I’m a year slow in wondering this, but I couldn’t help but think—particularly with the Omicron variant arriving just in time for the holidays—that as Santa enters millions of homes this Christmas Eve, shouldn’t he be wearing a mask? After all, we wouldn’t want him to trigger a superspreader event. And then it dawned on me that the Santa story could totally be used to get kids to wear their masks, and as with the kid-centered seatbelt campaigns in the 1980s: parents too, as children put pressure on their parents to do so as well.* The messaging is simple: Santa wears his mask, so should you. Or even like this card suggests (found once I started searching the web) a subtle threat: “Stay on the Nice List: Wear a Mask.”
Searching a bit further, it looks like last year Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the opposite: that Santa “of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity.” This seems at best a lost opportunity, at worst, confusing to young children (at least to those not watching Dr. Fauci’s press conferences): “Daddy, why doesn’t Santa have to wear a mask?” Or worse: “Mommy, didn’t daddy have good qualities too? Why did COVID take him away?”
But sadly the US government isn’t very skilled in culture-building any longer or Americans would’ve seen pictures of masked Santas everywhere, like Smokey Bear or Uncle Sam, conveying that it is their civic and patriotic duty to protect each other by staying masked and getting vaccinated (along with stopping forest fires and recycling scrap metal). The potential for good slogans and variations are probably infinite:
“Don’t be naughty: get vaccinated.”
“Rudolph says cover your nose.”
“Do you want COVID for Christmas? No? Then wear your mask.”
“Even Santa and his reindeer stay 6 feet apart.”
Those slogans came from five minutes of brainstorming and admittedly aren’t the best (and the images from poorly doctored Pixabay photos).** But I’m sure a professional marketer, given time and a budget (and professional artist services), would be able to make some really good public service announcements (PSAs) in the forms of posters, viral videos, and social media posts that get people staying safe in the most COVIDy time of the year (sung to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and offering yet another good candidate for a PSA slogan).
It’s not that governments don’t do that kind of thing any longer (though after the Big Bird vaccination “brouhaha” I can see why they’d want to wash their hands of it). Just last week the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado tweeted out: “Guess who came in to receive his Concealed Handgun Permit today?” Yup, of course, it was Santa. So if Santa can be used to mobilize gun purchases, he can certainly be used to encourage proper pandemic etiquette.***
Recruiting Santa to be a Climate Champion
Thinking bigger, Santa can also be recruited to promote other essential cultural changes as well. This past week, our Gaian Discussion group hosted a conversation with Ann Palmer, who wrote a new version of the Santa story, “How Santa Became ECO Santa” where Santa Claus, with a bit of help from Rudolph, realizes that Earth is suffering from all the plastic waste contaminating it and decides to ask children around the world to help him to pick it all up.
And Palmer’s not alone. There are at least a few other efforts, like this story by Victoria Perla, “When Santa Turned Green,” from 2008 and this newest effort from South Africa, “Santa Soaked,” where, after his workshop falls through the melting ice at the North Pole, Santa travels around the world talking with children affected by climate disasters. The story ends with Santa becoming a climate advocate (albeit a kind of passive one considering the magical powers that he holds, not to mention his immunity to COVID).
It makes sense to take Santa Claus, a mythological figure who resonates with children worldwide (often regardless of their religious upbringing), and use him to promote a more sustainable path rather than the consumeristic one he promotes by default.**** And the same can be said for other aspects of Christmas.
Palmer, along with her Santa story, has rewritten dozens of Christmas carols to put the planet, rather than people first. “The First Noel” became “Birdsong,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” became “Me! I Champion Planet Earth,” “Silent Night” became “Northern Lights,” and “We Three Kings,” became “Trees of Earth.” And through this transformation, these carols go from reinforcing Christian myths to celebrating the Earth. Of course, some will be as horrified by this as by Santa packing heat, but if Earth is God’s creation, perhaps some Christians (and certainly others who sing these songs out of non-religious “Christmas Spirit”) will find these a joyful addition to the caroling tradition.
Just compare the first verse of “Trees of Earth” with “We Three Kings:”
This and the other four verses are a beautiful celebration of the many services trees gift us each day, and these eco-carols offer an opportunity for the many Earth-centric individuals who would go caroling if they had songs they felt they could merrily sing. But the bigger point, and the one to end with, is that cultures change—but it often takes cultural pioneers to nudge them along. Palmer noted in our discussion when asked why she doesn’t create new carols instead of creating new lyrics to old songs (both in order to create unique songs as well as to not co-opt these carols) that some of the melodies of today’s carols were once co-opted as well. For example, The Carol of the Bells (you know the song even if you don’t know the name) was originally a Ukrainian folk song. So let’s get busy updating/ecologizing other forms of traditions as well, and even head out this season to sing some Earthy Yuletide carols (after all, caroling was a pagan tradition long before it became a Christian one)! And however you celebrate, have a wonderful Yuletide season!
*Want some more on the history of seatbelt advertising? Check out these shockers from the UK.
**A play on Uncle Sam’s “I want you for U.S. Army” could be a fun one too, with a masked Santa pointing with the caption: “I want you to stay safe from COVID” With a few smaller lines below: Get vaccinated; Wear a mask; stay 6 feet apart. Or then again, Uncle Sam could be pulled out of retirement for this too, and maybe even encourage more: “I want you to become a healthcare provider.”
***And for an even funnier exploration of this, check out Stephen Colbert’s one minute video of Santa going down a chimney with his concealed handgun.
****Here’s a good point to note that I made a conscious choice to make clear to my son even when he was very little that Santa Claus was just pretend. It’s easy to believe in other fake things (from gods and astrology to conspiracy theories and the myth that we can have a consumer economy run on renewables) if we confuse kids with assurances that magical things like Santa are real. There’s certainly a lot of disagreement on this, but I can say my son seems to enjoy Santa (actually Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost in the post-Soviet tradition) even knowing it’s just pretend.