Christian soldiers, marching as to war in the pitched battle for the meaning of Christmas, worry that Santa is a tool of the vast Satanic conspiracy. To be sure, the similarity of their names, identical but for one transposed letter, is provocative. Didn’t Mia Farrow use a Scrabble board, in Rosemary’s Baby, to expose her grandfatherly neighbor with the flyaway eyebrows for the warlock he was, shuffling the letters of his name to reveal his true identity? Could the Religious Wrong be right, just this once? Is Santa the Deceiver’s way of hijacking the Christ child’s birthday? Kriss Kringle is a corruption of the German dialectal Christkindl, “little Christ child.” Were Satan and Santa separated at birth?
Consider the evidence: Santa wears red; the Devil is red. Santa is known, alternatively, as St. Nick; one of the Devil’s jocular pseudonyms, in England, is Old Nick. Both are associated with the element of fire (by way of the chimney, in Santa’s case; a little closer to home, in Satan’s case); both live in the far antipodes. (Incidentally, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the ninth and lowermost circle of hell where Lucifer is imprisoned for eternity isn’t the Mother of All Barbecue Pits, as in the pop imagination, but an icy wasteland—just like the arctic Santa calls home. Oh, and Dante’s Devil is seriously furry, calling to mind the Santa of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” who is “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot.”)
If this sounds like yet more secular-humanist hatin’ on Christmas, don’t take my word for it. Outing Santa as a Manchurian Candidate for the Satanist agenda is a cottage industry among hardline evangelicals like the folks over at CuttingEdge.org (“Spiritual Insights into the New World Order so Startling You’ll Never Look at the News the Same Way Again!”). Dearly Beloved, they’re just wall-eyed with fear at the thought of the Boy Scouts’ hidden ties to Freemasonry and the “encroaching mind-control of the Illuminati” and—oh, dear god, it’s almost too mind-shrivelingly monstrous to mention—the “genetic scientists” who are “creating a super hybrid man/beast, eradicating death so man can live eternally without a savior!!” They know the Awful Truth about Santa, too, and they’re exposing this “counterfeit Jesus” for the Satanic sham he is: “Together with the numerous other signs of the End of the Age,” says a page on the ministry’s website, “this love of the Pagan (Druidic) Santa Claus is just one more clear sign of the end.” America, awake!
Dr. Terry Watkins over at Dial-the-Truth Ministries has Santa’s number, too. In his tract “The Great Pretender,” Watkins weaves a tangled web of connections between the Man in Red and the Great Beast. Did you know that the Devil’s signature entry line, in medieval miracle plays, was “ho, ho, ho!”? Did you know that the 19th-century occultist Madame Blavatsky revealed, in her Theosophical text The Secret Doctrine, that “many a mysterious sacred name ... conveys to the profane ear no more than some ordinary, and often vulgar [common] word, because it is concealed anagrammatically” (“Like S-A-N-T-A?,” Watkins prompts helpfully)? Following that logic, did you know that “Claus” may be an anagram for “Lucas,” a New Age “code word” for Lucifer, but that it also “sounds a lot like ‘claws,’” so “maybe Santa Claus means ‘Satan’s Claws’?”
Of course, reasonable minds know that Santa is none other than St. Nicholas, the third-century Greek Orthodox bishop whose legendary acts of Christian charity—for example, tossing gold through the window of a man so desperately poor he would have been forced to sell his daughters into slavery—gave rise to the myth of a kindly, bearded patriarch who comes, bearing gifts, in December.
As Jeremy Seal tells it in Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, Nicholas’s association with domestic rituals endeared him to the common folk. Even during the Reformation, when Protestant authorities were purging their faith of saints and other “popish” heresies, believers commemorated Nicholas’s kindness by leaving apples, nuts and sweets in shoes the night before his name day (December 6).
By the 14th century, when the saint had arrived in Holland as Sinterklaas, his metamorphosis into Santa Claus was well under way, says Seal. According to legend, the Dutch packed their beloved Saint Nicholas in the cultural baggage they brought to New Amsterdam, the 17th-century settlement that would later become Manhattan. Holland ceded the colony to England in 1674, but the white-bearded saint in red ecclesiastical garb was preserved in folk memory, waiting to be resurrected by 19th-century New Yorkers like Clement Clarke Moore.
Drawing heavily on Washington Irving’s droll caricature, in his satirical History of New York (1809), of Saint Nick as a gnome-sized Dutch burgher, Moore imagined him as a “jolly old elf” in his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823), arguably the most profound influence on American conceptions of Santa Claus (and, for that matter, Christmas).
But what really put booster rockets on Santa’s sleigh, Seal maintains, was consumer capitalism, via the cultural influence of local merchants and, in time, department stores and advertisers. “What actually drove Saint Nicholas to a revival was that, from the 1780s, the revolution in the creation of commercial products meant that gift-giving as a custom began to acquire fresh momentum,” he told NPR interviewer Renée Montagne. “Prior to that ... it had been the local exchange of handmade gifts. And suddenly objects were flooding in from Europe, particularly toys, and this meant that commercial, canny interests in Manhattan began to realize that St. Nicholas was a figure which could lead this transformation in the significance and importance of gift-giving.”
From Moore’s traveling-salesman Santa, “like a peddler just opening his pack,” it’s but a short ride, as the sleigh flies, to the department-store Santas who, by 1890, according to Gerry Bowler’s Santa Claus: A Biography, were putting a twinkly eyed face on conspicuous consumption, and from there to Haddon Sundblom’s wildly popular depiction of Santa as a soda-swilling pitchman for Coca-Cola—advertisements whose “overwhelming ubiquity,” from 1931 through 1964, “ensured that no rival version of Santa could emerge in the North American consciousness,” Bowler asserts.
That’s the short version of how a third-century Greek Orthodox bishop became a secular deity, in American culture, of middle-class domesticity, childhood innocence, free-floating good cheer (until the eggnog wears off, at least), Norman Rockwellian nostalgia and, not least, material abundance.
Or so the story goes. In his exhaustively researched study The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum begs to differ with the official version. Nissenbaum musters impressive historical evidence to argue that Santa as we know him is part of an “invented tradition,” conjured out of historical thin air by Moore, Irving and fellow New York Historical Society member Robert Pintard. Pillars of the city’s conservative elite, they fabricated Santa Claus, along with the Christmas rituals we now think of as timeless, as a means of domesticating the drunken holiday revels of the dangerous classes—rowdy Yuletide celebrations, rooted in medieval carnival, that gave vent to pent-up class hostilities. During one holiday season, Nissenbaum recounts, a riotous gang armed with horns, tin pans and other noisemakers—a Callithumpian band, in the parlance of the day—raged along Bowery, where it pelted a tavern with lime; marauded through a black neighborhood; paraded past some of the city’s toniest homes, whose windows it was happy to bash in; and finally “passed noisily and triumphantly up Broadway.”
Convinced of the need for a bourgeois myth that would channel underclass unrest into more acceptable outlets of expression, Pintard, Irving and Moore concocted what Disney imagineers would call a new “backstory,” replacing the old English tradition of the public wassail with a private domestic ritual consecrated to home, hearth and conspicuous consumption. (Wassailing was door-to-door caroling, in wealthy neighborhoods, by lower-class toughs, with the thinly veiled threat of a good roughing-up if grog and grub weren’t forthcoming. Sample lyric: “We’ve come here to claim our right.../ And if you don’t open up your door,/ We will lay you flat upon the floor.”)
As the manufactured myth took root in American’s emergent consumer culture, the elite’s gemütlich vision of domesticity became a reality: Unruly mobs gave way to children “nestled all snug in their beds” while a grandfatherly imp brought gifts instead of demanding them, assuring the anxious Victorian paterfamilias that he now had “nothing to dread.”
Not so fast, says Phyllis Siefker, in her fascinating cultural history, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men. Siefker contends that Moore’s Santa was a scrubbed-clean, rehabbed version of Belsnickle (from the German Pelz-nickle, “Saint Nicholas in Fur”). Covered in shaggy animal skins and black face paint, Belsnickle was a fearsome, disheveled creature who went door to door in Pennsylvania’s German enclaves, handing out nuts and cakes to good girls and boys and thrashing the bad ones.
The state’s German immigrants had imported Belsnickle from the Old World, where he lives on in various incarnations, among them St. Nicholas’s Bavarian henchman, Krampus. A sheep-horned fiend who carries a basket on his back, handy for bagging misbehaving children and toting them off to hell, Krampus puts the claws back in Santa Claus. (Krampus has been embraced, in the States, as the goth-tastic mascot of Yuletide debauchery by hipsters who cringe at Christmas treacle and wish Jimmy Stewart would just do a half-gainer into the rivert, for chrissakes.)
- Books discussed in this essay
- Jeremy Seal, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus
- Gerry Bowler, Santa Claus: A Biography
- Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men
- David Sedaris, SantaLand Diaries
- Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas
According to Siefker, Belsnickle is just another incarnation of the beast-man archetype she calls the Wild Man, a wintertime fertility god whose origins date back to Paleolithic times. “Each year the people held a ritual renewing the earth, and periodically they sacrificed this god in his prime,” Siefker writes. “Usually, this ritual included a mating between the Wild Man and a woman, bringing into play the fertility aspect of the god while setting the conditions for the renewal of life through new birth.” (Note to department-store Santas: Downside, your job perks don’t include a village maiden pole-dancing on Kriss Kringle’s candy cane. Upside, your seasonal gig doesn’t culminate in a Wicker Man-like immolation.)
Siefker tracks the Wild Man to village festivals of the Middle Ages. In the Tyrol, for instance, he’s a hairy, bestial thing with a hump on his back (sound familiar?) who rejoices in thunder and lightning (donner and blitzen, in German). During the medieval era, the Wild Man finds himself in the crosshairs of Christian authorities, who are on a Mission from God to eradicate pagan beliefs. Little wonder, then, that when Pope Gregory I puts a mythic face on the hitherto vaguely defined Christian devil, he finds it politically useful to depict the Tempter as “a goat-skinned man with cloven hooves, beard, horns, humpback, and stick”—the Wild Man, by any other name.
In another, subtler gambit, Siefker asserts, the church promoted St. Nicholas as a seasonal replacement for his pagan precursor. “Thus the usual explanation that Santa Claus ‘came from’ Saint Nicholas seems to be backward: Saint Nicholas was created to take the place of the heathen god, the Furry Claus,” she writes. “Originally a beast-god who reminded people of the cyclical nature of the world, of death and rebirth, this Wild Man was part of fertility performances throughout Europe. He was a godhead so strong, so universally worshipped by ‘pagans,’ that Christianity found him the major impediment to its goal of European salvation. To undermine his grip on the people, Christianity labeled his worship evil, and called his followers devilish. [...] The fact is that Santa and Satan are alter egos, brothers; they have the same origin.”
The evangelicals at CuttingEdge.org and Dial-the-Truth ministries are righter than they knew. But Crumpet and Puff, the cynical Macy’s elves in Davis Sedaris’ SantaLand Diaries (1992), got there first. Stumbling on the happy fact that SANTA is an anagram for SATAN, they while away the dull hours in the store’s Lollipop Forest, riffing on the overheard comments of Christmas shoppers:
“What do you think, Michael? Do you think Macy’s has the real Satan?”
“Don’t forget to thank Satan for the Baby Alive he gave you last year.”
“I love Satan.”
“Who doesn’t? Everyone loves Satan.”
Well, almost everybody.