Monday 24 December 2018

Miracle at 'Is the BBC biased?'

As it's nearly Christmas (and as it's a pet interest of mine)...

Mr. Kringle, in Miracle on 34th Street

This week's Archive on 4 was excellent.

Its title was How Santa Claus Stole Christmas.

Yes, it was partly a reflection of that most time-honoured of Christmas traditions, the annual festive grumble that Christmas has become too commercialised and Americanised - with an added 'very BBC' layer of talk about 'capitalism' - but it was still a great listen, and full of interesting highways and byways.

All credit then to Sir Christopher Frayling. May all his Christmases be white! (Oh no, I've now got Afua Hirsch of The Guardian on Line One, complaining). 

The standard tale about Santa Claus tells us that, once upon a time, at the beginning of the 4th century, in the Roman Empire, there was an early Christian bishop called Nicholas based in the Greek town of Myra (now Demre in Turkey). It wasn't really until the 13th Century though (some 900 years later) that he shot to saintly prominence, becoming associated with all sorts of legends which led to him becoming the patron saint of children, as well as of sailors, pawnbrokers and bankers.

One legend tells of a wicked father who was going to kill his three daughters because they had no dowries, so Nicholas chucked some gold in at their window. Another tells how he rescued three schoolboys who were going to be baked in a pie. (I'm going with the latter story).

6th December then became his Saint's Day, and by the 16th Century people in several European countries celebrated Saint Nicholas's Day by going house to house and giving sweets and nuts. 

One of those countries was what later became known as the Netherlands. And it was Dutch immigrants to New York who brought the festival to America. 

But, the programme contended, it wasn't this that really gave us the Santa Claus we have today.

No, that was mainly down to New York cultural politics in the early 19th Century, and a couple of writers.

And so it begins...

John Pintard

At the time there were plenty of political clubs, frequently based on ethnic groups, and out of one of them a certain John Pintard emerged to found the New-York Historical Society. His ancestors came from the Low Countries and he wanted an emblem for his society and chose St. Nicholas.

And then the wonderful Washington Irving (author of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow") decided to write a mock history of New York in order to make fun of John Pintard and his cult of St. Nicholas. Mr. Irving's satire was a best seller. 

Side fact, not featured on the programme but featured in a favourite book of mine called A Christmas Cornucopia (by Mark Forsyth), which I'll just chuck in gratuitously as it's nearly Christmas: Washington Irving's book was a huge hit in Britain too, and the great satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank provided illustrations for the British edition. Some of his drawings mocked Dutch clothing, particularly their trousers. Irving's fictional antiquarian was one Diedrich Knickerbocker, and because of Mr. Cruikshank's illustrations, the word 'knickerbockers' entered the English language. And, over time, and with a slight change of focus, the word contracted and became another well-known British word, 'knickers'. So from St. Nicholas to knickers. And from there to jokes about Just a Minute's knickerless parsons. 

And then came an anonymous poem (1823), which a theology teacher called Clement Clarke Moore later claimed to have written. (He was a member of the very same New-York Historical Society as John Pintard.) The poem was "A Visit from St. Nicholas", better known as "The Night Before Christmas". (The best known poem 'in the American language'?). It made Sinta Klaas our Santa Claus - the nice, big-boned, fur-wearing guy who comes down our chimneys, delights kids, fills our stocking with gifts, and flies through the air on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer with now-familiar names (though no Rudolf, of course, yet).  One difference is that his Santa smoked a pipe. (Such things, as we know, are frowned upon now.) A second difference is that his Santa was a little elf, whereas ours in a big, fat bloke. (No offence).

A nice Nast-y Santa

Next, during the American Civil War, came the cartoonist and satirist Thomas Nast - the man who first drew our Santa Claus as the fat man with the beard in a red suit. (Curious bonus fact, not mentioned on the programme: He also came up with the elephant symbol for the Republican Party). According to Archive on 4, he derived his vision from (a) the Greek god of wine (because Christmas has always been a bit boozy), (b) an obese corrupt political boss of the day and (c) a notorious slum landlord who wore a big fur jacket. (Blimey!)

That visual image went on developing (and softening) over the following decades, but it was America's best-selling journal, The Saturday Evening Post, that really gave us the Santa we see in stores and on Christmas cards today - and in films like Miracle on 34th Street. And it was the great Norman Rockwell's drawings that massively magnified it.

What did I see Mummy doing?

As for the red-and-white costume? Well, it wasn't Coca Cola for starters. (That's a long-busted myth). It began instead with a mineral water company called the White Rock Medicinal Water Company, whose adverts showed Santa relaxing at home with a drink wearing that very red-and-white costume. And Norman Rockwell then picked that on that and ran with it for decades. But then, in 1931, came the next Big Moment when Coca Cola decided to copy it, as the colours went so well with their own corporate colours. And the rest, as gobby Gary Lineker would probably say, is history.

Meanwhile, from the 1880s onwards, US stores began introducing Santa's grottoes and Winter Wonderlands - though, as the programme said, they were beaten to it by us Brits. Lewis's Bon Marché department store opened its Christmas Fairyland as early as 1879. (Bonus fact, beyond the programme: That was in Liverpool - something that probably merits an exclamation mark. So: That was in Liverpool!)

And it 1897 The New York Sun issued an editorial headlined 'Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus' in response to a girl called Virginia who'd heard that he didn't really exist. (Fake news!). The paper (which ceased printing in 1950) then reprinted it every year. Sir Christopher thought this was the launch pad for films like Miracle on 34th Street and Santa Claus: The Movie, where "it's all about faith". 

Red-nosed Rudy

On to 1939, and enter Santa's ninth reindeer, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, via a Chicago department store called Montgomery Ward. A free promotional pamphlet of an illustrated poem written by their advertising copywriter Robert L. May was handed out to children as they entered the store. It was deliberately written in the same metre as T'was the Night Before Christmas and was, as Sir Christopher put it, a Christmas version of 'The Ugly Duckling'. By Christmas Day 1939 some 2.4 million copies of that promotional pamphlet had been distributed - a figure that went up to 6 million by 1946. Then, a couple of years later, Robert May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song based on it and "it was recorded, reluctantly at first, by the popular singing cowboy Gene Autry". That sold 2.5 million copies in its first year. It's now sold 25 million copies, making it the second best-selling song of all time.

And the best-selling song of all time? (You'll know this already, especially if you like quizzes). Yes, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which first appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, and which - to the surprise of its creators, who never expected it to be a hit - became a phenemonal worldwide hit at the height of the Second World War, spread by Armed Forces Radio. (Incidentally, the film Holiday Inn did indeed inspire the creation of that chain of motels). 

The Christmas movie had been born. Meet Me in St. Louis came next in 1944, bringing us Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and, with them, the commercial potential of the Hollywood Christmas movie had been well and truly clocked by the studios, and films would begin to be deliberately pitched to the holiday season. Sir Christopher wondered if it's any coincidence that box office flops which did badly at holiday time came to be known in the industry as 'turkeys'? 

It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street followed soon after the War, both with supernatural elements and, according to the programme, also with themes of "good capitalism versus bad capitalism". As far as It's a Wonderful Life goes, the programme suggested that it's "taken over from reading Dickens's a Christmas Carol by the fire side" in America. (Probably here too, though I always either watch or read a Christmas Carol version, including the original, every year.)

Clarence and George Osborne

Meanwhile, here in Britain, Anglican archbishops were preaching against the cult of Christmas and, later, British adverts 'went too far'. In 2003, for example. a woman giving birth and screaming in pain while three men (and, later, a previously-hidden audience) looked on in concern led to the pay-off line, "Has Mr Kipling ever directed a nativity play before? No, but he does make exceedingly good cakes." (I love it that YouTube has that).

And in Rome in 1969, Paul Paul VI took the decision to distance the Catholic Church from St. Nicholas/Santa Claus by removing him from the Calendar of Saints, and demoting him from obligatory to voluntary veneration. 

In contrast, in 2005 the mayor of the modern day site of St. Nicholas's old bishopric, Demre in Turkey, took down a bronze statue of the 4th Century saint and replaced it with a large plastic Santa in a red-and-white suit. He said it was more recognisable to foreign tourists.  

Anyhow (as Kirsty Walk might put it), you better watch out. You better not cry. Better not pout. I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. Here's John Sweeney...

I've been reliably informed, incidentally, by ex-Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason that every time a John Sweeney report goes out on Newsnight an angel get his wings. (Or, as Kirsty Walk would doubtless remind me, 'or her wings'.)

Merry Christmas!


  1. Doesn't the modern Santa Claus owe a lot to the old Father Christmas? - the mythical personification of Christmas in England.

    I once saw a musical piece - composer, I can't recall - which included the mythical Father was a bit like one of those Mighty Boosh fantasy scenes.

    I think of Santa Sweeney as a kind of anti-Claus, going from home to home taking presents out of children's hands while shouting in bizarre, scary fashion: "You can't have that - it's made in Bulgaria and YOU don't want mass immigration, so you can't have it!!! If you want things made abroad you have to accept unlimited migration and no borders!!!!! I don't care if you're crying!!!!!!!! And, you'll have to hand over that Teddy Bear because once you leave the EU you'll be TOO POOR to keep it!!!!!!!!!".

    "Mummy that man's scaring me". "Yes, I know,'s his job. He works for the BBC."

  2. Apropos Rudolph, did you watch "Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas" ?


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