Why pop culture fixates on the incarcerated Claus.
Let me tell you something you already know: our culture longs to incapacitate Santa. At Christmastime, as the tired “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” apparatus lurches to serve up the same perverse images of twinkling, Old World pageantry, we dream of the captured Santa, the deposed king, thwarted by his own bumbling jollity into reckoning with his parochialism.
Santa represents a tradition at its breaking point. He’s the relic of a broken Eurocentric past, held over by the glad-handing rearguard in smoky backroom deals. Everywhere you look, you marvel at how brittle his grip is on power. You can feel it in the decorations, the imperious gimlet-eyed nutcrackers and gaudy wreaths, the prickly holly bushes with their poisonous berries, the wantonly felled firs, the long wasteful chains of eco-unfriendly incandescent lights. You can smell it on nog-breathed mall Santas, their faces glistening with sweat, their hours punishingly long, the ink still wet on their International University of Santa Claus diplomas. Santa is ripe for abduction—Santa wants to be abducted. This is why pop culture is teeming with images in which he’s out of commission.
The culture has indulged fantasies of the neutralized Saint Nick since the early twentieth century, if not earlier. In 1904, L. Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame, published “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” a short story whose depiction of Santa’s apprehension—by generic “Daemons,” in this case—remains the captured Claus urtext:
Suddenly a strange thing happened: a rope shot through the moonlight and a big noose that was in the end of it settled over the arms and body of Santa Claus and drew tight. Before he could resist or even cry out he was jerked from the seat of the sleigh and tumbled head foremost into a snowbank, while the reindeer rushed onward with the load of toys and carried it quickly out of sight and sound.
Such a surprising experience confused old Santa for a moment, and when he had collected his senses he found that the wicked Daemons had pulled him from the snowdrift and bound him tightly with many coils of the stout rope. And then they carried the kidnapped Santa Claus away to their mountain, where they thrust the prisoner into a secret cave and chained him to the rocky wall so that he could not escape.
There’s a not unsexy whiff of BDSM to Santa’s capture here. One wonders what those chains and tight coils of stout rope did to the old man’s libido—or if, suddenly divested of the power he’d known for centuries, he wasn’t at least slightly aroused by the prospect of submission there against that rocky wall.
Almost a century later, in 1993, Tim Burton would tease out the bondage in Baum’s story. Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas sees three pale-faced hellions capture Santa and stuff him into some kind of HVAC pipe. As his eyes roll back in his head, they unleash a fusillade of blows to his behind: one of them prods him with a pitchfork, another smacks him with a broom, and a third takes a plunger to his anus. All of this is mere prelude to Santa’s mistreatment at the hands of Oogie Boogie, a burlap-sack bogeyman with a gambling problem who tosses dice at Claus’s head, straps him down before a firing squad, and hangs him from a meat hook.
These images address the latent erotics of the captured Santa. He is, after all, the ultimate Daddy. Gift giving is his raison d’etre. His naughty and nice lists—so often played for titillation, as they indicate an authoritarian, Manichaean control freak—practically cry out for a turning of the tables. It’s high time that Santa submit. He needs a good whipping by a leather-corseted Mrs. Claus—or by you and me.
If you’re reluctant to endorse such fetishism, consider instead the big picture: Baum’s story came in 1904, when a glut of industrial advances had rendered Santa’s magic increasingly prosaic, if not redundant. The automation of the postwar era only accelerated his decline, and with it the appeal of his captivity. When you consider the enormity and longevity of the Santa myth, what finally chafes is how feasible the whole thing is. His is a supernaturalism predicated on the timely delivery of consumer goods; his feats, were they not shrouded in secrecy and white fur trim, would seem almost ordinary. UPS was founded in 1907, just three years after Baum published “A Kidnapped Santa Claus.” And today, when Amazon has just completed its first fully automated drone delivery, a being like Santa—this … old white man, this corpulent European artisan trotting the globe in a red velour tracksuit—hardly rates. The reality of freight, with its shipping notifications and hassle-free returns, is always threatening to outpace him.
That’s not to say he’s going down without a fight. Santa’s power reposes on his reliability, his indefatigable production. Santa is too big to fail. He’s leveraged to the hilt. He has infrastructure: furtive workshops, arguably fueled by slave labor, working around the clock to pump out product. (You would be jolly, too, if you didn’t have to pay property taxes, abide by international treaties, or give your employees health insurance.) He has logistics: a global supply chain that keeps those “workshops” equipped and well-maintained. And he has innovation: if the lore is to be believed and it’s really just him out there on Christmas Eve, his sleigh is going some 6,650,807 miles per hour. You can bet he patented that shit.
And so we look for flaws in his model. In the same way that we track UPS packages only for fear that something will impede their arrival, on Christmas Eve we load the NORAD Santa Tracker with the perverse hope that Santa has gone off the grid—that his overburdened sled has been torn out of the sky by a North Korean antiaircraft gun. Or else he’s suffered some internal failure, some breakdown in Santaphysics that sends him plunging into the black abyss of the moonlit ocean, his reindeer descending with such grace that the water’s surface is barely disturbed as they enter antlers first.
An iconic 1996 M&Ms commercial, so popular that it’s still in heavy rotation more than twenty years later, finds Santa encountering Red and Yellow, the two chatty anthropomorphic candies who for some reason want America to eat more M&Ms, even though they are M&Ms. They’re just as surprised to see Claus as he is them. Red faints; Santa faints. “Uh, Santa?” Yellow asks. But there’s no mistaking it: the old man is fallen. The commercial ends there, inviting us to imagine Yellow—hapless and peanut-centered—as he searches Santa’s pockets, maybe hog-ties him for good measure, and then scrabbles up the chimney to joyride in the sleigh, triggering DEFCON 1 at Santa’s North Pole HQ, where the top-brass nutcrackers dispatch an elite cadre of black-ops elves in festive sweaters to liquidate Yellow. But who cares? The M&M has done it: he’s brought the Big Guy down.
The Santa Clause, the 1994 Tim Allen vehicle, actually boasts such an elite elf squadron (E.L.F.S., outfitted with laser tinsel). No movie has riffed more chillingly on our ideas of the contemporary Santa, lawyered up and clinging to the status quo. Clause goes so far as to suggest that Santa has a contingency plan in the event of his detainment—he knows we’re after him. When Allen’s character accidentally spooks Santa into falling off the roof, the old man leaves behind a card instructing anyone who finds him to put on the suit and head to the roof: “The reindeer will know what to do.” Santa’s body up and disappears after that, leaving those vacant, Big and Tall–shop trousers to fill. In its way, it’s the most terrifying vision of the Santa bureaucracy: there is no death, there is no workers’ comp. Unless Allen refrains from putting on the costume (and the movie never offers a compelling explanation for his willingness to climb into a perfect stranger’s big red pants), the machine cannot be broken.
These examples—oh, and let’s not forget the abysmal Fred Claus (2007), in which Vince Vaughn, playing Santa’s rowdy brother, unwittingly injures Saint Nick’s back—raise the question of our guilt. We feel bad about wanting to see Santa fall. It would be better if it just, you know, happened. Unless you’re an outright villain, it’s considered poor form to lie in ambush for Santa. To perch by the fireplace, for instance, waiting to tranquilize him with a dart to his ample, velvet-clad buttocks—this would be wrong. To lace his milk and cookies with barbiturates, to booby-trap the tree with some kind of massive bell jar, even just to keep your chimney flue closed: it’s just not sporting. You have to come by your quarry honestly, stumbling into some sort of oopsy-daisy holiday mishap. This is a saint you’re trying to capture, after all: you need plausible deniability.
Sometimes, though, you can just kick back and let the justice system do your work for you. In 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, most famously, Kris Kringle is a victim of American institutions. He lives in a Manhattan nursing home and works at Macy’s, where he’s such a bulwark of goodwill and joie de vivre that a psychologist has no choice but to deem him mentally unsound. He’s confined to the Bellevue Hospital psych ward. Likewise, both Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) and Get Santa (2014) see to it that Claus is put behind bars. See that? Joe Homeowner doesn’t even have to get his hands dirty.
A 1993 piece from the London Review of Books, Wendy Doniger’s “Hang Santa,” quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss, who found much more haunting evidence of anti-Santa feeling in midcentury France:
On 24 December 1951, Father Christmas was hanged in Dijon Cathedral and, in the presence of several hundred Sunday School children, publicly burnt (they set fire to his beard) in the precinct. The clergy had condemned him as a usurper and heretic who had “paganized” the Christmas festival, installing himself at its center “like a cuckoo in the nest.”
Ironically, a couple decades later the “pagan” Santa would come to stand—in the secular American imagination, anyway—as just the opposite of a usurper. In 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus, Saint Nick lives as a reminder of the true Christian spirit of Christmas in an age that insists on forgetting it. When he wakes up after Thanksgiving with a cold, he thinks, Well, fuck it, no one cares about peace and joy anyway, I’m staying home. Two elves, Jingle and Jangle, set off to prove that people still believe in Claus, and with him all of Christmas: the pagan and Christ are conflated.
This stereotype—the exhausted, enervated Claus, ready to throw in the towel—exists as a compelling subgenre of the captured Santa. He is, and seemingly always has been, very old, and one might reasonably suspect that he could carry out his saintly duties ad nauseam. But it isn’t so. Both Mr. St. Nick (Kelsey Grammer, 2002) and Call Me Claus (Whoopi Goldberg, 2001), in addition to the aforementioned Ernest Saves Christmas and The Santa Clause, revolve around the search for a replacement Santa, with the original having grown too depleted from his centuries of service. (There’s probably also a vitamin D deficiency at work here—I doubt Claus makes use of a sunlamp.) Even when Santa isn’t captured, in other words, he’s still coming to the end of the line, half in love with easeful Death.
We might well ask what loss would attend his dying. It’s not as if our communities would suffer. Santa flatly refuses to be “one of us,” to experience the suffering of the world he pretends to better through his material largesse. He keeps to the forbidding isolation of his frigid North Pole hideaway, except when he deigns to come “to town”—an annual moral assessment of the society he chooses to live apart from—in anticipation of which we’re told to “watch out,” as if we should fear his judgment. But we are many; he is one. He showers us with gifts as a kind of noblesse oblige, as if this could exempt him from the fantasies of regicide that follow everyone in power. Children, who ostensibly stand to gain the most from Santa, are expressly forbidden to lay eyes on him. When such a premium is placed on the mere act of apprehension, you can understand the temptation to do one better: to lay hands on the crusty old codger, to hold him up to your countrymen as the ultimate bounty.
It must be said that there’s a more workmanlike reason behind all these Santa abductions. They solve a narrative problem that plagues many Christmas stories: how to find a way to focus on the wavering fortunes of an everyman instead of a patently boring saint. A lumpen do-gooder—especially one whose catchphrase involves repeatedly bellowing the same blunt monosyllable that men exchange when they squeeze past one another in narrow hallways—doesn’t lend himself to good storytelling. In this sense, Santa has always been his own impediment: so doggedly at the center of his universe that he can’t show us who he really is. He has a messaging problem. And so, by extension, does Christmas itself. From Doniger’s essay again:
Lévi-Strauss suggests that social tensions are historically built into Christmas, from the Roman Saturnalia and the medieval Christmas, both of which ‘had two syncretic and opposite traits … heightened solidarity and exaggerated antagonism’ … Tensions are further exacerbated as siblings grow apart, especially when some move up the social scale while others do not, or the family is exponentially fragmented by divorce. Parents, children and siblings who shun one another for 364 days of the year (often with good reason) are suddenly expected to be full of joy in each other’s company. Doors are slammed, and tears are shed. ‘Real violence is not uncommon,’ as Barbara Bodenhorn points out … Even within a single traditional family, Christmas is problematic, precisely because it is not supposed to be problematic.
Small wonder, then, that research from Pew has revealed that record numbers of parents are forgoing the Santa myth altogether, refusing to induct their children into the realm of torment and Schadenfreude that comes with acknowledging his Christmas Eve visits. Believe in him as a child and you’ll spend the rest of your days, pop culture suggests, wanting to disturb his mechanics, disrupt his industry, and defang his authority: yearning to take his mantle of charity upon ourselves as a community, where it belongs.
L. Frank Baum’s original story ends with a bit of realpolitik from Santa’s captors: “Realizing that while the children’s saint had so many powerful friends it was folly to oppose him,” Baum writes, “the Daemons never again attempted to interfere with his journeys on Christmas Eve.” Santa’s powerful friends are fewer by the year, while those who hope—tacitly, subliminally—to see him fall are ever stronger in number. This could be the year the Daemons give it another go.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.