One of my favorite quotes might need some explaining. “The Fourth of July is not now, nor has it ever been, what it used to be.” If you get it, move on to the next paragraph. If not, it’s another way of saying that memory is generative. Imagine being 9 years old. 4th of July is a magical time of hotdogs, baseball, fireworks, camping, cookouts, and it seems like nothing could make that holiday better. The truth is, there were also social evils in the world, unemployment, crime; you just did not know about it. Some people hated Independence Day with an undying passion, perhaps hated America. But over the years, you remember how great it was, and any problems you were aware of at the time have vanished from your memories. When you hear someone say “The 4th of July is not what it used to be,” they’re right. It’s not. And it never was what they remember.
Christmas is very much the same way. Perhaps you remember there being peace on earth, but your parents, teachers, multiple store clerks, etc. all dealt with the same stress you’re going through now. The “good old days” were not that much different than these present days. The difference is you; and me. It’s our collective conscience that remembers everything being so much better in a far off time. Take Santa Claus for example.
One might watch a few t.v. commercials this Christmas season, and note how Santa is hawking cars for the local dealership, or riding through the snow on a Norelco shaver. “Santa Claus has sold out. He’s gone commercial,” one might quip. Has he? Has he recently sold out to commercial enterprises I mean? The reason Santa (our American Santa by the way) wears read and white is that those are the colors of Coca-Cola. Before the 20th Century, anyone portraying Santa Claus put him in whatever colors they chose. There was not an official uniform. Those now famous Coca-Cola paintings, featuring Santa drinking Coke from a bottle, put him in a red and white suit because those colors were part of the product’s corporate image. Those images became so well known, that eventually we thought of Santa’s official dress being red trimmed in white.
Why does Santa land on the roof and come down the chimney? A department store (maybe Chicago, don’t quote me) had a Santa standing on their roof waving at passers-by to attract customers. His standing on the roof day after day eventually led to the notion that that’s how Santa always arrives. Flying reindeer are added to the mythology later. The point is, Santa was not some pure, idealistic icon from your childhood that has recently been corrupted by commercialization; our version of Santa Claus was born out of commercial endeavor, from his costume down to the way he enters a room.
Watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special that CBS ran for so many years (and maybe still does). That first appeared in 1965. Even back then, Charlie Brown lamented that Christmas was entirely commercial, and that no one knew the true meaning. Snoopy enters a decoration and display contest, winning a cash prize. Chuck is sent out by his own peers to buy the biggest alumimnum tree he can find. This was 1965. The more things change, the more they stay the same folks. We run holiday specials today where the characters discover the “true meaning of Christmas,” which is nothing new to good characters of Peanuts.
Santa Claus didn’t turn commercial; commercialism created Santa Claus to sell stuff.