Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa Claus—Social Order Manifested as The Spirit of Christmas

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

-Excerpt from Twas the Night Before Christmas (Clement Clarke Moore) [Image Right: Inflatable Santa Claus as seen from behind a tree.]
Most Western children (and some adults) eagerly await the arrival of Santa Claus—easily recognizable from the description above. In his red suit and sleigh pulled by reindeer, he comes bearing gifts. If you've been good that is. Children are well aware of his rules too: he keeps a list, he checks it twice, and he knows who's been naughty or nice. If you've been nice (e.g., unselfish, polite, and helpful), you might find something neat waiting under the tree. If you haven't, well, you might get a lump of coal.

Our present day image of Santa seems to come from a few different sources. He is a combination of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas—both of whom appear to be rooted in the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas of Myra was a saint and a Bishop with a reputation for secret gift giving—he was known for putting coins in shoes left out for him, and one legend has him throwing bags of gold coins through the window of a poor man's home to help provide a dowry for his three daughters, saving them from prostitution. The tradition of Saint Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6) spread to many countries, and on the eve of this festivity which marks Saint Nicholas' death, presents are exchanged. The Dutch Sinterklaas appears to make the distinction between good and bad children (although in practice, all children receive gifts). He has a helper named Zwarte Piet whose black skin has made him a source of controversy in recent years. For our intents we are only concerned with his role in punishing bad children (by taking them away in a sack). Children leave their shoes by the fireplace with some hay or a carrot for his horse, and Sinterklaas leaves them chocolate coins or some other token. A sack is also often placed outside of the house or in the living room with present for the family. Father Christmas on the other hand had nothing to do with gifts—he typically represented the Spirit of Christmas. Though he has since merged with representations of Santa Claus, he was originally created to be the personification of good cheer. [Image Right: Inflatable Santa with snowman for company.]

The morphing of these three characters into Santa Claus packs a powerful punch—a gift giver, a moral watchman, and the embodiment of good cheer. While Santa has no helper to pack wayward children into sacks (CPS would NOT sanction such behavior!), he is watching. He knows when you steal your coworker's lunch, or flip someone the finger for cutting you off on the road, or break something and pretend you didn't. Today Santa makes no distinction between good and "bad" children—all children get presents. But the idea that Santa—or someone—is watching persists. In essence, he's watching because we all are watching in some ways. An early post on this blog explored Durkheim's idea that a moral sensibility governs the collective, keeping order to permit the continuation of society. The social order that governs our society is "watching," and symbols associated with Santa's may be manifestations of this moral sensibility by virtue of the power we assign them. 

I was thinking about this as a I passed a volunteer for a charity last week wearing a Santa hat. While hundreds of people probably filed by her, only perhaps dozens reached into their pockets for their spare change. She didn't call for donations, she simply stood there, wearing her red hat. She passed no judgment, but her hat did: "I'm watching," it seemed to say. "I know whether there is change in your pocket, whether you're ignoring my helper willingly, or whether you're late for a train (in which case, you can make it up later.)" [Image Left: Charity volunteer with red bucket.]

Santa's hat is not the Sorting Hat, but in making Santa into a moral watchman, he and his accessories have become an extension of the sensibility that guides society. Though his history is linked to a Bishop, he has largely become a secularized icon, personifying the charity of the human spirit—one that we can all relate to. He and the imagery linked to him remind us of the "rights" that we as a society believe in. These are not civil rights, but social rights: right-doing. The charity volunteer's hat was therefore not a statement that Santa himself is watching, but that we bear social obligations that are necessary to the maintenance of the social order. To quote Francis Pharcellus Church:
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.
Can you think of other symbols that are used to maintain social order? Answer below, and remember to leave some cookies out for Santa. He's on his way—you can track his progress using NORAD's Official Santa Tracker.

Merry Christmas all!

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