Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 4) Santa Speaks

With Christmas Day only hours away I end this year’s Advent series with an interview with Santa Claus himself. Not one that I conducted myself but one conducted by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux in 1977. Margaret Mead (1901-1978) has been described as one of the world’s most influential anthropologists, and has even been described as one of the world’s first academic celebrities. Her writings were popular with the public as well as scholars and her interview with Santa Claus was an immediate hit.

Margaret Mead’s literary output was quite varied. Her work in anthropology, ethnology and sexuality entered into most of her writing, even in an essay on UFOs which she wrote for “Redbook Magazine”. The articles she wrote for “Redbook”, of which the one on UFOs was among over a thousand she wrote on every topic you can imagine, made her a household name in the USA outside the academic world.

Even though Margaret married and divorced three times, retaining her surname throughout for professional reasons, she had her most loving relationship with Rhoda Metraux who was the editor of “Redbook Magazine”. A previous relationship with fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict was revealed in a memoir by Margaret’s daughter in 1984, but it was with Rhoda that Margaret lived for the last 25 years of her life.

In her “Redbook” articles Margaret wrote about Christmas reminiscences and about parenting. In 1964 the two subjects came together when a parent asked her about what answer to give when children start asking questions about Santa Claus. Even today adults have a difficult time putting all the many aspects of Santa’s existence into a concise and simple answer.

The question lingered in Margaret’s mind for several years until she finally decided to go to the most authoritative source she could think of – Santa Claus himself.
Margaret and Rhoda wrote “An Interview With Santa Claus” with children in mind though it was popular with parents who wanted to know some answers themselves. It was dedicated to Rhoda’s 4-year-old daughter Kate, Margaret’s god-daughter. Both women had backgrounds in anthropology and this can be seen in Santa’s answers to their questions. Santa discusses his origins among various cultural groups and historical figures like St Nicholas, and he talks about all the other Christmas and winter gift-bringers.

The interview ends with the writers waking from a dream. “A dream, yes”, writes Margaret and Rhoda in the book, “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? …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.”

Margaret and Rhoda encouraged their readers, both young and old, to learn more about Santa and his many incarnations and associates. This is something I am keen to do myself, not just because I am a historian, but because it shows how the world’s many cultures are not as different as they seem.

In the early 1990s when I did a lot of amateur dramatics I wrote a pantomime for my drama group called “The Magic Snowman”. It featured Santa and Mrs. Claus and made mention of several of Santa’s friends who help to distribute Christmas gifts around the world. More recently, I’ve become a really big fan of the Spanish El Apalpador.

Margaret Mead didn’t live long enough to see the enduring appeal of her book. It was published in the Christmas issue of “Redbook Magazine” in 1977 and in book form in November 1978 (I am the proud possessor of a first edition copy). Margaret Mead died on 15th November 1978.

“An Interview With Santa Claus”, although popular, has not achieved the world-wide fame of other Christmas stories like “A Christmas Carol” or “The Night Before Christmas” (as it is popularly known). Perhaps it should because we live in a world that is more multi-cultural than it was in 1977 when the interview was first published. It can be regarded as ahead of its time in encouraging children to think of a multi-cultured world at Christmas time. For all parents – whether gay, straight, or gender variant – this little book is a marvellous way to introduce your children to the magic of Christmas. I hope in time that it becomes as well-known and loved as “A Christmas Carol”.

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