Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century; 20: Santa Claus

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The Independent Culture
HE CAME, he gave and, as is traditional at this time of year, he was roundly abused for his pains.

Consider this. If someone were to dress up as, say, Mike Atherton or Tina Turner and rob a sub-post office, you would not find a headline reading: "Mike Atherton robs post office." At the very least the words "Mike Atherton" would be safely encased in quotation marks. Yet every year various unspeakable deeds committed by Santa Claus impersonators are reported in the newspapers as if perpetrated by the great man himself.

Only this week in Michigan, a scheme in which volunteers reply to letters that children have sent to Santa was sabotaged by a renegade Father Christmas threatening in his reply to kill the child's pet dog. "I'll kill your dog - love Santa" was the newspaper headline. No quotation marks to be seen. Nor were there any in the story of the Santa snoring soundly in a department store grotto after lunching too well, nor in the one that crops up every year about the Santa who either mugs or exposes himself to a passer-by in Fifth Avenue.

Judging by the terrible press Santa Claus gets, you might suppose him to be a murderer or a game show host rather than a giver of gifts and a bringer of joy. It is not even as if he asked for the role - we imposed it on him. He heroically shouldered the burden and now finds himself the unfortunate focus of our discontent when we are dissatisfied - as many of us were yesterday - with the baubles he has brought us.

In the fourth century, of course, when Saint Nicholas was Archbishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, the consumer society was not quite as developed as it is today. Good deeds and saintly ways were his speciality rather than electronic -games consoles with arcade-quality graphics.

News of his goodness spread across the Mediterranean to Holland, and the Dutch adopted Saint Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas", as the patron saint of Amsterdam. Every December the good saint would bring the children of the city simple gifts from across the seas, exotic fruits such as oranges, unavailable in northern Europe.

It is not recorded how pleased the Dutch children were with their edibles, but it is doubtful whether dissatisfaction levels were anywhere near as high as they were yesterday as we unwrapped our booty.

Students of capitalism will know, of course, that dissatisfaction is crucial in keeping the system going. If the stuff we acquired made us happy, we wouldn't desire any more stuff, and sheep might just as well safely graze on the sites of our wonderful out-of-town shopping malls.

But Santa, bless him, has never read a word of Karl Marx and continues to bring his simple gifts of pullovers and questionable perfume in the heroically misguided belief that they will make us happy.

And how do we reward him? For most of the year, starting today, we forget all about him. Then, next December, we start again with the bad jokes - "I don't care who you are, get those reindeer off my roof" - the records that portray him as a cross between a child molester and the CIA - "He sees when you are sleeping, he knows if you're awake" - and the execrable movies in which, if he is lucky, he will find himself portrayed by Dudley Moore.

As if that were not enough for one person, saint or no saint, to bear, we top it all off by fuelling him on his annual mission with tooth-shortening, artery-clogging mince pies and the kind of sherry normally enjoyed al fresco wrapped in a sturdy brown paper bag. I tell you, if the guy were not such a hero, he would jack it in.