Santa Claus: A Biography Hardcover – Nov 15 2005
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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.
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"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."
"[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)
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
combining of religious and pagan customs that produced
this jolly old elf are an enlightening rebirth for Santa.
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.
He observes, "Throughout the Middle Ages, the Christmas season (and we must remember that Christmas has always been a season and not a single day) was always associated with presents..." (Pg. 7) He adds, "what the world lacked for more than a thousand years was the annual appearance of a magical gift-bringer, one who cared particularly about children. Such a figure would appear in the twelfth century in the form of Saint Nicholas." (Pg. 13)
However, in the sixteenth century, "Protestant reformers universally despised the medieval cult of saints... Could Saint Nicholas and his role as the Christmas gift-bringer survive? In most Protestant countries, the answer was no." (Pg. 21) However, he adds that "In many areas of Germany, both Protestant and Catholic, poor Nicholas was elbowed aside for a new gift-bringer, the Christ Child. Martin Luther himself spoke of a peaceful coexistence of the two figures, each giving presents on their respective night." (Pg. 22) But later, "the Christ child, or das Christkindl as he was known in German-speaking lands, was an obvious choice as the new gift-bringer... The celebrations moved accordingly, away from the saint's day in early December to Christmas Eve." (Pg. 24)
He notes that in Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem "'Twas the Night," "Though our hero is referred to as SAINT Nicholas, he has been stripped of his authority as a religious official. He wears no episcopal robes and is not adorned by a halo... he neglects to quiz the little ones on their prayers or catechism. He is, in fact, entirely desacralized." (Pg. 45)
He also observes that "By the 1880s, Santa Claus had a wife, and American magazines were quick to describe her. At first, Mrs. Claus was seen as a valuable help-meet for her busy husband, someone who gladly shouldered not only domestic burdens but also took part in the business end of things. With Santa busy in the workshop or reindeer stables, it was natural that his wife should oversee the baking and candy production..." (Pg. 62) Later, he suggests that "most churchfolk felt that Santa Claus was a role model who could inspire generosity and compassion in children." (Pg. 93) Later, however, he chronicles the characteristics ascribed to Santa which upset Christians. (Pg. 221-222)
But "Soon after his appearance in America, Santa Claus began to feature a merchantile tout. The figure who had recently been described by Clement Clarke Moore as 'a peddler just opening his pack' was a natural choice as salesman... who better to bring together sellers and consumers than Santa Claus?" (Pg. 114)
Although somewhat "light" on the "Saint Nicholas" side, this is a really excellent of the growth of the "Santa Claus" side of the story.