Tinsel Town

Merry materialist Karal Ann Marling unwraps a century of loot and lore

Like Elvis and God, Santa Claus is dead. We're not speaking metaphorically here; we're talking about real and conclusive death. Santa expires every year, in fact--usually more than once--from a combination of age, overweight, and that 11-month interval spent on the couch with a bowl of spiked eggnog on his lap. Generally, Santa checks out quietly at home. But, given his long and illustrious history, it's inevitable that the Jolly Elf has also nodded off on his throne at some suburban shopping mall while a shy eight-year-old is whispering her desire for a new bicycle in his ear. The year 1998 was a particularly bad one: Casualties included the nation's longest-tenured mall Santa, the White House's official Santa through six administrations, and a retired St. Paul clothing salesman named Doc Johnson whose impersonation was so authentic that he was occasionally mobbed by children in July.

For the kiddies, the above will probably be the most alarming revelation in Merry Christmas!, a new survey of our midwinter saturnalia by University of Minnesota art-history professor Karal Ann Marling. The slightly less innocent reader, however, will likely be more impressed with Marling's comprehensive history of the holiday's trimmings, including a definitive history of wrapping paper, a reading of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a World War II anthem, and a long-overdue critical reconsideration of the 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which St. Nick differentiates between the naughty and the nice by dispatching the former with an ax. Marling clearly has an affinity for this sort of material: She has written previously on Elvis Presley's Graceland and Disneyland, the dual meccas of American mass culture. Santa, one might argue, completes the Holy Trinity.

On an early-December morning, with 17.6 shopping days left until Christmas, Marling herself is making the pilgrimage to Santaland, at the Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis. On the sidewalk the previous evening's downy snowfall is fast resolving into a frosting of gray sludge. A Salvation Army bell ringer stationed on the corner bears a striking resemblance to the Elf himself (excepting the ash-tipped cigarette that threatens to set his beard alight, and the fact that his exhortations seem suspiciously slurred for the early hour). Marling, meanwhile, is admiring the store's window dressing, glowing domestic tableaux with featureless mannequins decked out in the latest fashion.

Ursus horribilis: Dayton's Santabear reads about the consumer economy in Karal Ann Marling's Merry Christmas!
Ursus horribilis: Dayton's Santabear reads about the consumer economy in Karal Ann Marling's Merry Christmas!

"It's sort of sad," she muses. "The windows used to be something just for the kids. So many holidays have been overtaken by adults. Now I guess it's not safe to bring kids downtown. People used to drive slowly down the street. That's how they'd look at the windows. But you can't do that anymore, either."

The department store is, in Marling's opinion, the bright center of the holiday--the place where public festivities and the essentially private ritual of gift-giving merge--and her history of store-window decoration is particularly exhaustive. As she points out in Merry Christmas!, the opportunity to design these intricate automated spectacles attracted everyone from L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, to Salvador Dali (who, we must assume, was not commissioned to advertise for a watchmaker). "The Christmas window," she writes, "was art for people who didn't necessarily go to museums....The window was art, with all its sensory charms intact, art that was constructed of equal parts color and texture, sight and invitation to touch, wonderment and imagination, order, longing, instruction, and intense, fondly remembered pleasure." Like Disneyland, the windows became a place in which desire was fused with nostalgia for a comforting domestic past: Christmas on Main Street.

The store displays, she says while contemplating a crimson evening gown behind the glass, also represent the modern holiday's inclusiveness. (Nowhere, perhaps, is Christ more efficiently removed from Christmas.) "Christmas is a secular feast," Marling explains. "It's always been about religious pluralism. People used to say there should be menorahs and all that in the windows. I think that's terrible. Santa is for everybody. It's about generosity and goodwill toward our neighbors." Marling ambles past the Santa bell ringer and into the store.

Christmas, she continues while making her way through acres of fur coats and oak armoires, is a peculiarly American invention, which, though harking back to European antecedents, owes most of its iconography to the 19th Century. Santa Claus, for instance, was promoted from an obscure Eastern European folk saint to his current, gelatinous incarnation by two American illustrators, Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom (the latter of whom, an illustrator for Coca-Cola, often mixed his mythmaking imagery with product placement). Even the sacred text of Christmas, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, was, according to Marling, filched largely from the writings of Washington Irving. "It's my opinion that most British traditions came from America," she says. "In the case of Washington Irving, he was really setting out to create a tradition, because the country was so new it didn't have any at all."

The ritual decapitation of a coniferous tree, she explains as we weave past the perfume counter, is also an American tradition imbued with a European cachet by 19th-century artists. The first popular image of a family gathered around the Christmas tree was the British royal family, surreptitiously stripped of their regalia by American magazines so as to resemble average, prosperous American burghers. History, after all, can be manufactured and consumed; in the case of Christmas, Americans simply made up traditions to suit the occasion.

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