundance. In this regard, Santa reflected the US’ growing economic wealth, generosity and power.
Then came the tradition of a live Santa in department stores. The custom was introduced in 1890 by James Edgar, a Massachusetts businessman who is credited with coming up with the idea of having a Santa impersonator attract customers to his store. This marketing tool was so successful that children from all over the state dragged their parents to see Santa in Edgar’s dry goods store.
The most memorable contribution to Santa’s image was made during the roaring 1920s. In order to promote drinking cold drinks in winter, the management of a famous cola drink hired an established advertising agency to begin a nationwide campaign by placing ads in popular magazines. The image of Santa that is most recognizable today is attributed to illustrations created by Haddon Sundblom who relied on Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas as an inspiration to draw his portraits. As it happens, red and white were the official colors of the famous soft drink company. Thereafter Santa has been portrayed as a jovial and plump father figure in red and white attire.
World War II
In 1939, the United States was still struggling to revive a stagnant economy that began with the great depression. The following years, young men of legal age were sent abroad to fight the dual evils of dictatorship and fascism while older men and women stayed at home to engineer and build an industrial powerhouse. The US and its allies’ victory created an economic prosperity that would last several decades and a recovery that also lifted the Old World out of its economic doldrums.
The American troops that landed on the shores of Italy and France pushed back the occupying forces into a final retreat. The victory gave way to a welcome reception to soldiers who freely shared their name brand supplies with the people: chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks, music, movies and Santa Claus. The war liberated a great part of Europe. And it just happens that the military also opened a new market for corporate America’s goods. For most Europeans, US soldiers were generous liberators carrying with them precious gifts; a relief from years of rations and starvation. However, not everybody felt the same way about their generosity.
On December 23, 1951, a priest set an effigy of Santa Claus on fire in front of the Cathedral of Dijon. The priest was venting his indignation toward a growing popularity of Santa Claus who he considered to be a poor travesty of an honorable Saint.
Secularization and the Sacred
The priest from Dijon might have been overly touchy about his religious devotion to the Saint. He might also have been alerted by the invasion of a foreign symbol representing globalization. He nonetheless embodied a concern about an irrevocable shift in the representation of the sacred in popular culture.
This process is referred to as secularization, which is commonly understood as a decrease in church attendance. A more apt description is when various elements of human life cease to be administered by religious institutions. Whereas, the historical definition of secularization is the confiscation of Churches property by the State or a sovereign for worldly ends. In other words, the priest was objecting to the transfer – or symbolic confiscation – of a religious figure being converted it into an idol for commercial purposes.
The transformation of Saint Nicholas was made possible with the help of media; newspaper articles, poems, books, postcards, sketches and advertising. Santa became a mythical icon conjured from a patchwork of different sources. As a result, he is no longer Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas. He is an entirely different character transformed by media into a supernatural being whose mission is no longer to help children in distress but to be a corporate marketing agent.
Saint, Holy and Sacred
Sainthood is an official declaration by the Church in Rome stating that a deceased member of the congregation has attained a holy status and is elevated in heaven among other saints. To attain sainthood a person must be morally righteous and his good behavior corroborated by testimonies made by the people who knew the candidate.
The terms holy and sacred are synonym. The former is the preferred term used by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Both words mean; to set apart from the ordinary or common use. They have the same sense and function in most religious narratives and practices. The sacred today does not have the same traditional religious recognition as it did in the past, it nonetheless plays the same role in society, albeit subliminally.
In order to be considered sacred, a being or a thing needs to be set apart, separated and elevated above the ordinary or common use. In our day and age, global corporations stand out as the most powerful body to propagate its own doctrine in culture, the economy and in politics through corporate owned media. Today logos and trademarks have a similar sacred status as religious object did in the past. They are elevated by media in heaven, so to speak, to be highly visible symbols and set apart from common/ordinary use, sheltered and protected by law.
In a postmodern era, corporate media has imposed itself as the provider of the good news. It displaced the priesthood as the mediator between the sacred and the believers. As a result it provides mediated models of conduct setting new grounds for acceptable behavior, a role previously held by the priesthood who were theoretically concerned with preaching moral rules of conduct.
In time, the media became the gateway to an unlimited source of worldly gratification, a technological medium between an invisible power source to promote a new standard of amoral conduct. At the outset, believers used to congregate in churches to celebrate their Saint. Later they assembled in malls to meet Santa and shop. Currently viewers are segregated, captive to their preferred form of online media.
What is at stake is more than a transfer of the sacred for commercial purpose. It is a challenge to the traditional role played by the priesthood. Priests, ministers, mullah, rabbis and reverends are intermediaries between God and the faithful. They are human beings that interpret the Word of God and administer rites to facilitate access to the divine. In essence, they are a live medium opposed to a corporation that is defined as an artificial person.
What the changes in Santa Claus shows is that secularization has not eliminated the sacred. It merely shifted elsewhere to a different entity. One that is in control of media and through it culture, the economy and politics. As a result it shifted peoples’ alliance from a spiritual devotion to a Saint to a subliminal amoral artificial person.