Once a year, my mom pulls a Santa Claus suit — fire engine red, white fur-trimmed, and soft as fleece — out of storage. Then, at our annual Christmas party, we hand it off to one chosen uncle. We quickly train him before the kids scramble to our Christmas tree — be jolly, say “ho, ho, ho,” always smile.
For one night, just by donning a suit and a beard, some regular dude transforms into the jovial manifestation of Christmas spirit.
That’s the power of the suit.
But the suit isn’t all fun and games. It anoints its wearer with an authoritative power to define right and wrong, to invade privacy and to carry out the final judgment — coal or no coal.
In the 1979 film “The Man in the Santa Claus Suit,” an enigmatic costume shop owner rents a Santa Claus suit to three different men. As soon as they slip into their suits, their lives begin to change, and they become more open, loving and morally upright. In “The Santa Clause” series, a curmudgeonly man accidentally kills Santa and is forced to take his place. When he dons the suit, he becomes a kinder, more loving father and husband — and he gains weight, filling in Santa’s characteristic rotund figure.
This shift from stern scrooge to jolly fool is reflected in our representations of Santa through history. While Santa was once depicted as a steely-eyed marshal of morality, somewhere along the way — likely with the 1881 Santa illustration cartoonist Thomas Nast designed for Harper’s Weekly magazine — he became rosy-cheeked, cheerful, and softer around the edges. This modern image became the norm in the 1930s when Coca-Cola chose a jovial Santa as a marketing ploy.
Santa has become the commercialized, saccharine embodiment of wholesome warmth we see today. But as we grow old, jaded and disillusioned, we may realize the Santa of the past reflects the truth more closely than the rosy-cheeked Santa of today.
Santa Claus is everywhere. He knows when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake. He silently watches and judges the every move of children, who are taught that they are under constant surveillance by some authoritative figure, some bastion of morality.
We tell children they “better watch out.” They “better not cry” — or “pout” — because “Santa Claus is coming to town” to force them to subscribe to his moral code and filter out their deviant behavior. Frankly, it’s unnerving.
We use Santa as a threat for children, one that breeds uncritical submission. Behave, we tell them, or Santa won’t be happy. That’s terrifying. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to upset an old man with an army of magical elves.
That brings us to Elf on the Shelf, the great scourge to the peace of mind of any child trying to swipe a cookie from a forbidden jar. These gangly, bright-eyed beings with festive hats are left on kitchen counters, and they watch. They watch the every move of children, scribbling down their misbehavior to report to the man in the suit himself.
When first introduced to these creepy creatures, I saw them as a threat. At a friend’s house, we hid from the elves when stealing cookies before dinner, dodging the beady eyes of the doll like they were surveillance cameras and we were bank robbers of some kind.
With these dolls, children don’t play with them or touch them or drag them along to imaginary worlds. They watch the dolls stare back at them from cabinet tops, blindly submitting themselves to constant surveillance by an unseen power, some NSA-style eye in the sky.
As the German Krampus kidnaps naughty children and the Japanese namahage slashes unruly brats, our Santa watches. Cloaked in a jolly guise, Santa and his elves on shelves trace a dark undercurrent of suspicion, fear and the stern, unforgiving hand of judgment during a time of holiday cheer. And during the time we celebrate Jesus being sent down to save us from our sins, we sow fear within our children for their misdeeds.
And to borrow words from the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by John Frederick, the Santa narrative teaches kids not to be “good for goodness’ sake” but to be good because Santa and his minions are always watching. That entire song, you’ll notice, is a threat.
The Santa suit doesn’t just turn someone from grim to jolly, it gifts someone with power over morality, the right to judge. It’s a powerful suit indeed, and it means we are always being watched by a man who wears authoritative, morality-defining power woven into a cherry red coat.