Over the past couple of weeks, I have noticed a depressing trend. People in my social media circles and on the street having been making a great number of disparaging remarks about Old Saint Nick. Most are about mall Santas, but some aim at the icon himself–a jolly old man who flies around the world and lets himself into the homes of little boys and girls. My guess is that this proliferation of ho-ho-horrible is the result of two factors. The first is the H1N1 flu. This has been the season of protecting one’s personal space. Pediatricians are told not to where neckties, there are hand-cleaner dispensers outsides every elevator and rest room, and other measures of insuring under-kill through overkill.
The second, though, is more depressing. It is the trend of Americans in the last thirty years or so to generate humor and an air of personal hipness by denigrating the “motives” of traditional childhood icons. This is what brings us to clowns. Clowning had been a popular and revered art form for centuries. The combination of skills possessed by master clowns like the legendary Emmet Kelly were formidable–including mime, dance, magic, juggling and acrobatics to name a few. Then pretty much all at once, sometime around the late Seventies or early Eighties it became fashionable to hate clowns. There have been three primary social forces working against them–the apocalyptic turn in American films, the growth of ironic comedy, and . . . oh yeah . . . a serial killer who dressed like a clown.
The post Vietnam era is marked by two obvious shifts on the focus of American popular culture. One was what I referred to above as the apocalyptic turn. The tradition of the American hero had always been of one who was slow to fight but good at it. Restrained but effective. The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers would shoot the gun out of the hombre’s hand, the put their own gun away and duke it out. Lucas McCain, the Rifleman, who try to intimidate his opponents with demonstrations of raw skill before having to face them in the street. Even icons like John Wayne’s characters, Shane and Tom Destry would attempt to solve problems with smallest dose of violence necessary to do the job. Then along came Clint Eastwood who between 1973 and 1985 made three westerns–High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider–that portrayed the protagonist as millennial scorcher of the earth. His heroes were bringers of judgment not just to the evil few but too the inherent evil in everyone. The breadth of his destruction was Biblical, and none of us were without sin. The Biblical judge was balanced by creatures of evil like Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, who slaughtered the impure and who could not die. For the audience it wasn’t a choice between Saint and Sinner, because all of us were sinners.
Clowns used slapstick to mock our human fallibility, because doing so brought us together. Since we are all fallible, we should all be less quick to judge. When fallibility morphs into original sin, though, brutal and final justice becomes the par. At the same time the trend in comedy was the pose that nothing is as it seems–everything is a facade, a scam, if not to hide our base intentions at least to hide our insecurities. David Letterman used his television show to mock television. Jerry Seinfeld drew his humor from everyday life and referred to that topic as “nothing.” The Black-White world of millennial right and wrong in parallel with the consensus everything sacred should be mocked spelled the death of slapstick and the tired obvious edifice of farce.
Then of course there was the guy who dressed up like a clown and killed little boys. John Wayne Gacy was probably not the first killer clown, but he has to be the most well known. During a six-year span between 1972 and 1978, he killed at least thirty-three young boys, many of whom he met under the pretext so throwing block parties under the pseudonym Pogo the Clown. Gacy’s crimes were heinous, and the clown angle was regularly played up in their retelling. Soon after than the scary, killer clown meme gained steam.
It might seem like a pretty broad leap from scary clowns to Jolly Old Saint Nick, but it really isn’t. The mood these days is to see every cherished icon as harboring at least a secret agenda and at most the subliminal hegemony of the capitalist ruling class. See our Pogo the Clown and raise us a generation of predatory priests, and the its open season on any seemingly nice old guy who wants to put Jimmy or Julie on his lap. Just within the last few days, as previously mentioned, I have seen several posts in social media complaining about mean dirty nasty—and of course flu ridden—Santa, some wishing he and all of his cohorts would just go away. Am I just shouting fire in a crowded Styrofoam wonderland? Is it beyond the collective imagination that American popular culture would enthusiastically toss Old Nick overboard for no better reason than the short term “edge” appeal of doing so? I think not. I think Santa needs some vigorous defense. So in the next few days, when you see him in the mall or on the street go out of your way to perpetuate the myth.
Yes, Virginia, there is Santa Claus. And there is a better than ever chance he doesn’t want to kill you in your sleep.