Published on December 23rd, 2013 |
by Mark Bou Mansour
Santa’s Story: Politics, Race, and Magic – Pt 1
Santa Claus tends to find himself not just at the center of children’s attention this time of year but also at the center of a range of political debates. This year’s media ho-ho-frenzy is Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s declaration that the ‘real’ Santa Claus is a white man – a declaration she made in reply to Aisha Harris’s Slate article “Santa Claus Should Not be a White Man Anymore”. The internet has been raging since with debate over Harris’s article and Kelly’s comments, with a number of commentators aligning with either Harris or Kelly, and several more commentators questioning the over-all political implications of Santa Claus. We’re going to put Jolly Ol’ Nick in the hot seat as we join this debate by using the works of Roland Barthes to look at how myths like Santa Claus are created by and reinforce bourgeoisie value systems. But then we’re going to take a step back, take a sip of mulled cider and a look at Walter Benjamin’s writings, and talk about why the Santa Claus myth is the last great human tradition, why Santa Claus could be a penguin, and why Santa brings back magic to our world.
With his dimples, how merry and nose like a cherry, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would criticize our gift-giving childhood icon. But the criticisms are prevalent. A straight-forward argument against Santa Claus highlight’s his complicity in fostering materialistic desires and consumption habits in children. In this light, Santa Claus is held as the symbol of a repressive consumption system that dominates the holiday period –for more on the holiday consumption machine check last week’s blog on Marcuse and holiday advertising. This materialism argument often runs in tandem with the arguments from some Christians who regard the Santa Claus myth as a distraction from the purpose of Christmas. Puritans and Calvinists in particular have historically been opposed not just to the figure of Santa Claus but to the celebration of Christmas in general, both of which they see to be not in accordance with their faith.
Yet another argument, similar to that employed by Harris, is that the Santa Claus myth imposes a form of cultural imperialism. In her Slate article, Harris discusses the bewilderment she experienced as a child when confronted with two different Santas. With Santa Clause depicted as black at home in face of the prevalent imagery in media, print, and school depicting Santa Claus as white Harris recalls: “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing’.” Another dimension to the cultural imperialism argument, adopting a more post-colonial approach, not only holds the Santa Claus myth to be a form of inauthentic adoption of Western culture but also an inauthentic cultural form that further integrates non-Western populations into a Western-dominated global economy and consumerist life-style. To get a better understanding of just how the Santa Claus myth functions as a dominant cultural form and how it can impose a value system, we’re going to place our magical hat on Roland Barthes and bring him thumpity thump thump into this debate.
Roland Barthes was a French philosopher and literary theorist whose ideas influenced a wide of range fields. Among these influences, his most referred to are his contributions to the structuralist school of thought and his later contributions, in Anakin Skywalker fashion, to the post-structuralist school of thought. In his Jedi Knight days, Barthes published a series of essays in a French literary magazine that studied how modern myths were created by bourgeoisie value systems. These essays were later published in 1957 as a collection in a book titled Mythologies.
Employing the study of semiology –or the study of signs and language which we touched upon in our examination of the Hunger Games– Barthes shows that myths are signs of a second classification. Signs form part of a three way relationship that allow us to organize and communicate our thoughts. This relationship is comprised of a signifier, such as the word “Christmas tree”, a signified, that is the object itself made of a trunk and branches and decorated in ornaments and lights, and a sign, which is the concept of a Christmas tree which can be tall, or small, pine or spruce, real or plastic. The signifier refers to the signified and out of this relationship the sign is produced, and in return, the sign allows for a relationship between the signifier and the signified to make sense. Signs of the first classification function mostly as denotations. These signs allow us to communicate meaning via denotation so when I say “horse” you think of a four legged and hoofed animal. The sign of a second classification, on the other hand, functions as a connotation. A second classification sign arises from a three-way relationship where the signifier itself is a sign. For example, the Christmas tree sign becomes a signifier which refers to a signified, in this case Christmas Eve, and from it arises the sign of Christmas values and cheer. Thus, when I say “Christmas tree” you think not solely of a decorated pine tree but associate my communication with the spirit of giving, with memories of opening presents beneath the tree on Christmas morning, with the morals of Christmas TV specials, and with the holiday season in general.
Whereas the determination of denotation in first classification signs is straight-forward, the determination of connotation in second classification signs gets tricky. What determines which content will be connoted by a second classification sign? How does a Christmas tree come to connote joy and glee? Barthes argues that it is in the determination of this connotation which we take for granted, or, in other words, in the creation of modern myths, that an idea of society and a set of social values that abide by the ideologies of the ruling class are perpetuated. One example of this would be the connotations of cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes in the early 20th century was associated not just with cool and glamour, but also with healthy living -good for digestion, slimming, cleansing for the lungs, and doctor recommended. Today, cigarettes are often associated with lung cancer. It is easy to see here how certain values were deliberately associated with cigarettes in the 1950s by the bourgeoisie in order to promote the sale of cigarettes. But aside from promoting sales, myths could also impose a political order.
Barthes most famous example of his ideas in action is a front cover of a 1955 Paris March magazine issue which depicts a saluting young black soldier. As a first classification sign, this image denotes a young soldier from France’s colonial armies saluting the French flag. As a second classification sign, as a myth, this cover connotes a positive image of French patriotism and imperialism. When looking at this cover, Barthes explains, “whether naively or not, I see very well what [the cover] signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [soldier] in serving his so-called oppressors” (Barthes, 116). Thus, the myth perpetuated by this magazine cover disguises the harsh and unjust realities of colonialism and racism.
Under the same reasoning, we can see how the Santa Claus myth promotes the current economic system as well as how it can be utilized by commentators like Megyn Kelly to impose racial designation. Through the Santa Claus myth, the commodity, and its purchase and consumption, comes to connote notions of caring, giving, cheer and joy, while disguising the harsh work conditions in factories that produce the gadgets currently lying beneath Christmas trees across the world. Moreover, the resistance from media elite to alter a myth can be understood as a clash between the value system perpetuated by the ruling class and the alternative values connoted by the modifications in the myth. In this sense, a resistance to a black Santa Claus can be seen as a resistance to inclusion based on race, and so a perpetuating of racial segregation.
There you have it then; Santa Claus is a racist and greedy capitalistic puppet master. It seems like the Grinch was right all along. Quick, tear down the lights and throw out the tree. But wait; is there something we’ve failed to see? Let’s take a step back for a minute. In reconsideration, using Barthes analysis limits our perspective because the Santa Claus myth is not a modern myth. Despite the rumors, Santa Claus was not fabricated by a Coca-Cola marketing team. Likewise, Santa Claus has not always been about gifting toys or other materialistic items. It hardly seems logical to blame the consequences of the economic system on Santa. It’s just as ill-judged to blame a history of racism in the US on Santa Claus. And despite Megyn Kelly’s insistence that you cannot change Santa Claus “in the middle of the legacy of the[Santa Claus] story”, Santa Claus has constantly been changing throughout history. Not only has Santa Claus not always been a white man, he hasn’t even always been a human. In our search for ideological underpinnings we’ve looked at Santa Claus as only a product of our time, as a symbol, and in so doing we’ve distorted Jolly Ol’ Nick.
Consequentially, we’ve missed the fact that Santa Claus is really an experience in story-telling, perhaps even the oldest practice of story-telling we have today. Our parents told us the story of Santa Claus when we were kids. And we believed them. Eventually, we will tell the story to our kids. And they will tell it to theirs. This story-telling tradition has been practiced from generation to generation for centuries. Is there then another implication that arises from Santa Claus? Perhaps another understanding we can derive that can help our hearts grow three times in size? Come back tomorrow as we try to reach this answer by asking Walter Benjamin to guide our sleigh.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.
Food for Thought
Jon Stewart reacts to Megyn Kelly’s comments.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus -history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial:
Major works by Roland Barthes
Camera Lucida: Relections on Photography
The Death of the Author
Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.