The tireless campaigner for kids
I was discussing the commissioning of this piece with my editor.
“He’s a scary old groper,” she said.
“HE IS NOT,” I replied.
“One of the four Santas in Hamley’s circa 1986 when I was an elf certainly was,” she said.
Oh dear, oh dear. Where to begin? Department store Santas are not real. One would have thought the fact that there were four of them in one store alone might have been a tip-off. There is only one Santa, and he is kept very busy in the run-up to Christmas, January excepted, and by the time December comes round he is absolutely rushed off his feet supervising the Christmas Toy Workshops, culminating in a mad dash around the globe to deliver toys to all the good girls and boys on the night of the 24th and in the small hours of the 25th. (Although he has been known to make incognito appearances at Harrods in London and Macy’s in New York City. On each occasion he has turned up, his behaviour has been beyond reproach.)
So I would suggest that the question of Santa’s behaviour is a distraction. The thing to focus on is the behaviour of the children. It used to be the case that bad boys and girls received nothing but a lump of coal in their stockings; but this is a custom now much more honoured in the breach than the observance. These days, juvenile delinquency has to reach quite catastrophic levels – say, anything from arson upwards – before the ultimate Christmas sanction is used; and usually, if there is even the slightest of mitigating circumstances, this punishment is not considered acceptable.
There are numerous reasons for this, and the definitive work on the subject is Rudolph Rotenase’s The End of Coal: Moral Shaming and Carboniferous Punishment in Juvenile Christmas Stockings, 1945–2005 (Princeton, 2007). The timespan is very carefully chosen: from 1939 to 1945, all coal was needed for the war effort, thus skewing the data; before 1939, records are patchy and unreliable. But there are useful comparisons between the state of affairs from 1945 to the end of rationing in 1954, and then afterwards. The cut-off date of 2005, though, means a new edition of the book is called for; by the time you have finished this article, I think you will understand why.
Rotenase’s thesis is bold but simple. There are different factors. The first was the post-war feeling that there had been enough suffering: children who had been evacuated, or whose homes had been destroyed, or who had lost parents, were cut a lot more slack than hitherto. Then there was the Great Smog of 1952, followed by the Clean Air Act of 1956: in urban areas at least, coal became something of a taboo. (Rotenase includes a fascinating appendix about the practice in rural Scotland: there, coal fires are common, even to this day, and in Presbyterian areas children would be given a lump of coal for Christmas whether they’d been good or bad.) And the third factor was simply that households didn’t want to mess their houses up with coal dust.
The time frame of Rotenase’s book allows him only to begin to address another question. As he puts it: “There is also an emergent factor, related, in a way, to the immediate post-war consensus, but arriving much later: the general feeling that society should be more caring, inclusive, and sensitive to the feelings of the vulnerable and the oppressed.” You can, with the benefit of hindsight, see where he’s going here: he is describing, hesitantly, the beginnings of “woke” culture.
This is too much for some commentators, as you can imagine. The locus classicus for foaming outrage about this is, as you would expect, Brendan O’Neill’s essay Our Prisons Are Bursting Because Not Enough Children Were Given Lumps of Coal at Christmas (Spiked Online, 2019). As with almost all O’Neill’s lucubrations, there’s no point in quoting from it: all you need to know is in the title.
But the thing about Father Christmas is that he is jolly, and jolly people resist the idea of punishment. (This raises the question of why he delivered so many lumps of coal to bad boys and girls before the war, but, as I have said, the data is sketchy.) That said, those of you who are familiar with Raymond Briggs’ 1973 work Father Christmas will remember that it depicts him as distinctly grumpy. I had a Zoom call with Santa earlier this month and we touched on many issues, including this one.
“Oy,” he says. (Sometimes he affects the Yiddish expressions, which is charming, but I never got to the bottom of that.) “You have to bear in mind that this was a bad time for me. Raymond Briggs came up here with his sketchbooks and his notebooks, always getting under my feet. Plus, it was the early Seventies, and do you remember what a time that was? Industrial unrest everywhere, popular culture in the doldrums. The Beatles had split up two years earlier, and that put a huge dent in the general mood, let me tell you. I argued until I was blue in the face with the BBC to make sure they put on a Beatles film every Christmas. That helped. Then again, I suppose it’s just as well Briggs didn’t come here later, say in 1979. You know who I’m talking about.” His face darkened. “Thatcher. If there was anyone who embodied the opposite of the Christmas Spirit, it was her. If Briggs had come round to visit me while she was prime minister, he’d have made the 1972 version of me look like a ray of sunshine. But I’ll tell you what the most accurate recent portrayal of me in popular culture is. Elf. There’s a fair amount of artistic licence in the actual running of the business, but on the whole it gets things bang on the nose.”
And how often, these days, does he deliver lumps of coal to children whose behaviour has been sub-optimal?
“That’s privileged commercial information,” he says, but there is a twinkle in his eye. “But you tell me: when was the last time you heard of a child getting a lump of coal in their stockings? Even Jimmy Higgins from Liverpool got a PS5 last year, and he’s a bloody nightmare.”
Finally, I asked him about his outing in the recent ad for Posten Norge (image above), the Norwegian postal service. “I tell you, not only is it a weight off my mind, there’s a part of me that wonders why people didn’t pick up on it sooner. That Briggs book probably muddied the waters, but the 1970s was a different era. In those days … well, people assumed that gay men looked rather different to me. I suppose the usual suspects are going to have a meltdown about this, but they love their meltdowns, don’t they? They can look on it as an early Christmas present. Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be getting on. It is December, after all.”
So there you have it. Santa: tireless, dedicated, and not nearly as judgmental as some people think he used to be. In fact: an all-round mensch.
Nick Lezard was a book reviewer for the Guardian for 25 years and writes the New Statesman’s “Down and Out” column