Friday, December 18, 2009

Santa Claus: the god of children and admen

A few years ago a local man wrote letters to a Salt Lake City newspaper complaining about the image of Santa Claus. He called Santa "the god of children." At the time I thought the writer was just a crank. Now I've changed my mind and see his point. As a society we sell Santa Claus to kids as having godlike powers: "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake..." Santa passes judgment, "He knows when you've been bad or good..."

Santa is pictured as an older man with a long white beard. A lot like the image of God as painted by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

You know to click on the pictures to make them big.

But whether Santa has ever been the "god of children," he sure has been a godsend for advertisers. The white-bearded man in the red suit has endorsed just about every product there is to endorse. These selections from the 1940s, culled from Life magazines found on Google Books, are just a fraction of the uses to which the jolly old elf has been put by those hard-working folks on Madison Avenue.

Top: The Santa Claus said to have set the modern-day image of Santa in the minds of the American public was painted by Haddon Sundblum in a series of ads done for Coca-Cola over decades. These are still used, still reproduced every year on various products sold by Coke.

After selling sugary soda pop, a snaggle-toothed Santa went further for the cavity crowd with Whitman candy:

Santa wasn't discriminating in his huckstering. He sold everything, even razors.

He sold electric products. The beautifully eye-catching ad for GE Christmas Tree Lights puts Santa squarely in the postwar jet era, anticipating rockets. Phooey on an old-fashioned sled with eight reindeer. Pour on the afterburners!

This might be the most jarring ad. It's from World War II, with the enemies of America in for an asskicking by Santa. Since Santa traveled all over the world--or so the story went--there's no telling why he was picking on the Axis leaders. This crudely drawn full-page color ad even features a racist portrait of the Japanese emperor as a rat with a human face.

The ads that bothered a lot of people were Santa shilling for tobacco companies. In the Chesterfield and Camel ads he isn't pictured with a cigarette in his mouth, but the company who makes cigarette lighters doesn't have any scruples about its portrayal.

If Santa is "the god of children," as the letter-writer claimed, he hasn't always been treated with the reverence due a god.

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