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Even Santa has a backstory

As a child of immigrant parents growing up in the Buffalo area in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I couldn't help but notice what I would later identify as "cognitive dissonance" between the way our family celebrated a traditional Bavarian Christmas and the way the holiday was then celebrated by my peer group and in American popular culture as a whole. Last Christmas Eve, while listening to a public radio broadcast of Naughty and Nice: A History of the Holiday Season, a program in the American History series BackStory, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I was reminded of those days and how blended a social construct the holiday season is for every family.

A common element of celebrations occurring near the winter solstice dating back to antiquity, according to the historians who contributed to the program, is the concept of social inversion, whereby the wealthy and powerful pay tribute to the moral virtue of the poor and the powerless, for reasons that are both genuine and self-serving.

So too, the modern idea of the "nuclear family" -- with its celebration of each inpidual child, his or her innocence and absolution from bondage or debt, and society's investment in his or her education and socialization -- is as much of a social construct as Christmas itself is, and the nuclear family's rise as financially viable social unit in the 17th and 18th centuries closely parallels the trajectory of Christmas, with its idealization of the Holy Family, as a public, opposed to an exclusively religious, holiday.

My own parents, who grew up in the shadows of Nazi Germany and came of age as the fascist regime it imposed upon Europe lay smoldering in ruins, did not have the benefit of having read Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with its references to a paternalistic "Father Christmas" type figure (depicted as "The Ghost of Christmas Present" in the story) as children, much less exposure to the finer points of Santa Claus arcana: the whole business of the elves, their workshop at the North Pole, the eight flying reindeer, chimney drop, milk-and-cookie snack, or Mrs. Claus, back at home, knitting.

Christmas in America was as new to them as it was to my younger brother and I, and we negotiated our way together through the iconography of desire and wish-fulfillment with the trepidation of non-native speakers and the penury of the working poor.

The "Santa Claus" tradition is a bizarre one to decode -- rather campy even before humorist David Sedaris got a hold of it -- and a grotesque permutation of the story of the historical Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop of Myra (an ancient city on the southwest coast of present-day Turkey), whose reputation for generosity and secret gift-giving included at least one celebrated intervention in what we today might call a "human trafficking" ring.

The St. Nikolaus, whose feast day my parents celebrated on Dec. 6 while growing up in the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria, was a decidedly leaner, and less avuncular figure. Although his stand-ins donned beggars' versions of a bishop's red vestments, they also carried chains and were just as likely to smack you on the backside with a tree switch for some tardy or insolent answer -- or the prescience of some minor transgression you had committed or were about to commit -- as to reward you with sweets or a small handmade gift. Even more ominously, they would threaten to kidnap bad children in a sack and drop them off in a dark forest or throw the sack into a river, drowning the naughty children.

Imagine trying to organize a department store photo shoot around that kind of a figure, seemingly taken right out of the pages of a Grimm Brothers' fairy tale. The term "public relations disaster" springs readily to mind. Here was not just a "Bad Santa," this was a "Bad Santa" with rumble chains and serious sadomasochistic tendencies.

In most Bavarian families, the St. Nikolaus role of "moral inquisitor" was assigned to a "rogue uncle," a fellow who was typically underemployed and thus available, but also usually unkempt, foul-smelling and half in the bag by noon. St. Nikolaus was a figure to be feared by children, not sidled up to, and most Bavarian "rogue uncles" were method actors.

No wonder my parents were suspicious of the pudgy, white-bearded American descendant of the Dutch folk legend Sinterklaas, whose Saint Nicholas-inspired gift-giving ritual in northern Europe was always accompanied by the recitation of a poem or some kind of dramatic performance, even though the gifts themselves were often useless trinkets presented with very elaborate wrappings. The Dutch, who had once exchanged a consignment of decorative beads to purchase the entire island of Manhattan, certainly understood the creative use of packaging, my folks explained.

My father, in particular, thought the American Santa was nothing more than a pitchman, a creation of the 1950s and 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firms depicted in the current television series Mad Men, and a fellow who might otherwise be selling you a new Chevrolet or a Maytag washer. Santa's job, he told me on more than one occasion once I had grown older and ceased to believe, was not in wish-fulfillment. Corporate America kept him around to move merchandise.

He admired the logistical ingenuity behind Santa's "just-in-time" inventory and distribution system in the same way he grudgingly admired the Russian Sputnik program, but was deeply suspicious of the fact that as deadly serious an agency as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) would pert valuable time and resources from its Cold War monitoring of possible incoming Soviet missiles to track Santa's course across the continent on each Christmas Eve.

President Dwight Eisenhower, the former Allied Supreme Commander of Germanic descent, had rescued Germany from its totalitarian romance with National Socialism, my parents believed. No sooner had they become naturalized U.S. citizens than my folks registered as what later would be referred to as "Eisenhower Republicans," a decision that bound them to support the "red baiting" tactics of Ike's Vice President Richard Nixon far longer than they might otherwise.

I suspect they feared that Santa -- with his red suit and penchant for overly generous handouts -- was not a plausible incarnation of a Catholic saint, but instead a double agent and emissary of another nefarious, bearded German -- Karl Marx -- out to usher in an era of reindeer-driven Scandinavian socialism.

So when it came to the true spirit of Christmas gift giving, my parents weren't comfortable with a larger-than-life Thomas Nast cartoon character, much less the bloated corruption of a Catholic saint appropriated to serve as some double-dealing icon of American capitalism.

No, in their heart of hearts, my parents reserved that sacred trust for Das Christkind (literally, "the Christ-child"), a southern German and Austrian tradition usually depicted as an angelic figure or sprite, but intended to represent the incarnation of Jesus as a human infant, his corporeal presence the ultimate gift and manifestation of the New Covenant in the world. It was the Christkind who represented the deeper wonder and mystery of the holiday and its traditions across the ages.

That was the way my mother explained it, and while I always thought her theology on certain points was a little shaky, it more than withstood the test of my limited attention span, especially when there were still unwrapped gifts under the tree.

It was the Christkind who brought us the practical gifts that we always opened first: the warm socks and sweaters, new sneakers and slacks for school, all miraculously right-sized because, of course, he was omniscient. It was Christkind who inspired the carols, the candles, the signifying rituals of the Advent season, and my parents' hand-crafted Nativity scene, constructed using my father's carpentry skills and my mother's treasured Holy Family figurines.

Santa Claus was credited for the modest toys and baubles that we saved for last, all the things that required batteries, and perhaps that coveted outfielder's glove -- a Roberto Clemente special -- that I had been pleading for since the previous Memorial Day.

Thus our immigrant family, like countless thousands of other immigrant families over the centuries, abided with a kind of household duality when it came to Christmas, blending cherished traditions from the Old World we had come from with the larger marketplace of tastes and smells, the enticing legends and delicious polyglot of languages, the enduring dreams and warped ambitions, the tales of fortune and abject failure that came to characterize not just Christmas, but everyday in America.

Does it finally matter that your family celebrates its holidays according to one set of traditions, while another family across the street, down the road, or in another neighborhood in another part of town, celebrates them with a completely different set of traditions, a different belief system, or possibly chooses not to celebrate at all? Surely it does; for every family has its own narrative and celebrates its own mythology.

"Myth aims at causing an immediate impression - it does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it," wrote the French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes in his 1957 book Mythologies. "Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts: myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion."

[Myth] has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal...It purifies things, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact...In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity....

That blissful clarity is what I remember when I think back on the Christmases of my youth. It is what I wish for you and your family this holiday season.

--R.D. Pohl

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