Review: Three Holiday Books for 12 Days of Christmas

Santa Claus: A Biography
By Gerry Bowler
McClelland & Stewart, Ontario, 278 pages, $26.95

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa scholar. History professor Gerry Bowler shares his vast knowledge of all Santa’s ancient and modern incarnations in the entertaining new book Santa Claus: A Biography. Professor Bowler’s detailed research and scrupulous footnotes demonstrate that, like his protagonist, he has checked his list twice. Bowler also emulates his subject by wrapping his narrative in delightful ribbons of observation. You can bet he gives full attention to the famous 1897 Santa-affirming newspaper editorial addressing the wavering faith of 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon.

The tales of Santa’s origin are tangled and Bowler does an admirable job of combing through the variations. Santa earned a reputation for rescuing a trio of poor students from an evil innkeeper who tried to drown them in barrels of pickle brine. Things being what they are, this could have rendered Santa the patron saint of students or of pickles. It’s hit and miss with canonical recognition. Another scenario has him anonymously tossing bags of dowry money through a poor man’s window so this humble father didn’t have to sell his daughters into prostitution. The first two bags of money are lobbed through the window, but the third (things come in threes with Santa) is dropped down the chimney. And that is the stuff of legends.

Santa did not come to sainthood via the traditional routes of performing miracles or suffering martyrdom. Bowler asserts that the act of anonymous giving is the outstanding feature of Santa’s resume. Prior to Santa’s spin, alms were demanded. At the holiday season, children “were given free rein to make a nuisance of themselves and seek out treats from their neighbors.” It was expected that children would go “door to door in groups and accompany their requests with threats,” much in the style of modern day Halloween. But by the year 1100, Saint Nicholas was the most powerful saint on the church’s calendar, Bowler tells us. “A revolution in gift-giving was achieved when French nuns in the 1100s honored the patron saint of the young by secretly leaving presents at the houses of poor children on the eve of Saint Nicholas, giving the holy man himself the credit for this deed.”

Bowler’s accessible scholarship explains how Santa has been used as everything from political decoy to advertising shill to parental tool.

The aristocracy of nineteenth century New York “were disturbed by the raucous, alcohol-fueled mobs who took to the streets at Christmas and New Year’s, damaging property, disrupting worship, and frightening the gentry. Perhpas by evoking Saint Nicholas and a holiday that focused on class solidarity instead of class antagonism, and replacing the rowdy, outdoor, male celebrations with a cozy, indoor, family-centered time, the dangerous democratic tensions of the mob might be assuaged and their natural superiors allowed to sleep snug in their beds.” Looks like the plan worked.

It was a natural progression to feature Santa as a mercantile tout. After all, Bowler points out, he had been described by Clement Clarke Moore in the seminal poem as “a peddler just opening his pack.” Indeed, his image has been utilized to sell everything from liquor to cigarettes to guns to condoms.

Parents unabashedly used Santa as a source of discipline. Bowler colorfully writes, “Human offspring are not born polite or deferential; they are not easily persuaded to do chores, to refrain from violence against their siblings, or to attend to their studies. Through the ages, parents and other moralists have seized on supernatural forces to assist them in the job of taming the next wave of invading barbarians we call children; character is more easily built if the conscience feels that, even if Mother’s eyes are absent, someone equally powerful, albeit unseen, is watching.”

Bowler makes an interesting observation that, with the exception of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, there has been no additional contribution to Santa Claus lore during the twentieth century. “Santa’s story, despite all the flummery that the commercial world threw at it, remained largely impervious to change.” Perhaps because of and in spite of this intractability, Bowler is moved to ask whether Santa has a future. To such a query he composes his own solution, as anodyne as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper editorial. “The future of Santa Claus is not up to children – his life rests in the hands of parents. Santa Claus in the twenty-first century is a parental project. It is they who choose (or not) to tell the story to the next generation and to buttress it in countless ways. It is parents who give flesh to Santa Claus through half-eaten cookies, nibbled carrots, deer droppings spread on snowy roofs, letters from the North Pole, songs sung to sleepy boys and girls, and hundreds of other acts of loving folly.” The good professor continues, “On the cheeks and foreheads of every child are the invisible marks left by the lips of mothers and fathers who have stolen into their sleeping child’s room and kissed them in the night. Santa Claus is the midnight visitor whom parents long once a year to be – silent, benevolent, and universally loved.”

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales
By Various Authors
HarperCollins, 209 pages, $14.95

We know we are in trouble from the first sentence of the first story in this collection: “A deer hit us.” That sums up the attitude of most of these anthology authors who feel they have been walloped by a holiday of inconvenience that they don’t invite, welcome or embrace.

Of the 18 essays found here, half are written from Jewish perspectives that perhaps automatically explain why the authors feel burdened by such an imposing cross-religion holiday (not to mention the plethora of ham jokes). We find:

– Cynthia Kaplan writing, “We may not be the most observant Jews, but we definitely draw the line at Santa;”

– Amy Krouse Rosenthal writing, “I remember Christmas feeling very big, and Hanukkah feeling very small;”

– Catherine Newman’s half-Jewish son figuring Santa’s timetable, “I think he looks in your window, and if he sees a menorah… then he flies away to the next house;”

– Stanley Bing saying, “I am left with… a profound sense of not truly belonging to the game everybody else is playing…;”

– Valerie Frankel writing, “Christmas for Gentiles can mean a million different things. For Jews, it’s all Jesus, all the time;”

– Binnie Kirshenbaum saying, “I am Jewish, and therefore it is fair to say that I have no business celebrating Christmas in the first place;”

– Mitchell Symons writing, “My parents argued loudly and they were Jewish; the people at school, the goyim, were self-effacing and bottled up;”

– Neal Pollack declaring, “I’m a Jew! And I’m gonna cook a ham!;”

– Roger Director writing, “This is when all Christians torture themselves trying to have a Christmas just like one they never had in the first place. But this doesn’t befall everybody. Being Jewish helps.”

The remainder of the authors generally whine and chafe with discomfort during the Christmas season due to their self-proclaimed conditions of being poor, gay, single, dysfunctional or British. In an odd omission, there is no editor or compiler identified for The Worst Noel, therefore no one is taking credit or blame for the collection. If such an arbiter exists, they would have to explain the merits of such entries as the foul “Donner Is Dead” and the unoriginal indulgence of “A Foreign Country.” However, the arbiter would get kudos for including the humorous “I’ll Have Christmas With the Works on Rye” by Valerie Frankel, the cinematic “Rum Balls” by Roger Director and the empathetic “Accidental Santa” by Joni Rodgers. The two outstanding essays are “The Gift of the Magi Redux” by Binnie Kirshenbaum which is every bit as achingly sad and ironic as the original tale and “Survivor” by Louis Bayard, a writer who “gets it” and understands exactly what this anthology should be.

Santa Lives!: Five Conclusive Arguments for the Existence of Santa Claus
By Ellis Weiner
Riverhead Books (Penguin Group), 99 pages, $12.00

In the arena of good ideas gone bad, we have Saturday Night Live, wine in a box and this book. Humorist Ellis Weiner has an excellent concept for spoofing the intellectual highbrow tracts of yore. He sets the bar quite high for himself with chapters headed “The Ontological Argument,” “The Causal Argument,” “The Teleological Argument,” “The Experiential Argument” and “The Argument from Morality.” Other than some amusing experimental digressions leading to cul-de-sacs such as Celine Dion (whose name Weiner always facetiously adorns with a registered trademark symbol) or Lucianno Pavarotti, his execution at times makes the likes of “Airplane!” or “The Naked Gun” seem cerebral. Weiner aims at being a Jonathan Swift but the target he hits is more like a Rodney Dangerfield.

It is difficult to say just who could pull off such a satire of lofty academic structure. Professor Irwin Corey comes to mind, or maybe Norm Crosby, or John Hodgman. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show crew have certainly found the formula for spoofing the more quotidian social studies text book with their bestselling “America: The Book.”

Weiner gets an “A” for effort, but he will have to stay after school and work on his execution.

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