Saturday, November 29, 2008

Santa Claus: A Biography by Gerry Bowler

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.
I didn't get a chance to read this book before Christmas last year, so I saved it to read at some point this year. Gerry Bowler has tackled the subject of one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. I learned a lot reading it, to be truthful. Dating back to when Santa first appeared and carrying on into the modern era, it looks at the evolution of this jolly fellow and the joyous holiday season that accompanies him. There was a lot that I did not know, or even think of, until I read the words in this book.

The sections of the book cover every aspect of Santa. They are: His Long Gestation and Obscure Birth, His Youth and Character Development, Santa as Advocate, Santa the Adman, Santa the Warrior, Santa at the Movies (and in the Jukebox Too), and Does Santa Have a Future. The first section talks about before there even was a Santa Claus. It was instead Saint Nicholas, who would eventually evolve into the Santa Claus of today. The second section talks about the creation of the characteristics we know of today. Like where the reindeer came from and how he got his look. It also talks about the struggle to have a Santa in a religious world. The next four sections talk about how Santa has been used in the world. He was used as a spokesperson for marches and rallies, has appeared in countless ad campaigns, was used in the war effort as far back as the 19th century, and has had many movies and songs written about him.

One spoiler. This poem played a large part in the creation of Santa as we know him today:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"
Apparently in 2004, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers 'announced the society's twenty-five most-performed Christmas songs of the new millenium:
1. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
5. White Christmas
6. Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
7. I'll be Home for Christmas
8. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
9. Little Drummer Boy
10.Jingle Bell Rock
11.Silver Bells
12.Sleigh Ride
13.Feliz Navidad
14.It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
15.Blue Christmas
16.Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
17.Frosty the Snowman
18.A Holly Jolly Christmas
19.I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
20.It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
21.Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
22.Wonderful Christmastime
23.Carol of the Bells
24.Santa Baby
25.This Christmas

So, what's your favourite Christmas song out of the list? What is your favourite Christmas song not included on the list? For me, it really depends on who is singing. If it is done right, a lot of these songs are great. As for a song not on the list, probably "Christmas Shoes".

That's it for telling you what the book said, all the other magic you will have to discover yourself! A few other discussion type questions, though, are: What is your favourite Christmas movie? And, more seriously, do you think that Santa will survive into the future?

In any case, this was an interesting book and perfect for this time of the year! Thanks to McClelland & Stewart for the gift of this book last year!


  1. My favorite from the list is Little Drummer Boy, but my most favorite carol is O Holy Night.

  2. I was actually surprised O Holy Night wasn't there!

  3. I've always loved The Christmas Song.. (but only by Nat King Cole but I think Josh Gorban can do a might all right with it!)

    And second is Holly Jolly Christmas sung by Burl Ives!

  4. Yeah, I like Holly Jolly Christmas myself. :)


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