What we really want when we want Santa
"You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town."
What peaceful days of bliss this timeless song predicts for parents and children in the weeks before Christmas! The lyric writer assures us that, with Santa's visit looming, even the most temperamental of kids won't tempt the Man in the Red Suit by misbehaving. Yet, every year at Christmas, a new group of schoolchildren "grows up." Whether it's the neighbor kid, an older sibling, or an insensitive adult who lets the cat out of the bag makes no difference: When Santa is unmasked as Mommy, Daddy, or Uncle Jim, when the reindeer and the elves and the North Pole are no more, something dies. The era of belief is over, and being good is a choice, not an imperative, because the little stuffed Santas are no longer symbols of the real thing. Rather than the promise of toys, presents, and, ultimately, happiness, no matter how temporary, Santa comes to symbolize the holiday that once was, the wholeness that could have been the "all is merry" that now will never be.
Of course, when most of us learned that Santa was a myth, we were too little to put together the consequences of our own fall from belief. And since Mom and Dad came through with the presents anyway, and even seemed content to continue to play pretend Santa, the sharp pang of dread that might have come at the sight of an empty fireplace stoop was at least temporarily assuaged. And maybe more than temporarily: As we fill our homes with Santa-inspired kitsch and holiday cheer, we draw back into our childhood and bask in the era of belief. We look for something more in the rosy cheeks and white beard. That "something more," according to Joshua Gunn, a rhetorical critic and assistant professor of communication studies at UT-Austin, is what psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan called, parenthetically, "the little object of our desires," meaning that when we look at images of Santa or his reindeer, it isn't the reindeer we want or even Santa himself; we want the something more than Santa in Santa. Gunn describes this as the "occultic" character of Christmas kitsch, a character that is widespread in popular-culture phenomena, from designer clothes to Thomas Kinkade "paintings" to romance novels. In his book Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (University of Alabama Press, 2005), Gunn argues that mystification and the occultic that is, the notion that there is "something more" to the surface of things, something behind it, perhaps something that is secret are central to our daily lives. Santa's appeal is what he seems to promise, what he was when we were children, what he was when we believed (if we ever truly did).
So OK; so far this seems like common sense. Most of us don't buy Christmas paper plates with Ol' Saint Nick on them thinking that wish-fulfillment and bliss will be in the package as well. On the other hand, while kitsch looks like "all is merry and bright," its simplicity is both a screen and a denial. The happy face of life-enhancing kitsch masks the hard truths of life and, essentially, the reality of death. Santa isn't old. His round belly won't lead to heart disease or cancer. And all the cookies and milk he can take will never rot his teeth or give him the runs. This is because, in kitsch's secondary function, it covers over the abject. It paints smiles over shit and delight over decay. That is how it works to make us forget, because, frankly, if we worried about Santa's coronary state, we might worry about our own.
So, from Santa to his little helpers and beyond, holiday kitsch is made up of icons and tokens that invoke our desire, promise wish-fulfillment in easy prepackaged answers, and dress themselves up as universal solutions that are nothing but clean, shiny, and life-filled. Harmless enough maybe, when we are talking about Santa Claus, but the fundamental problem with kitsch is that it provides such easy answers that we forget to look deeper. And while we can laugh at ourselves as we desire the something more Santa than Santa (i.e., our every wish fulfilled by a jolly, loving, omniscient father figure), it is easy to forget the role of kitsch when we transfer that same desire for the "something more" into our relationships, our politics, and our art world. Here, where life and kitsch begin to lose their firm distinctions, Gunn points out, is where things can get really nasty.
In the outpouring of public art since September 11, created around the collapse of the World Trade Center, Gunn sees evidence that even where violence is its most base and brutal, kitsch sneaks in to clean things up for us. He points to the images of strong firemen (ã la Kinkade), their backs toward the viewer, entering a smoky haze, which somehow heightens their yellow hero gear and sets them apart from the chaos inside. Such images saturated the airwaves following the attacks, fill galleries and monuments of memory and honor even today, and continue to circulate on the Internet in supposed homage to fire departments and rescue crews worldwide. Gunn argues that such paintings or photos actually belittle the work of the rescue crews who acted in those minutes and days after the attacks. If the firefighters rushed only into a haze, we wouldn't call it bravery. And while the mass of death, stench, and panic they did rush into was often "beyond words," this numbing of the terror they met is an injustice to the work and service they performed.
So it goes with kitsch, art, and violence. And what about kitsch and love? It shows up in our terms of endearment "sugar," "sweetheart," "baby" and Gunn proposes that cooing like small children at the objects of our desire is part and parcel of both the move to love and the reason we turn toward kitsch in the first place. He finds the desire for connection beyond kitsch, the desire to access something real, and our fallback into the language and imagery of kitsch all to be based in the bond between mother and child in infancy. In these early years of life, without an understanding of individuality and with only the sweet relief of a loving (m)other on demand to feed and hold us, we feel connected, we feel bonded, we feel one with our desires and the source of our assuaging. In the loving mother, our life patterns are set to desire wholeness, someone who will answer our every call and anticipate our needs before we ourselves know them. Yet everyone's mother herself breaks this illusion: Sometimes when we cry, she doesn't answer. Sometimes when we're hungry, she doesn't feed us. As we grow from infant to child, the gap between ourselves and our mothers becomes clear, and we learn that what we are beginning to love is not the mother who has other children, who has an adult love, who has a life of her own, but the mother she is to us, the mother who is fulfillment of our needs and our desires. In this realization, our illusions of unity are broken.
So, Gunn suggests, we love the something more in mother than mother just as we want the something more in Santa than Santa. In the end, we want to be whole. We want to sit on Santa's lap, on mother's lap, and know that our diapers will be changed before we realize what's in them, that our mouths will find food before pangs of hunger cloud our thinking. We want to be loved, we want to hold hands around the Christmas tree, and we want Santa back. "That such longings are impossible to fulfill finds easy evidence at the shopping mall," says Gunn. "Some children see through the mystification of this pot-bellied saint the moment you put them on the stranger's knee. Those horrible screams coming from the mouth of some perspicacious tot, they betoken recognition of the veiled shit of life just on the other side of red velvet pants. The Santa screen is like the emperor's new clothes. You only get down with the kitschness when you learn how to properly make believe, and that is the primary skill of adulthood. Christmas kitsch is about seeing Santa's naughty bits and denying it. As Milan Kundera argued, the other side of kitsch is shit."
That doesn't mean one cannot or should not enjoy the yuletide. "Quite the opposite," Gunn insists. "Kitsch is just as much a part of our everyday 'reality' as the nasty stuff. If we didn't have our distractions and screens, if we didn't have repression, if we didn't have the joy of kitsch, then I think we would go absolutely bonkers. Our tidings of comfort and joy are not only necessary but also quite sincere and, indeed, all the more significant because such reports are made despite the ugliness of human behavior. I think most adults enjoy the trappings of holiday cheer knowing, at some preconscious or unconscious level, that unfortunately it cannot be sustained. I think this is why no one needs the yuletide more than the families of soldiers and service persons: They know better than most the sincerity and necessity of holiday love. And this is precisely why we enjoy our holiday kitsch so much, why the child screaming on Santa's knee eventually learns to suck it up by her teens: The rituals surrounding the kitsch of Christopher Radko and other decorative moguls keep the Monday mornings, funerals, and wars at bay, if only for a little while. Hence, the paradox of kitsch is that its garish excess becomes an avenue of genuine collective sentiment, however cheap."
Besides, Gunn quips, "isn't this why we're all depressed after the new year? No month is more depressing than January as we have to wait kitsch-less until February 14 for the next commercially sanctioned explosion of love-despite-it-all."