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Santa Claus: A Biography [Hardcover]

Gerry Bowler
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Nov. 15 2005
An entertaining, often surprising look at the life of the world’s most influential fictional character.

He is the embodiment of charity and generosity, a creation of mythology, a tool of clever capitalists. The very idea of him is enduring and powerful.

Santa Claus was born in early-nineteenth-century America, but his family tree goes back seven hundred years to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. Intervening generations were shaggy and strange — whip-wielding menaces to naughty boys and girls. Yet as the raucous, outdoor, alcohol-fuelled holiday gave way to a more domestic, sentimental model, a new kind of gift-bringer was called for — a loveable elf, still judgmental but far less threatening.

In this engaging social and cultural history, Gerry Bowler examines the place of Santa Claus in history, literature, advertising, and art. He traces his metamorphosis from a beardless youth into a red-suited peddler. He reveals the lesser-known aspects of the gift-bringer’s life — Santa’s involvement with social and political causes of all stripes (he enlisted on the Union side in the American Civil War), his starring role in the movies and as adman for gun-makers and insurance companies. And he demolishes the myths surrounding Santa Claus and Coca-Cola.

Santa Claus: A Biography will stand as the classic work on the long-lived and multifarious Mr. Claus.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

This story of the "all-seeing agent of didactic forces and an ally of strict parenting" is dense with history yet told with the same delight and rapt fascination as Clement Clark Moore's "Twas' the night before Christmas." Offering the definitive chronology of hope and imagination, Bowler follows the Santa myth from its origins to the jolly man's appearance on the big screen. The lore of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra and patron saint of maidens, fruitful marriages, students and children, has morphed with the various cultures that have adopted him as a symbol of Christmas spirit: he has inspired both charity and greed, and has been known to answer to generals during wartime. Bowler demonstrates how Santa Claus has flourished with the help of imaginative writers and artists and has endured despite the forces of advertising, politics and Hollywood. "The future of Santa Claus is not up to children," writes Bowler, "his life rests in the hands of parents," and their "acts of loving folly" such as half-eaten cookies and letters from the North Pole. Filled with humor and warmth, this "biography" should be kept among the other tales of Christmas to be read the moment holiday cynicism begins to gather.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Offering the definitive chronology of hope and imagination, Bowler follows the Santa myth from its origins to the jolly man's appearance on the big screen....Filled with humor and warmth, this "biography" should be kept among the other tales of Christmas to be read the moment holiday cynicism begins to gather."
Publisher's Weekly

"[Gerry Bowler studies] Santa in all of his incarnations, from a slightly tricky character in earlier centuries to the cherubic personality promulgated by advertising….[Santa Claus: A Biography] is graced with a wry wit that makes it both informative and entertaining…recommended for all libraries."
—Tessa L.H. Minchew, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Clarkston in Library Journal

Praise for The World Encyclopedia of Christmas
“Meticulously researched, well-written, and often downright funny, this encyclopedia does justice to its fascinating subject.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely wonderful!!! Oct. 28 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like many I have always loved Christmas and have long been enchanted by the magical aspects of it as well as the legends and stories both historical and personal. Indeed a few years ago I was coaxed into playing Santa Claus at work after some joking around on my part. Perhaps the joke was on me because upon playing Santa Claus I found that a renewed sense of wonder and magic returned to my perception of Christmas upon seeing the joy that Santa brought to many I encountered and greeted. Since then I have fallen in love with becoming Santa each Christmas such that I made the effort to fashion my own custom made suit and beard! (-:

This brings me to this wonderful book by Gerry Bowler. Here he unfolds the origins of many of our familiar Christmas traditions as well and more specifically the origins and stories of our beloved Santa Claus. He recounts the legends and history in such a way as to make it immediately accessible and recognizable. He neatly lays the groundwork for the eventual appearance of our familiar "jolly old Santa." Bowler also dispels some long held myths about Santa Claus---the most prevalent being that our contemporary image of Santa originated in the 1930's Coca-Cola advertisements. Santa's image in our collective conscience was pretty well established by the end of the 19th century and Haddon Sundblom's Coca-Cola illustrations were simply refinements on what had already been established. And it must be said that Santa's image is still not really cemented as best evidenced by the interpretations and variations we continue to see depicting him.

One great charm of this book is in revealing how our current forms of celebrating Christmas is relatively recent historically and how it is quite different from how Christmas was celebrated in the past.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful and Beautiful Jan. 6 2006
By G. Poirier - Published on
From Santa's origins, through his evolution across the ages to his existence today - it's all here. This book has got to contain everything that anyone would ever want to know about Santa Claus: his "birth"; his depiction in different countries in different times; his "activities" during wars; his appearance in various ads, in movies, in literature and in song; as well as his perception by children and their parents alike. This is a wonderfully charming book. It is well written and although it is a serious biography, it is peppered with occasional humor as well as descriptions of heart-warming incidents. I recommend this book to everyone: those interested in history and culture, those who would like to believe again and those who still do.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My Visit With Santa Claus March 9 2006
By Carl L. Hofmann - Published on
Gives Merry Christmas a new meaning. The evolution and

combining of religious and pagan customs that produced

this jolly old elf are an enlightening rebirth for Santa.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Pleasurable Read Dec 22 2007
By Joseph Maclachlan - Published on
Bowler's wit and dry sense of humour make this a pretty fun book. Santa's history is traced from his origins as the Roman bishop St. Nicholas through his various medieval forms into his present shape as the fat, red-suited Christmas icon. In addition, Bowler traces the histories of some of Santa's counterparts, such as Kriss Kringle, Belsnickle and so on, who have influenced our modern view of Santa. I have two comments that may be construed as praise or criticism. Bowler often seems unwilling to draw explicit conclusions; evidence is presented, then a suggestion made with no clear cause and effect inference. Perhaps the author wants you to think for yourself and draw your own conclusion - always a good thing in popular histories - or any history for that matter. However, it has two unwanted effects: it leaves the reader with a sense of confusion, as though they missed something; and it makes Bowler's arguments seem weak, as though even he is not entirely sure. The other criticism is that Bowler has left out of the book virtually no song, movie or poem that mentions Santa Claus. While this is a commendable feat, it sometimes makes for dry reading. The chapter entitled 'Santa at the Movies (and in the Jukebox Too)' is essentially a list of Santa movies and songs with little actual historical commentary on any of them. Regardless of these criticisms the book is still a lot of fun and a pleasure to read.
4.0 out of 5 stars Swift read about the world's most generous elf Dec 17 2013
By Craig Rowland - Published on
In Santa Claus: A Biography, author Gerry Bowler explores the history behind the Santa Claus myth, tracing it to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra of Turkey in the fourth century. Bowler also looks at modern appropriations of Santa Claus iconography to suit specific means, such as Santa in wartime and in advertising. He concludes the biography with a look towards the future and if Santa Claus will have a part in it among today's tech-savvy tots.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders despised the cult of the saints, and Saint Nicholas the gift-giver was substituted by the Christ child as the sole great provider. While Saint Nicholas may have been abolished, the spirit of mythical and fantastic gift-giving remained. This explains the sudden new generation of gift-givers across Europe such as Befana, the witch from Italy.

One of the more common myths about the evolution of Santa is that the Coca-Cola Company single-handedly invented his modern-day portrayal. I'm sure the folks at Coke like to hear others perpetuate this myth year after year, knowing that those who tell it probably are reaching for a refreshing beverage while reminiscing about their beloved childhood Christmases:

"It is far too frequently believed that Sundblom's work for Coca-Cola created the familiar red-and-white-clad Santa of the modern era. In fact, the Coke Santa was in no way groundbreaking; illustrators for the Saturday Evening Post such as J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell had already helped fix the Santa in the public's mind."

Santa Claus was not a trademark and as a public domain any company could use his image to promote its products, no matter how incongruous the connection. Bowler writes of ads at the beginning of the 1900's where Santa is shilling rifles:

"No smoke, no noise and perfectly safe in the hands of any boy."

Companies may not have gained any actual sales from employing Santa as pitchman, but they would have gained some positive publicity and goodwill having the jolly old elf as an endorser. Who would doubt the testimony of Santa Claus? Would he lie to you about the safety of firearms in the hands of your child?

I found the chapter about Santa in the movies and in popular songs to be a boring list of titles. This opinion is influenced by my prejudice that I am not a movie person. Bowler listed dozens of silver screen moments featuring Santa Claus, be they from a specifically Christmas movie or not. The section on songs about Santa was slightly more interesting, and the author certainly covered all the crushingly awful Santa songs written in deliberate bad taste. I was disappointed that Bowler didn't write about "Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year" by Tiny Tim, one of my (and John Waters's) favourites.

This book included many black-and-white illustrations showing the evolution of Santa Claus, although the majority of these images were print advertising. I especially liked the first print ads, where Santa didn't look anything like the red-coated rosy-cheeked morbidly obese elf we know him as today.
5.0 out of 5 stars Santa Claus: A Biography Jan. 4 2013
By Bud - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
One of the best descriptions of Santa Claus's historical information I have read, and I know a lot about his history.
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