In France, the Christmas holidays of 1951 were marked by a controversy that seems to have deeply affected the press and the general public, and which introduced a rare sour note into the usually joyous atmosphere of that time of year. For several months the church authorities, speaking through certain prelates, had been expressing their disapproval of the growing importance that families and merchants were granting to the figure of Santa Claus. They denounced a worrisome “paganization” of the Feast of the Nativity, which turned thoughts away from the properly Christian meaning of the celebration, in favor of a myth without religious value. These attacks increased as Christmas approached. More discreetly no doubt, but just as firmly, the Protestant churches joined their voices to that of the Catholic Church. Letters from readers and articles in newspapers, from various perspectives but generally hostile to the church’s position, have already attested to the interest sparked by that affair. It reached a climax on December 24 at an event that the correspondent for France-Soir reported in the following words:
In front of the children of the church’s boys and girls clubs Santa Claus was burned on the square outside the cathedral of Dijon Dijon, December 24 (dispatch France-Soir
Santa Claus was hanged yesterday afternoon from the gates of the cathedral of Dijon and publicly burned on the parvis. That spectacular execution unfolded in the presence of hundreds of children from the church’s boys and girls clubs. The decision was made with the agreement of the clergy, who condemned Santa Claus as a usurper and a heretic. He was accused of paganizing the Christmas holiday and of installing himself like a cuckoo in another bird’s nest, taking up more and more space. He is reproached especially for having introduced himself into all the public schools, from which the nativity scene is scrupulously banned.
Sunday at three o’clock P.M., the unfortunate white-bearded fellow, like many innocents, paid for a sin for which those who will applaud his execution are guilty. The fire set his beard ablaze, and he vanished in the smoke.
A press release was issued after the execution. Here is the gist:
Representing all Christian homes in the parish who wish to fight lies, two hundred and fifty children who had gathered in front of the main door of the cathedral of Dijon burned Santa Claus.
This was not entertainment but a symbolic gesture. Santa Claus was sacrificed as a burnt offering. If the truth be known, lies cannot awaken religious feelings in the child and are by no means a method of education. Let others say and write what they like; let them see Father Christmas as a counterweight to Father Flog
As for those of us who are Christians, the Christmas holiday must remain the anniversary of the birth of the Savior.
The execution of Santa Claus on the square outside the cathedral was judged in many different ways by the general population and elicited sharp comments even from Catholics.
Furthermore, that inopportune event may well have consequences unforeseen by its organizers.
The affair has divided the city into two camps.
Dijon is awaiting the resurrection of Santa Claus, murdered yesterday on the cathedral parvis. At six o’clock tonight, he will rise from the dead at city hall. An official press release announced that, like every other year, Santa Claus was asking the children of Dijon to come to Place de la Libération, and that he would speak to them from the rooftop of city hall, where he will make his way under the spotlights.
The canon Kir, deputy and mayor of Dijon, is said to have refrained from choosing sides in this delicate affair.
The same day, Santa Claus’s fate was at the top of the news: not a single newspaper failed to comment on the incident, some—such as France-Soir, the largest-circulation newspaper in France—even went so far as to devote their editorial to it. In general, the attitude of the Dijon clergy met with disapproval; so much so, it seems, that the religious authorities judged it wise to beat a retreat or, at the very least, to observe a discreet silence. It is said, however, that our state ministers are divided on the question. The tone of most of the articles is one of tactful sentimentality: it is so nice to believe in Santa Claus, it doesn’t do anyone any harm, children derive great satisfaction from it and store up delightful memories for their adult years, and so on. But the articles are evading the question rather than responding to it: the issue is not to explain why children are fond of Santa Claus but rather why adults were impelled to invent him. In any event, these reactions are so generally shared that there can be no doubt that public opinion and the church are at odds on this point. Despite the inconsequentiality of the incident, that discord is important because a gradual reconciliation has been occurring in France since the end of the Occupation, between the public, unbelievers for the most part, and religion. The accession to government councils by a political party as religiously oriented as the Mouvement Républicain Populaire is clearly evidence of that. The traditional anticlerical wing has seized the unhoped-for opportunity offered them: it is that group, in Dijon and elsewhere, that suddenly made itself the protector of our threatened Santa Claus. What a paradox: Santa Claus as symbol of irreligion! In this instance, it is as if the church were adopting a critical attitude, eagerly pursuing frankness and truth, even as the rationalists have become the guardians of superstition. That apparent reversal of roles is sufficient to suggest that this innocent affair conceals more profound realities. We have before us a symptomatic manifestation of a very rapid evolution in mores and beliefs, in France in the first place, but no doubt elsewhere as well. It is not every day that the ethnologist finds the occasion to observe in his own society the sudden growth of a rite and even of a cult; to seek its causes and to study its impact on the other forms of religious life; and finally, to try to understand to what general transformations, mental and social, these visible manifestations are linked. The church, with its wealth of traditional experience in these matters, was not wrong about these manifestations, at least insofar as it attributed a significant value to them.
For about the last three years, ever since economic activity has returned almost to normal, the celebration of Christmas in France has taken on a magnitude unknown before the war. It is certain that this development, both in its material importance and in the forms it takes, is a direct result of the influence and prestige of the United States of America. Large fir trees, illuminated at night, have been put up at intersections and on the main avenues; fancy Christmas wrapping paper has gone on sale, as have greeting cards with pictures on them, accompanied by the practice of displaying them on the recipient’s mantel during the crucial week; the Salvation Army hangs its kettles on squares and in the streets, soliciting contributions; and in department stores, individuals dressed up as Santa Claus listen to children’s pleas. All these practices, which even a few years ago appeared puerile and odd to French people visiting the United States—some of the most obvious signs of the fundamental incompatibility between our two mentalities—have taken root and become acclimatized in France with an ease and ubiquity that are a lesson for the historian of civilization to ponder.
In that realm and in others, we are witnessing an instance of diffusion on a vast scale, not very different no doubt from those archaic phenomena we were accustomed to study, based on the remote examples of the fire piston or the outrigger canoe. But it is both easier and more difficult to think rationally about events that unfold before our eyes and for which our own society is the theater. Easier, because the continuity of experience is maintained with all its moments and each of its nuances; more difficult as well, because it is on such occasions, only too rare, that one realizes the extreme complexity of even the most tenuous social transformations; and because the apparent reasons we attribute to events in which we are actors are very different from the real causes that assign us a role in them.
It would be too simple, then, to explain the development of the Christmas celebration in France solely in terms of the influence of the United States. Borrowings exist, but the reasons for their existence are only very incompletely contained within them. Let me give a quick list of the obvious ones: there are now more Americans living in France, and they celebrate Christmas in their accustomed manner; films, digests, and American novels, and also some reports in the major newspapers have made American customs better known here, and they enjoy the prestige attached to the military and economic might of the United States; it is also not impossible that the Marshall Plan directly or indirectly favored the import of a few commodities associated with Christmas rituals. But all these factors are inadequate to explain the phenomenon. Customs imported from the United States are taking root even among strata of the population that are unaware of where these customs originated; and the working classes, for whom the Communist influence would seem to discredit anything bearing the label “Made in USA,” are adopting them as readily as the others. In addition to diffusion alone, therefore, we must mention the important process that Alfred Kroeber—the first to identify it—called “stimulus diffusion.” In such cases, the imported practice is not assimilated but rather plays the role of a catalyst; that is, by its mere presence, it gives rise to an analogous practice that was already present in its potential state in the secondary environment. Let me illustrate this point with an example directly touching on the subject at hand. The paper manufacturer who goes to the United States at the invitation of his American colleagues or on a business trip observes that special paper is produced there for Christmas wrappings. He borrows the idea: that is a diffusion phenomenon. The Parisian housewife goes to her neighborhood stationer’s to buy the paper she needs to wrap her presents and, in the display window, sees paper that is prettier and better made than that with which she had formerly made do. She doesn’t know a thing about the American custom, but that paper satisfies an aesthetic requirement and expresses an emotional inclination that was already present but had previously had no means of expression. In purchasing the paper, she (unlike the manufacturer) is not borrowing a foreign custom directly, but that custom, once acknowledged, leads her to adopt an identical one.
Furthermore, it must not be forgotten that even before the war, the celebration of Christmas was becoming more elaborate in France and throughout Europe. That development was linked in the first place to a gradual improvement in the standard of living, but it also had less obvious causes. Christmas in the form we know it is essentially a modern celebration, despite its many seemingly archaic characteristics. The use of mistletoe is not, at least not immediately, a druid survival, since it appears to have come back into fashion during the Middle Ages. Christmas trees are not mentioned anywhere prior to their appearance in certain seventeenth-century German texts. They reached England in the eighteenth century, France only in the nineteenth. In his dictionary, Émile Littré does not seem to have been well acquainted with them, or rather, they take a form there rather different from the one familiar to us. In the entry “Noël,” he defines sapin de Noël
as referring “in some countries to a fir or holly branch decorated in various ways, especially with candy and toys to give to children, who look forward to it with excitement.” The diversity of names given to the personage whose role is to distribute the toys—“Father Christmas,” “Saint Nicholas,” “Santa Claus”—also shows that he is the product of a phenomenon of convergence and not an ancient prototype preserved everywhere.
But modern developments invent nothing: they simply recompose from bits and pieces an old celebration whose importance is never completely forgotten. For Littré, the Christmas tree is an almost exotic institution; but significantly, Chéruel notes in his Dictionnaire historique des institutions, moeurs et coutumes de la France (Historical Dictionary of Institutions, Mores, and Customs of France)—a reworking, as the author himself admits, of Sainte-Palaye’s dictionary of national antiquities (1697–1781)—“Christmas…was for several centuries, and until recently [my emphasis], an occasion for family festivities.” A description follows of Christmas festivities in the thirteenth century, which appear to have been in every way equal to our own. We are thus in the presence of a ritual whose importance has fluctuated a great deal over history, with peaks and valleys. The American form is only the most modern of these incarnations.
Incidentally, these brief comments suffice to show how wary we must be, in dealing with problems of this kind, about giving overly simplistic explanations by automatically appealing to “vestiges” and “survivals.” If there had never been a cult of trees in prehistoric times, one that has continued in various folk customs, modern Europe would undoubtedly not have “invented” the Christmas tree. And, as I demonstrated above, it is actually a recent invention. Yet that invention did not arise out of nowhere. Other medieval customs are perfectly well attested: the Yule log (which in Paris became a cake, the bÛche de Noël
) made of a trunk big enough to burn all night long; Christmas candles, large enough to achieve the same result; and the decoration of buildings with verdant branches of ivy, holly, and fir (dating back to the Roman Saturnalia, to which I shall return). Finally, and completely unrelated to Christmas, the romances of the knights of the Round Table speak of a supernatural tree completely covered in lights. In that context, the Christmas tree appears to be a syncretic solution—that is, one that concentrates in a single object requirements previously fulfilled piecemeal: magic tree, fire, long-lasting light, evergreens. By contrast, Santa Claus in his present form is a modern creation; even more recent is the belief that he lives at the North Pole, which is to say, in Greenland, and travels in a sled hitched to a team of reindeer. (Greenland being a Danish possession, that belief has obliged Denmark to maintain a special post office to reply to letters from children all over the world.) It is said that this aspect of the legend developed for the most part during World War II, when U.S. troops were stationed in Iceland and Greenland. And yet the reindeer are not there by chance: English documents dating to the Renaissance mention reindeer trophies paraded about during Christmas dances, prior to any belief in Santa Claus and a fortiori to the formation of his legend.
Very old elements are thus shuffled and reshuffled, new ones introduced; original forms are discovered for perpetuating, transforming, or reviving ancient practices. There is nothing specifically new about what could be called, no pun intended, the rebirth of Christmas. Why, then, does it stir such emotions, and why does some of the animosity focus on the figure of Santa Claus?
Santa Claus is dressed in scarlet; he is a king. His white beard, his furs and boots, and the sled on which he travels evoke winter. He is called “Father Christmas” and is an old man: he therefore incarnates the authority of the elders in its benevolent form. All that is fairly clear, but where should he be placed within religious typology? He is not a mythical being, since there is no myth that accounts for his origin and functions; and he is not a legendary figure, because no quasi-historical narrative is attached to him. In fact, that supernatural and immutable being, eternally fixed in form and defined by a single function and a periodic return, belongs rather to the family of deities. He is worshiped by children at certain times of the year, through letters and supplications; he rewards those who are nice and withholds from those who are naughty. He is the god of an age cohort in our society (an age cohort, in fact, that can be adequately defined by the belief in Santa Claus), and the only difference between Santa Claus and a genuine god is that adults do not believe in him, though they encourage their children to believe and sustain that belief by means of a large number of deceptions.
Thus Santa Claus is in the first place the expression of the differential status between small children on the one hand, adolescents and adults on the other. In that respect, he is linked to a vast set of beliefs and practices that ethnologists have studied in most societies, namely, rites of passage and initiation. There are few human groups in which, in one form or another, children (and sometimes also women) are not excluded from the society of men by virtue of their ignorance of certain mysteries or their belief—carefully nurtured—in a few illusions that the adults reserve the right to unveil at the opportune moment, thus sanctioning the aggregation of the younger generation to their own. Sometimes these rites bear an astonishing resemblance to those we are examining at the moment. How can we not be struck, for example, by the similarity between Santa Claus and the kachinas of Native Americans in the southwestern United States? These costumed and masked figures incarnate gods and ancestors; they return periodically to visit the village, to dance and to punish or reward the children, since arrangements are made to ensure that the children will not recognize their parents or loved ones in their traditional disguises. Santa Claus certainly belongs to the same family, though secondary players are now relegated to the background: the bogeyman, Father Flog, and so on. It is extremely significant that the same child-rearing principles that currently proscribe calling on these punitive “kachinas” have led to the glorification of the benevolent figure of Santa Claus. That is, Santa Claus has not been included in the same condemnation, as the development of positive and rationalist thought might have led us to expect. In that regard, there has been no rationalization of child-rearing methods, since Santa Claus is no more “rational” than Father Flog (the church is right on that point). Rather, we are witnessing a displacement of the myth, and that is what needs to be explained.
It is quite certain that rites and myths of initiation have a practical function in human societies: they help elders keep youngsters well-behaved and obedient. Throughout the year, we invoke Santa Claus to remind children that his generosity will be meted out on the basis of how good they are. And the periodic nature of the distribution of gifts serves the purpose of keeping children’s demands in check, reducing to a brief period the time when they actually have the right to demand gifts. But that simple statement is sufficient to shatter the traditional parameters of the utilitarian explanation. For how is it that children have rights and that these rights are imposed so imperiously on adults that they are obliged to elaborate a costly and complicated mythology and ritual in order to contain them? Right away we see that the belief in Santa Claus is not only a hoax playfully inflicted on children by adults; to a very great extent, it is the result of a very expensive transaction between the two generations. The ritual as a whole is like the green plants—fir, holly, ivy, mistletoe—with which we decorate our homes. Although they are now a gratuitous luxury, they were once, in a few regions at least, the object of an exchange between two classes of the population. In England on C...