REBRANDING SANTA CLAUS
You may know of the annual SantaCon pub crawl.
Originally launched as a performance-art event in the Pacific Northwest, this international festival of dystopian mirth descends upon more than 383 cities in 53 countries around the globe.
The city of New York especially enjoys its annual parade of drunken mayhem by louts in red suits honoring the most joyous day on the Christian calendar, probably because it brings Manhattan a flood of treasured Christmas tidings such as drunken fisticuffs, public elimination, and rampant vandalism.
LOCK YOUR DOORS!
Yes, New Yorkers hate SantaCon.
No word on how the other 382 celebrating cities feel about enduring their annual red menace. (Here in Utah, it's difficult to imagine SantaCon being anything less than a festival of sugared-up street glee. But who knows? I live atop a remote mountain ridge with my wife and a lunatic feline who can distinguish the rustling of a bag of frozen shrimp from 100 feet away.)
In the wake of SantaCon and other dystopian tidings such as the inexplicably popular Billy Bob Thornton film Bad Santa and its far less successful spawn, Bad Santa 2 (tanking now in a theater near you!), it seems like an interesting exercise to examine the rebranding of Santa Claus throughout history.
Because yes, Santa has gone through many brand evolutions.
And no, Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa doesn't get to corner the market on bad behavior. See also: heavy drinking, hallucinations, physical abuse, slavery and prostitution.
BRING ON THE YULE!
Before the Christian Church brings light to people across England and the Germanic countries, Yule is the big deal.
Yule is the celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Unsurprisingly, the pagan trappings of Yule include much feasting, quaffing of ale, and supernatural happenings like the mad and ghostly Wild Hunt: a turbulent rampage of spirits through the night sky. (One assumes this turbulent rampage occurs after the quaffing of ale and not before.)
The leader of the Wild Hunt is supposedly the god Wodan--better known in Norse as Odin. Other names include Jólnir, meaning "Yule figure" and Langbarðr, meaning "long-beard" in Old Norse. (Thank you, Wiki-certain-pedia.)
See where this is going? Gorging, booze, ghosts and beards. Sounds like a long weekend at Burning Man.
BLAME IT ON ODIN
He's where it all begins for Santa Claus.
A long white beard.
A hooded robe.
Nightly rides on his horse or (in North America) on his magic reindeer.
Visiting people with gifts in the night.
Though, since part of Odin's gifts to his people were intoxication and battle-madness, we may owe equal obeisance to the old Norse god for the behavior exhibited on Black Friday.
But I digress.
HELLO, BLUE SANTA
Maybe you're familiar with the famous "Blue Santa Claus" figures brought to the US in the 1800s by German immigrants.
If so, you're already beginning to see the connections to the craziness of Yule and Odin to the "Ho ho ho!" dude of the Coca-Cola ads.
Blue-robed, white-bearded Odin begins morphing into something else--much with the help of St. Nicholas.
But who was St. Nicholas?
Not a Coca-Cola merchant, surely.
His full name is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop from the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey.
St. Nicholas is famous for his generosity to the poor. He goes door to door presenting them with gifts. Most notably, he is very generous to three needy and devout yet unmarried Christian girls so they could avoid a life of prostitution. (Job opportunities for single women in the 4th century Byzantine Empire were far fewer than today than one might realize.)
ST. NICHOLAS OF MYRA BECOMES KNOWN AS THE PATRON SAINT OF CHILDREN
He's also the patron saint of sailors, which is almost the same thing. (Speaking as a sailor.) Also, prostitutes, archers and pawnbrokers.
But again, I digress.
Patron saint of children.
And he becomes very big with the Dutch.
The Dutch especially like his reputation for secretive gift giving, and begin practicing it during a December feasting season in his honor.
Additionally, through various linguistic transliterations and corruptions (as one might expect when having cross-cultural characterizations from two crazy languages like Greek and Dutch), his name evolves from Saint Nicholas to Sinterklaas.
And guess how Sinterklass traditionally appears in Dutch iconography?
HELLO, WHITE BEARD AND RED ROBE!
Yes, the brand evolution is starting to look a lot like something we already know.
Except that Sinterklaas wears a mitre. How Catholic is that?
He also doesn't have a magic sleigh with eight tiny reindeer that hauls him from the North Pole, but a boat that comes from Spain. (One might guess the carbon footprint of his boat is somewhat less than that of a sleigh and reindeer. Less reindeer-sourced methane. But I digress.)
Sinterklaas also has a seriously interesting MO that's unlikely to pass muster with Child Services.
Yes, he distributes candy and presents to the good children, as per lore.
But what about the bad children?
Forget leaving coal instead of candy in their wooden shoes. Sinterklaas spanks the bad children with a broom, throws them into a sack and takes them back to Spain.
An interesting folk story for keeping kids in line, though not nearly as horrific as, say, Sweeny Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street who enjoyed slashing throats with his razor. (Thank you, Brits!)
CHILD ABDUCTION NOTWITHSTANDING...
During colonial times, Sinterklaas is imported to the Hudson River Valley by the Dutch and becomes firmly ensconced in the New World.
Eventually, the blue-robed Odin character with his magic reindeer and the red-suited Sinterklaas character begin to merge.
And through the magic of those delightful linguistic transliterations and corruptions, he becomes known as Santa Claus.
But we still don't know exactly the reason for all this gift giving, do we?
It's one thing to bestow gifts upon the destitute.
But where does all the universal gift-giving to good children evolve from?
Here's where we can thank Martin Luther, he of The Reformation.
Wanting to focus kids' attention away from the veneration of saints, Martin Luther spreads the idea of gift giving to children to "focus the interest of the children to Christ." (Yay, Wiki-surely-pedia!)
We can see how well that worked out. (See also: Black Friday mayhem.)
BUT WAIT--BABY JESUS HAS FINALLY COME INTO PLAY!
Yes, because, as we all know, the reason for the holiday is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Except that, until now, we've been talking about Yule and the Wild Hunt, right?
Yes. Leave it to a savvy church to recognize the importance of the Winter Solstice celebration, and co-opt an existing and beloved pagan holiday to help spread the gospel.
So, the Santa Claus brand has so far evolved from the old-world pagan Norse Odin and the Greek-Christian Saint Nicholas and a winter festival of debauchery.
It has survived a dysfunctional myth of beating and enslaving miscreant children.
It is steered by Martin Luther's PR machine to questionable effect.
And it has landed ashore in the New World for further brand evolution.
CUE THE BRITISH!
No, not the melodramatic, penny-dreadful, Sweeny-Todd British.
The refined-sensibilities, much enlightened Victorian British!
And the Puritans who outlawed Christmas!
Yes, Christmas was a pox!
Christmas was deemed a papist celebration unworthy of the reform Protestant sensibilities of the Church of England!
Christmas is banned!
As the Fabulous Honey Parkers people would saying by this point, "Oy vey!"
As a mildly rebellious personification of the typical adult merriment and feasting of the season, the Victorians give us the red-suited, white-bearded Father Christmas.
TESTY VICTORIAN SENSIBILITIES ABOUND!
Yes, despite the notorious child labor practices of the period (seems not all children are created equal and many end up in the workhouse), the Christmas season begins to evolve into a child-centric celebration of light and cheer.
And guess who helps sway Father Christmas from a personification of an adult celebration into a child-focused season of gift giving?
New World Santa Claus!
Phew. This is exhausting. The Greeks. The Dutch. The Americans. The British.
But how did Santa suddenly become a US export to the UK?
Thank Clement Clarke Moore and the Coca-Cola Company.
US MEDIA DOES IT AGAIN!
A potent New World propaganda machine spreads the product of a corrupt culture far and wide!
Well, maybe that's hyperbole.
But since we're living in an age of hyperbole, it seems the thing to do. And I digress.
And yes, our mash-up of Odin Sinterklaas has evolved into Santa Claus, and Clement Clarke Moore has written what is regarded as the single most popular verse ever penned by an American.
And it's entirely possible that his 1823 description of a midnight visit from Saint Nick entirely changes the Santa Claus brand into the laughing, bowl-full-of-jelly-bellied, merry old elf personified in the company's 1930s Christmas advertising.
Granted, Coke wasn't the first. But they were certainly the most prolific.
But here's an ironic sidebar for you...
CUE HADDON SUNDBLOM!
Yes, Haddon Sundblom. The famed American artist of Finnish descent who created Coca-Cola's Santa character.
And in Finland, the long-running personification of Christmas has been not Sinterklaas, but (ready?)...
Also known as the Christmas Goat and previously the Yule Goat.
A character extracted from the Wild Hunt (remember that old pagan chestnut?), he is a goat who turns into a man and is personified how...?
IN A RED SUIT WITH A LONG WHITE BEARD!
Oy vey, indeed.
For the sake of simplicity, it just seems like we should all default to the miracle of one-night's worth of oil lasting for eight and be done with it.
So, what is the lesson to be gleaned from pagan Norse Odin Greek Saint Nicholas Dutch Sinterklaas Germanic Blue Santa Clement Clarke Moore Coca-Cola Santa Sidebar Joulupukki?
Control your brand.
Because if you don't, the public will control it for you.
Your brand will not be what you want it to be, but what the public deems it to be.
In the meantime, have a fabulous Christmas holiday, no matter where on the pagan/Christian spectrum it may fall.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.