A Cultural History of Santa: Margaret Mead’s Fictional Interview with the Jolly Gift-Giver Celebrating Generosity and the Universal Spirit of Giving
By Maria Popova
In 1964, Margaret Mead — to this day humanity’s most influential anthropologist and one of the first academic celebrities — helped a concerned parent navigate the question of what to tell kids about Santa Claus, offering an elegant distinction between myth and deception, fact and “poetic truth.” Thirteen years later, Mead and Rhoda Metraux — her partner of a quarter-century, a fellow anthropologist and Redbook magazine editor — set out to address the mystery and mystique of Santa not for parents but for children in a wonderfully unusual and clever format: a fictional telephone interview with the jolly gift-giver. (Twenty years later, Kurt Vonnegut would pitch a similar idea to WNYC.)
Dedicated to little Kate — Metraux’s granddaughter and Mead’s goddaughter, “three-going-on-four, just at the age when a small girl’s curiosity and imagination know no bounds and everything she learns leads to more questions” — the interview first appeared in the pages of Redbook in 1977 and was published as An Interview with Santa Claus (public library) for the 1978 holiday season, shortly before Mead’s death at the end of November. This little book, brimming with her characteristic astuteness, cultural insight, and subtle wit, became the legendary anthropologist’s last legacy.
Tucked into the delightful make-believe conversation, illustrated with Victorian engravings and Harper’s drawings by the great cartoonist Thomas Nast, are nuggets of cultural history and anthropology, illustrating how fact and fiction — often, multiple versions of facts and fictions — converge to form our mythology. Mead and Metraux weave together folklore and philosophy into an ennobling secular mythos of generosity, celebrating the spirit of giving.
M & R: Do you have a few minutes for an interview? Children are asking so many questions, and we don’t have the answers.
SANTA: Go ahead. I’ll do my best.
M & R: First, are you one person or many? How can you be in so many places at once?
SANTA: Of course I’m one person. But I belong to a very big clan and a very old one — a clan of givers. As far as I know, our history goes back at least two thousand years, and then maybe much longer, but when you get back that far, it’s all hearsay and tales that are almost like fairy tales.
M & R: Who was your first ancestor you know about for sure? Was he a jolly man just like you?
SANTA: Not at all. He was a very different kind of man — a very famous bishop in the early Christian church in Asia Minor in the fourth century. A very solemn man. Pictures always show him dressed in cloth of gold and looking very stern. But he loved children and young people. Once he secretly gave a bag of gold coins to each of three poor sisters so they would have a dowry and could find husbands.
He performed lots of miracles, too. Once he brought back to life three little boys who’d been chopped up and salted in barrels by a wicked innkeeper. And he calmed a storm and saved a ship at sea. He even appeared in a dream to the great Emperor Constantine to tell him that three of his officials had been falsely accused, and the Emperor had them released from prison. He became a saint, you know — St. Nicholas, they called him — and he was the friend of sailors and travelers and merchants, but especially the friend of children.
M & R: But how did he leave Asia Minor and come to Europe?
SANTA: Well, there are two different stories about that. If you go to Bari, in Italy, they will tell you that when the Turks were laying waste to his home city of Myra in 1084, some merchants brought St. Nicholas’s bones to Bari and built him a wonderful shrine to which pilgrims came — still come — from far and wide. But if you go to Venice, they’ll tell you their merchants rescued his bones in 1100 and built the great Church of St. Nicholas, on the Lido. But who can say which it was? And does it matter? He was a favorite saint for a long, long time. In England before the Reformation there were three hundred and seventy-six churches in his name and hundreds more in Belgium and Holland, France and Italy, and especially in Russia, and in Greece and other places too. Everybody loved that saint, our ancestor, and “Santa Claus” is a version of that ancestor’s name.
M & R: But what in the world did St. Nicholas have to do with Christmas and giving presents?
SANTA: You see, his birthday was in December — the sixth of December, by our calendar today — and people celebrated his birthday with a feast. The night before, children in lots of places put out little bundles of hay for the white horse or the donkey he rode — of course, it was really one of his descendants, one of our clan, who came. And the children put out a shoe or hung up a stocking and the members of my clan were kept busy, I can tell you, filling them up with fruit and candy and little cakes — celebrating by giving presents instead of receiving them. But we had a lot of trouble too.
M & R: How was that?
SANTA: Well, they say that in some places, parents didn’t think children should be given presents just for nothing. They wanted good children to be rewarded and bad children to be punished. So some of our clan had to pretend to be scary creatures that came along with old St. Nick. The most famous, I guess, was Knecht Ruprecht, a frightening being who carried a switch. Another one was called Klaubach, a kind of shaggy monster with horns and fiery eyes and a long red tongue and chains that clattered! There were lots of others, equally fearsome, but I’ve always thought all this was done to impress the grownups. I’ve never heard that children were actually punished or didn’t get their presents. And nowadays we’ve given all that up. All our clan want to be the children’s friend.
After probing Santa about the various permutations of the St. Nicholas myth and the giving traditions around the world, from Russia’s Babushka to the Kings of Florence to the Magi, Mead and Metraux turn to Santa himself and how he came to possess the American popular imagination, touching on elements of Mead’s earlier conversation with James Baldwin about the immigrant experience.
SANTA: Oh, that’s an exciting saga in itself. You know my immediate ancestors came to America with Dutch and German families. We were immigrants. And like all the other immigrants, we developed a whole new life style as we became Americans. For instance, most of us took a new name, Santa Claus — though some people still talk about me as “old St. Nick.” And most of us concentrate on Christmas nowadays, instead of scattering our efforts, so all the children can enjoy getting presents at once.
M & R: And by now you’re an Old American!
SANTA: And a modern one too. Those first pictures of us, about a hundred years ago, seem pretty old-fashioned now. With those reindeer and all that.
M & R: What do you mean? Don’t you still have your reindeer?
SANTA: Oh, yes, but you know, nowadays we have to go so far. At first we just went around different parts of America. But now children everywhere in the world expect Santa Claus to arrive with presents, all at practically the same time. We can’t disappoint children just because they happen to live on the other side of the world. So I — or, rather, we — have to travel in helicopters and airplanes, even sometimes in snowmobiles and in some places in speedboats.
M & R: Then why do you keep the reindeer at all?
SANTA: Oh, the children would be too sad if I gave them up, and I’m very fond of the reindeer myself. Besides, there’s a legend about a man — or maybe he was a god — who is said to have been one of our earliest ancestors. Thor, his name was, and people say that in the Far North, in midwinter, he used to come rushing down on the wind, bringing snow and ice and driving a team of reindeer. I wouldn’t want to forget that, even if maybe it’s only a legend. And I love to hear the reindeer bells. Listen! Can you hear them?
They do hear the bells — except the bells turn out to be the telephone ringing, and the whole conversation with Santa, Mead and Metraux tell the reader, turns out to have been a beautiful dream. (Outside this fictional tale, Mead was not a stranger to arriving at existential insight via dreams — half a century earlier, she had found the meaning of life in a dream.)
This framing becomes the perfect trope for exploring the deeper human truths beneath the cultural mythology, and out of that springs the story’s most heartening message. Mead and Metraux extract the abiding poetic truth from the folkloric fictions:
A dream, yes. But it makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t there be a whole clan of gift-giving figures? Don’t they all, in some way, convey a special message to children? St. Nicholas and St. Lucia and other favorite saints, friends of children, the grandmother figures of Babushka and Befana and others of their kind, Santa Claus in all his different versions, each with a special name, and sometimes the Three Kings and even the old Norse god Thor, coming down into the known world from the unknown North with his reindeer.
All of them have appeared on some day close to the shortest day of the year, when the very sharpness of a cold, barren winter gives promise of spring, so that long ago, in the midst of winter, human hearts rejoiced and were moved to generosity and gaiety, especially for children.
Santa Claus is but the newest of these gift-givers. From him, as from the others, children can learn that giving as well as receiving is joyous, and that the gifts that seem to be given freely by wonderful, benign visitors are tokens of happy care given by mothers and fathers… Giving is itself a kind of thank offering.
Complement the tiny, enormously delightful An Interview with Santa Claus with Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmas children’s book and T.S. Eliot’s rare vintage poem-pamphlet about Christmas trees, then revisit Mead’s enduring wisdom on living wholeheartedly in an uncertain world and the fluidity of human sexuality.
Published December 22, 2015