restricted access Santa Claus: A Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Gerry Bowler. Santa Claus: A Biography McClelland and Stewart. ix, 278. $34.99

As it may for many, Gerry Bowler's (unauthorized?) biography of Santa Claus evoked for me a long-lost childhood memory. Every Christmas Eve, [End Page 299] Santa and an elf would visit my home. Early on, I noticed that Santa and elf alike had balance problems. As I grew, I came to understand that those problems – along with Santa's red nose – resulted from the glass of Christmas cheer that they received at each stop along their route. This was the 1960s, these were my middle-class father's friends/business associates, and in their logic of the season, childhood excitement was of a piece with drunken revelry and socioeconomic networking.

If this anecdote were to appear in Santa Claus: A Biography, it would likely be bowdlerized (bowlerized?) – stripped of its more complicated meanings, such as what it might tell us about the role of Santa Claus in mid-twentieth-century United States social networks. Unrelentingly cheerful, this 'biography' is less a work of history than it is a well-researched historical trifle. Beginning with the visit of the magi to the infant Christ child (which is treated as historical fact), this tale – like the figure it examines – jumps magically across time and space, delivering delightfully anecdotal tales about the evolution of the red-suited gift-giver, from his birth in the Middle East, to his youth as Christian saint and European animist demiurge, to his dotage as a secularized force of Christian charity. In ever-narrowing gyres, it centres gradually on North America (largely excluding Mexico) and on the twentieth century.

That said, Bowler, has done extensive research on the old codger and his antecedents. But this research is rather hidden, appearing in the back of the book as a collection of densely packed notes that are not signalled in the text itself or accompanied by a bibliography. Rather, the notes are organized by chapter and page number and one finds them only if looking. Likewise, in the text itself, Bowler (with a few exceptions) does not tell his reader which social or cultural historian is speaking at those moments when they are anonymously invoked. The result is a more fluid and seamless just-so story in which contradiction and disagreement about the historical record are smoothed over in favour of an evolutionary tale that leads us inevitably towards a present that looks remarkably like the northeastern United States and Canada. From a historical standpoint, this is a shame, as it seems that Bowler has accumulated a significant amount of data, some secondary and some primary, and deployed it in a compelling fashion.

That narrative, though it might not satisfy every social historian, will no doubt please enthusiasts of the season and of Santa. Bowler's prose is fluid and engaging, and if the text seems a bit historically determinative at times, that ensures a narrative trajectory that keeps the reader engaged. In the chapters 'His Long Gestation and Birth' and 'His Youth and Character Development,' Bowler playfully deploys the conceit of reading Santa's fictitious personhood against the multiple sources of his origin. In 'Santa the Adman,' 'Santa the Warrior,' and 'Santa at the Movies,' he considers the uses to which the character has been put in the service of capital and [End Page 300] nationalism. (Here, the paucity of discussion about the uses of Santa in the regulation of class-based behaviours in children and youth might frustrate the cultural historian. Likewise, Bowler's discussion of the Nazi suppression of Santa arising from an antipathy to Christianity, a discussion which simplifies the complex relationship of the National Socialists and different Christian sects and which does not mention the Holocaust at all, is a disturbing reduction for the sake of maintaining a tone of whimsy.) Finally, 'Does Santa Have a Future?' allows the author to join in a counter-assault on the mythical forces of political correctness, which are purportedly waging a carefully co-ordinated war on Christmas and on the family ... and here the relatively harmless biases of the text take a decidedly more polemical (if brief) turn...