Building a better Father Christmas.
It's a terrible time to be Santa Claus. Hollywood has Father Christmas dying (The Santa Clause), killing (Silent Night, Deadly Night), and being kidnapped (The Nightmare Before Christmas). On television, this season's two most visible Santa ads portray him as an old lech (Victoria's Secret) and a clumsy oaf (Home Depot). American parents, who suspect all strangers, see a pedophile lurking under that bushy white beard. Mall Santas now must keep their hands visible and touch kids only in "safe" zones. At least one mall has banned Santa from touching children at all: Tots did get to hand Santa their wish lists--but through a mail slot. It doesn't help Kris Kringle's cause that a 71-year-old mall Santa Claus in Washington state recently pleaded guilty to raping and molesting four children between the ages of 1 and 7. The mall Santa's real name is--no joke--Ronald McDonald.
Animal-rights groups want to get rid of Santa's reindeer: Pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals forced the National Park Service to remove reindeer from their annual Mall Christmas pageant. Fundamentalist Christians want to get rid of Santa himself: He overshadows Jesus and profanes a sacred holiday. In Holland, one of St. Nick's favorite countries, he's been assaulted by teen-agers on the street and denounced by feminists. In Japan, a department store recently stumbled into the yuletide spirit by displaying Santa Claus--nailed to a crucifix. Why, mall Santas can't even say "ho ho ho" anymore: It frightens youngsters. Santa, in short, is in trouble. Any day you can expect to hear that fringe-right conspiracists have implicated him in the New World Order. "Look, he sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good. And he's got a list with the name of every child in the world! Tell me that's not suspicious." Santa needs a makeover.
It wouldn't be his first one. Santa Claus is one of America's grandest fabrications. He is, as Stephen Nissenbaum puts it in his excellent The Battle for Christmas, an "invented tradition." In America's early years, Christmas was a rowdy affair: Manhattan's poor and working-class folk ran wild through the streets and invaded the homes of the wealthy. So in the early 19th century, a group of rich New Yorkers took it upon themselves to domesticate Christmas. Their chief accomplishment: Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the 1822 poem that introduced Americans to Santa Claus (of course you know it: " 'Twas the night before Christmas ...").
Moore took an arcane European tradition and neatly transformed it into an American one. St. Nicholas was a real saint, a 4th-century bishop from Asia Minor famed for his generosity. The Dutch celebrated St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. On that day, he visited homes and left gifts for children by the fireplace. The Dutch St. Nicholas was an ambivalent figure: He was lean and solemn, and he gave bad children birch rods. Moore moved St. Nick's visits to Christmas Eve; equipped him with a beer belly, a sleigh, and eight reindeer; and dropped Sinter Klaas' darker side. Moore's poem, Nissenbaum writes, was intended to help turn Christmas from a public to a private holiday, to make it an event that rich and poor families would celebrate around their fireplaces.
And it worked. By the mid-19th century, Santa Claus and the domestic Christmas were embedded in the American psyche. Over the decades, the Santa myth grew by accretion, adding layer after layer of sweet detail. In the mid-19th century, Thomas Nast's drawings defined Santa as fat, jolly, bearded, and red-suited. At the same time, Santa's home moved from Europe to the North Pole. Mrs. Claus appeared in 1899. In 1939, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward added Rudolph to the reindeer pack. The store distributed 2.4 million copies of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" that year, and another 3.5 million when it reissued the story seven years later. (Santa, of course, was a commercial figure from the beginning. Store owners appropriated his picture for ads and posters.)
Throughout the 19th century and for most of this century, Santa was both beloved and respected. America repelled every effort to knock him off the pantheon. In 1897, for example, a girl named Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun: Her friends had told her that Santa Claus didn't exist. The Sun replied with one of the most famous editorials in American history: "Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. ... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist." (This year marks the centennial of "Yes, Virginia," and the editorial has been much reprinted.) In the '20s and '30s, U.S. judges even issued court rulings affirming Santa Claus' existence.
But we have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. Or perhaps it's the irony of an ironical age. Santa hasn't disappeared, but he's been made ridiculous. The assault by fundamentalists, Hollywood, and paranoid parents has taken its toll. His public image has degraded. Our Santa is unappetizing, a mall pedophile or a fat buffoon.
There should and can be another kind of Santa for the '90s. In an age that valorizes family and capitalism, Santa should be recognized as a champion of both. He has been married to the same woman for 98 years. He operates a fabulously successful toy factory. It has a package delivery system that makes Federal Express look like the Pony Express. Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Santa staffed his factory with undersized elves.
Santa is a role model for our ambitious children, the perfect benevolent tycoon. Santa works all year round, then gives away everything he made. This should be the Santa for our time: a Soros of the North Pole, Santa the philanthropist.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.