Best known in the West, Santa’s character and personality have both modern and ancient roots, which continue to develop today. Santa’s familiar red and white look most researchers agree are not strictly down to Coca-Cola, but ads they ran in the 1920s/30s did help transform Santa into the familiar image we have today.
For the anthropologist Eric Wolf, “Santa”—as opposed to say St Nicholas, Soca Santa or the Three Kings—is an American, whose joviality and paunch suggest pleasure with the social order. This American origin has not prevented Santa from journeying to many non-Western places where he has blended and merged with other cultures and religions.
Around the world, anthropologists have written about Santa alongside other local myths and celebrations such as Cinderella Christmas in Japan and Inuit Christmas games.
Most academic researchers describe Santa as a deliberate creation of particular individuals in the US who were engaged in manufacturing a new American culture. This 19th century myth-making proved so successful to 20th century American consumer culture, it was exported and has colonised Western cultures the world over. In Trinbagonian households today, Santa is as familiar as parang, sorrel, ponche de creme and black cake.
In a study of letters to Santa conducted by UK anthropologists trying to understand how youngsters construct and reason with Santa, one insight was Santa is far more real to youngsters than Jesus is. While all the children seemed to blend religion and Santa together, Santa (and the tooth fairy for that matter, too) has a distinct advantage over Jesus. Santa leaves tangible proof of his realness, at least to young children, with his gifts.
In a collection by an anthropologist of Trinidad, Daniel Miller, one article about the ritual of Christmas gift-giving explores how commodities become gifts. By themselves most commodities—artefacts we most often don’t make ourselves—make terrible gifts. They are impersonal, have little of us in them, and are part of a world of commodity production designed to make profits for an elite class.
The phrase “it's the thought that counts,” is linguistic evidence to suggest implicitly, many people already understand how impersonal most commodities we meet in the store or online are. It is in the alchemy of time spent Christmas shopping, gift-wrapping, writing cards, sticking ribbons, and the removal of price tags where the impersonal turns into the personal and Santa purifies the commodity.
The irony is, each Christmas morning it is this personalisation of the commodity into a gift that is disposed of and forgotten first, the loot or booty being most important to the enculturation of children. When viewed as an exercise in the development of consumers in training, letters to Santa, the ritual of gift-giving, being “good” as a stand in for currency exchange, and consumption generally, the invented tradition of Santa makes a little more sense.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss suggested another reason for Santa’s popularity, aside from indoctrination into capitalism, is because amongst homo sapiens, “there is a small desire to believe in boundless generosity and kindness without ulterior motives.” Other anthropologists suggest Santa has taken on extra importance in secular times due to a reduction in religiosity. The argument being, Santa today does a better job of realising Christmas morally than the religious version does.
Now most parents out there do not describe themselves as Santa’s little helpers or believe in Santa himself, although of course there are many exceptions. Yet without the adults, the ritual of Santa and his Christmas could not take place. They may not “believe,” but adults certainly go out of their way to perform the rituals that make Santa and the “magic” of Christmas real. Some anthropologists suggest the need for this deliberate deception by so many adults is connected to “nostalgia for childhood.”
Scrooge, however, might suggest rather than nostalgia, it’s more accurate to describe this deliberate mass deception of adults toward children as a ritual inversion to protect and delay children from joining our dangerous “real” world.A world of constant interpersonal competition, economic inequality and social injustice, where goods aren’t distributed based on who has been good or not, but on who has the ability to pay or is most corrupt. Or in Dickensian short hand: Santa? Bah! Humbug!
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine.