Understanding the Power of the Myth of Santa

Flying the Sleigh of Mystification in the Dusk of Reason

It’s on full blast now, Christmas jingles, holiday “cheer”, and the endless exhortations to consume.  And here comes Santa.

Why is this myth so powerful?  Why does it capture imagination so deeply?  Why do generations perpetuate this massive fraud to their children?

Santa wasn’t always so. He was originally St. Nicholas of Myra, in Anatolia (Asia Minor), and was originally known for rescuing women from prostitution.  Legend says that he dropped gold into the stockings of three women who, having no dowries, were about to be sold into prostitution. It’s also said that he brought back to life children kidnapped and butchered.  From this, St. Nicholas became the Patron Saint of women, children, students, prostitutes, and protector of the oppressed and those in extremis.  Later, he became the Patron Saint of the poor, and St. Nicholas’ feast became a day for alms and redistribution.

Over the years, however, St. Nicholas acquired other significant roles and duties.  During the transatlantic Dutch slave trade, he became Sinterklaas, taking on the fearsome trappings of a slave trader, riding a slave ship to into port, and kidnapping young children, with a black henchman (Zwarte Piet), and sleigh drawn by eight black slaves. In the 19th Century, he took on now recognizable traits as a shill for corporate consumption, becoming, through the artistry of Hadden Sunblom, a pitchman for Coca-Cola’s cocaine-laced soft drinks, (standardizing and immortalizing the red and white costume–trademark colors of Coca-Cola) and eventually becoming the Patron Saint of Capitalism as well as its canonical myth.

One way of understanding the power of the Myth of Santa is through the lens of critical theory.

When the contradictions in our lives, our reality are so intolerable that we cannot humanly justify them and remain sane, we resort to a set of stories in order to obscure, absolve, and make bearable this state of affairs.

Think of this as similar to a dream, which expresses the contradictions and tensions in our lives, even as it covers them up symbolically through displacement, compression, and distortion.

Or as a disease symptom: a way of expressing a deep distress or imbalance. The symptom expresses the condition, palliating it, while signaling a deeper pathology at stake.

This collective defense mechanism is referred to as ideology, and it manifests as a series of narratives and myths that maintain our worldview—with our sense of self at the center– while keeping us asleep as to what’s really happening, from seeing what is unacceptable.

For example, the myth of Thanksgiving obscures the origins of a violent, colonial settler state, based on war, dispossession, and genocide.  It papers this over with a reassuringly saccharine tale of generosity, cooperation, and sharing, lest the festivities stick violently in our craw and render us ill with rage, horror, grief.

So, too, Santa Claus.  If we took a pause, we would realize for the majority of the world, Christmas means little more than punishing work in service, retail, distribution, or production.  A moment’s thought to the conditions in factories and sweatshops, where the majority of workers are now entering into 16, 20, 24 hr work schedules—essentially slave labor–to meet the demand for “gifts” in the west, would seriously dampen holiday cheer.

Santa thus attempts to make tolerable the intolerable with the following myths:

The Myth of Satisfied Labor

Happy little elves build toys in Santa’s workshop, delighted to bring joy to people and children all over the world.

Reality: Almost all goods for Christmas are created by workers—many underage–in sweatshops and factories for a pittance, under inhuman conditions of labor, without choice or say in their circumstances.

The Myth of Spontaneous Generation of Wealth

All a child has to do is go to sleep and they will find presents appearing out of thin air.  Like “the miracle of compound interest”, or the vapid nostrums of the “new economy”, value generates itself effortlessly out of leisure.

Reality: There is No Free Lunch.  Someone—usually the dispossessed poor–is paying wholesale for “wealth creation”, with their blood, sweat, and tears; any value you gain has been skimmed off their labor, exploitation, and immiseration.

The Myth of Commodities

Commodities have no history, past, or social relationships. They appear individually out of the night, delivered magically.

Reality: Every commodity has a history, and is implicated in a web of social practices and relations. A commodity is “congealed labor”, a tangible, packaged record of human suffering and exploitation.

The Myth of Abundance and Benevolence

Children–good ones–wake up rich with gifts delivered by a benevolent paterfamilias.

Reality: Privation and Exploitation: Every night, millions of people— many children– go to bed hungry without the barest necessities. At least 32,000 of them will die that from hunger or malnutrition that night. Even for those who are lucky enough to work, Christmas means little more than a boot in the face and punishingly intensive work.

The Myth of Justice/Equity

Everybody gets what they want and deserve; if they don’t, they have been bad.

Reality: The majority of people suffer for no other reason than the economic conditions and social class they were born into.

The Myth of Independence/Triple

Associated with George W. Bush (of whom it was said that he was born on third base, but believed he had hit a triple), it’s the belief that wealth and advantages received did not come from his parents (although they clearly had). It’s the Oedipal theme in Capitalism that denies patrimony, the better to claim the virtues of the self-made man, of individual self-accomplishment.

Reality: Accrued Wealth: As Thomas Picketty has pointed out in Capital in the 21st Century, most of the growth of historical wealth is from inheritance or patrimonial capital. It is rentier wealth, inherited, bequeathed, or taken through the appropriation of the material or intellectual commons, or labor.

The Myth of the Efficient Market: Frictionless Distribution, Barrierless Entry, Vanished Externalities, Perfect Knowledge, Perfect Equilibrium/Satisfaction

Santa distributes in a single night (frictionless distribution), in your own home (barrierless entry) without any damage (no externalities), exactly what you want (perfect knowledge), to your satisfaction (perfect equilibrium/satisfaction). Under monopoly conditions.

Reality: This is economic pornography. The market does not, will not, cannot work this way.

The Message of Mystification, Ignorance, and Collusion

This is the last, most seductive narcotic in Santa’s pharmacopoeia, that explains why this gateway myth is fed to young children.  

Close your eyes to suffering, go to sleep; and you will get all you want or deserve.  Oblivion (masquerading as innocence), is the price to pay for privilege; the collusion of our ignorance is the precondition for reward.  This above all, is the most pernicious bargain, the one that maintains the status quo.

So once again, the sleigh of mystification flies triumphally in the dusk of reason, against the harsh, dark night of capitalism.  It’s incumbent on those of us with thinking minds and caring hearts, to eschew this palliative narcotic and to aspire for ourselves and others, the true flight that a critical, liberated mind can attain, to struggle for the heights of justice, equality, solidarity. Thinking critically can start the journey that lightens all our hearts and souls, the better to serve one another in the dialectical expression of justice called Love.  

This is the best gift you can give yourself and your children for Christmas.

K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer, and teacher. He is a member of Veterans for Peace and works on global justice issues. He can be reached at: k.j.noh48@gmail.com. Read other articles by K.J..