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Scandalising Santa

By Terry Joseph
December 12, 2003

For perfectly honourable reasons, our composers have never quite captured the spirit of Santa Claus in homegrown music and perhaps never will, given the distance between the cultural concepts that created St Nick and Soca.

In the flesh, we've gotten far closer to the jollification with which Santa is frequently associated. Among the better Clauses we have seen in these parts is Glen Davis who, on account of sheer girth, fitted the part precisely, then added his trademark affability to complete the package.

But again, we're not really Santa Claus people, so the warm clothing, padded boots, thick cap and gloves-essential baggage for proper representation of the masquerade-makes for a most uncomfortable condition; under which the bearded one is required to bring cheer.

Then there's today's risk of inadvertently selecting a child-molester to have tiny tots with their eyes all aglow come sit on his lap, or sponsoring the satisfaction of some other (and probably less obvious) social maladjustment via this curious arrangement for dispensing toys to innocents.

A story coming out of Guyana last Sunday amplifies the unsuitability of Santa as a rallying point of the tropical Christmas. The ultimate philanthropist, Mr Claus was giving away sweets to children, when a mad rush for the bounty smothered him, the poor man and three of his helpers succumbing in the melee.

As reported in the December 7 edition of Stabroek News, a man playing Santa for the annual Christmas party at a large department store in Linden, had to be rushed to the Mackenzie Hospital, after being swamped by the otherwise wonderful children.

"Stabroek News understands Santa passed out from a combination of the children overwhelming him and the rising temperature in his suit under the hot afternoon sun," the paper said. Worse, Mrs Claus, acting that day as Santa's senior helper, was also admitted to hospital for observation in the wake of an asthma attack.

Santa, the report indicates, got completely carried away by the masquerade and began flinging sweets from a truck, when the hitherto well-behaved children collectively dumped that demeanour and began surging forward.

Pushing broke out in all directions, resulting in some of the kids falling into a nearby drain.

Apparently unsatisfied with this first wave of tragedy, Santa and Mr Claus alighted from the truck and took up a new position on a makeshift stage in front of the store. Now an easier target, St Nick soon found himself under major siege.

The newspaper described Santa as battling gamely "against the hordes", as the stampede thickened, but the combination of heat from his costume and the overwhelming confusion conspired against him, causing the fat one to faint, Mrs Claus to suffer the attack and two other helpers in Santa's party to barf.

Now what would make a sane couple dress in thick felt on a hot day in Guyana, then exert themselves to the point of hospitalisation? Why, the spirit of Christmas, of course, and the perceived need to so accurately copy a culture alien to their roots and environment.

Quite unlike his lead reindeer, Rudolph, Santa was not a commercial creation. Mr Claus, who is 199 years old this Christmas, evolved from the rekindling of Dutch tradition in New York, a fusion of the patron saint of The Big Apple's Historical Society, St Nicholas (the gift-bringer) and Christkindlein (The Christ child).

From Washington Irving's satirical History of New York (revised in 1812), Santa got the sleigh. Nine years later, a printer, William Gilley added one reindeer and dressed St Nick in fur. Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas (aka 'Twas the night before Christmas) brought the reindeer team up to eight and devised his entrance by chimney.

Today's Santa was first seen in 1841 when a Philadelphia merchant, JW Parkinson, hired a man to dress in the agreed garb and climb the chimney outside his shop. Thomas Nast, caricaturist for Harper's Weekly, refined the image, adding the beard and dressing him in fur from head to foot.

In 1869, poet George P Webster identified the North Pole as Santa's home. A Boston printer named Louis Prang introduced the English custom of Christmas cards to America, and in 1885 he issued one featuring a red-suited Santa.

Coca-Cola, often accused of inventing Santa Claus for purely commercial reasons, started using his image in the 1930s, commissioning an illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, to create the overweight super-hero image we know today.

Clearly, no part of Santa's evolution had to do with life in the tropics, which is why we should give it a rest or, if need be, redesign his costuming to accommodate December weather at the Equator.

To keep trying to duplicate American culture is doing neither us nor the country of Santa's origin any good and in the absence of crucial components of the piece, like snow and chimneys; we could jingle all the bells we want and never are we going to be anywhere near the real McCoy.

Perhaps it is time we look for something in our folklore that generates the jolly image and appoint it to Christmas, for God knows we could do with some lightening up-and not just in the costume department.

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