Such a wonderful lie
No, there’s not a push for a gender neutral Santa. Yet.
As Christmas approaches, and we prepare for time with friends and family, one of the many ways we see the season start is a social media push for various claims about what the season means (various conspiracy theories about it being a pagan holiday make for entertaining reading, but amount to little else). A relatively recent trend is the assertion of a click bait piece that suggests that there is a widespread push currently underway to make Santa Clause gender neutral.
The assertion, which popped up in late 2018, is that a number of people want to see a more modernised Santa. This revolves around a survey that was launched by a graphic design company. It asked respondents in the US and the UK to choose among a few suggested ways that Santa could be represented. Among them were the suggestion that he could be depicted in skinny jeans. Another was that Santa become a gender neutral character.
As Snopes points out, the survey drew on a flawed methodology. The survey clearly aimed at getting a controversial result, the likes of which would clearly generate publicity through outrage. The company responsible, GraphicSpring, specialise in designing cards and flyers and were not asking respondents to provide their own suggestions. Instead, they gave them a number of competing choices. The result is the kind of biased response that genuine studies avoid.
As disingenuous as the manufactured controversy surrounding the study is, the representation of Santa is an interesting topic, as the image and representation of Santa has changed over time, adapting according to cultural shifts and differences.
The History of Santa
Santa’s image, of course, comes from the fourth century Greek Bishop St Nicholas, with his habit of secretive gift-giving to the poor. During the Middle Ages, children would receive gifts in St Nicholas’ honour, although the occasion generally fell on the Feast of St Nicholas, 6 December. This would shift during the reformation, as Martin Luther argued for moving the gift-giving away from the veneration of saints.
An influential addition to the Santa tradition came later. In 1906, L. Frank Baum released a children’s book called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. While a popular urban legend suggests that the Coca Cola company invented Santa’s current red and white image, this is not entirely correct.
In addition to the changes in Santa’s image over time comes competing traditions.
While the Dutch Sinterklaas is very similar to Santa as the primary gift giver, the tradition varies somewhat in terms of when children receive their gifts. Some thirty-six percent of the Dutch population give children gifts on 6 December, while another 21 percent give gifts on Christmas Day itself.
A less popular, but nonetheless interesting counterpart to St Nicholas is the Krampus. This tradition is widely believed to be a Christianisation of a pagan tradition. While St Nicholas gives presents to children who have been good, the Krampus is said to punish girls and boys who have been naughty, by dragging them away in his sack to either be eaten or drowned. While the tradition was actually banned in Austria after the 1923 election, the Krampus has enjoyed something of a recent resurgence.
A relatively modern shift is one that more parents seem to be embracing: bringing children up without Santa at Christmas. Part of the rationale for this approach comes from parents who do not want to bring their children up dishonestly.
In a 2018 journal article called A Wonderful Lie, two psychologists explored the possibility of children learning to lie because of being brought up with this tradition. The University of New England’s Kathy McKay explained the paper’s major idea when she told The Guardian, “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
However, the paper’s other author, the University of Exeter’s Chris Boyle, suggested that were he to have children of his own, he would probably play along with the Santa Claus story. The authors explained that the Santa tradition of make-believe and imaginative play emerged from a desire to escape reality that even adults sometimes have a hard time escaping.