December 25, 2012

Lost in the Myth

As I write this, it's Christmas.  Given the general tradition of merriment involved with that holiday, I feel somewhat unhappy that I might have closed out the year on such a sad and unpleasant topic.  Not that I feel this particular year didn't deserve to end on a sour note, mind you.  So in the spirit of the holiday, I thought I'd return to form by delving into something thought-provoking and fun to think about: Santa Claus (sort of).

Yeah, yeah...I know; predictable.  So?  What's so bad about predictability?  Hell, half the reason we do the things we do is to establish some kind of predictability in our lives that reassures us that things are OK.  So to that end, I thought it'd be fun to take a closer look at an icon that is at once over-exposed and incredibly important to the culture of the US, if not the entire world.  Some of you are getting ready to pounce on comments section with a Wikipedia link proving that the Jolly-Old-Elf is just a creation of the Coca-Cola corporation to market their soft-drinks at the holiday.  Tell you what, I'll save you the time.  I'm fully aware that Coke "invented" the modern image of Santa Claus as a marketing strategy, and I'm here today to tell you

It's the Myth that Matters.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to tell you to abandon all your cynicism or even that you should believe in Santa Claus against the evidence of your senses or reality itself; that would be ridiculous.  I think very highly of cynicism in today's world of deceit and psychological manipulation by marketing, and it's both sensible and healthy to maintain a level of skeptical and critical thinking to protect yourself.  But, I am also a big proponent of indulgence in mythology and the stories that inform the culture(s) around you.  With this "disclaimer" out of the way, let's dive in.

For those of you who only recently emerged from your nice protective rock, Santa Claus is the name given (in the US, anyway) to a fictitious being associated with the Christmas holiday who is often said to be responsible for bestowing presents on the good boys and girls of the world the night of Christmas eve so that those children can open them and play on Christmas morning.  Although there has been some variation over the years, he's generally depicted as fat and jolly, sporting a red suit with white trim, and an elven hat with a white tuft on the end of it and his preferred mode of travel is a sleigh led by a small herd of reindeer, including at least one with, well...."interesting" sinus issues. 

It is almost always said that Santa Claus is possessed of mystical or even magical powers of omniscience, i.e. that he can know if you're asleep or not and whether you've been well behaved throughout the year.  He is also apparently capable of travel across the globe with at least one toy for every good boy and girl in the space of a single night with no delays.  That's a pretty impressive feat given how hard it is for me just to get to work in the morning.  Barring some pretty esoteric exceptions, this is the basic image and description of Santa Claus as told to nearly all American children. Essentially, the story of Santa Claus that we're given is the story of a type of deity: an all-knowing and very powerful entity capable of great benevolence and willing to ignore or even punish those who's behavior is insufficiently "good" in his eyes. 

Given this basic understanding, I can see where the temptation towards "explaining away" Santa Claus as a marketing product or even a straight-up lie might come in.  Obviously, Santa Claus isn't "real" (Oh...uh...Spoiler Alert? Sorry) and many people feel that this representation of Santa Claus is a kind of extension of the morality code practiced by our society at large.  If the story goes that he's willing to pass up "bad" children, it's easy to see how this is a way of offering incentives towards "good" behaviors in order to help maintain the smaller and larger social orders.  And, of course, the main reason to be cynical about Santa's existence is that he actually is (to some extent) a product of marketing.  He's quite literally designed to be appealing to and indeed loved by children, thus having them associate positive feelings with their brand.  All this is perfectly valid criticism, and there's no way to sensibly deny any of the assertions about the "utilitarian" aspects to the Santa Claus myth.  However, on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that, in the end, ALL mythology serves a similar purpose to it's culture.  I could point to examples from ancient Egypt, or Greece to highlight this point, but I'm actually going to choose a completely different mythology to make my point: Batman.

No, you didn't misread that.  No, I don't think Batman and Santa Claus have much in common in terms of what they represent or how they're depicted.  What they do have in common, however, is that they are both cultural myths born of a profit seeking entity trying encourage a kind of brand loyalty while simultaneously offering their "followers" something to think about and believe in regarding the culture that created them.  Batman is a hero; a being who struggles and sacrifices in order to serve an ideal of justice that he has meticulously maintained in response to a tragedy in his past.  He has fine-tuned his willpower to the point where he will always strive to hold to this ideal, even when it comes into direct opposition to what he wants at the time. He uses an incredible arsenal of tools and gadgets to solve mysteries, aid him in combat, and gain access to information that others without his resources cannot.  He might be portrayed as a "mortal man", but make no mistake, he's nearly as omnipotent and omniscient as the red-coated cookie-fiend we've been talking about.  They're both symbolic representations of an ideal made flesh, and, by extension, they are both people we are meant, not just to admire, but to idolize.  We're meant to strive for the ideals they represent; in Batman's case, it's justice, and in Santa's case it's kindness and generosity of spirit.

So why couldn't we just tell children "seek justice in the world" or "be kind and giving"? Well, because, deep down at the core of what it is to experience our humanity, that just isn't enough.  Throughout all of human history, it has always been the case that we exemplify our ideals and values through these sort of "superhuman" mythologies.  As far back as the cave-men, we told stories of how nature itself punished those who weren't careful.  The ancient Greeks (see, I worked them in eventually) invented an entire pantheon of "supermen" who's stories speak volumes of the morality and values of Greek life.  The Holy Bible (and it's ilk) is, in essence, a story book of supernatural beings whose purpose is to convey a sense of right and wrong to its readers.  This is how we, as a species, need our world explained to us.  It has never been enough that something "is".  Even science fiction and fantasy stories are attempts to make absolutest statements about the scope and limits of the human condition by taking them to impossible lengths and then reaffirming that the condition persists even under such extraordinary circumstances.  As I already said in the last post: reality just isn't good enough. 

Does this mean that there's no value in simply stating the case in "non-fictional" terms?  Of course not.  In fact, the real problem with this kind of cultural myth-making is that people too often get so absorbed in the extraordinary, that they can often lose sight of what makes it so important: it's meaning is real, even if it's expression is not.  We shouldn't try to actually be Batman anymore than we should start giving out gifts by flying around in a sleigh led by reindeer.  To engage these stories in such a literal way is to miss the entire point of the mythology.  Humanity has always needed "gods" to worship, but we must take care that what we do in that act of worship doesn't take the form of blind belief, but rather a kind of introspective understanding of the meaning implicit in the story. 

Obviously, interpretations of these meanings will vary from one individual to another, depending greatly on personal experiences and environmental conditions, but the goal remains the same.  Put simply: don't believe in Santa Claus, but strive to understand what he means to you and those around you.  Who knows? You may even forget about Coca-Cola entirely.  Admit it, you kinda did, didn't you?

I wish you all a Happy Holiday if you are, in fact, celebrating one. Even if you aren't, I hope you'll look to your mythology of choice with a fresh eye. 

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

1 comment:

  1. Just some quick thoughts about this.

    Myths can be fun, and can be a very effective way to teach important values and principles. But I consider it a limitation of our brain structure that we respond to them as forcefully as we do. More generally, it is a problem for the human race that the persuasiveness/effectiveness of a communication bears no relation to the validity/accuracy of its content.

    Also, there is an alternative to full participation in the Santa Claus myth other than blatant denial. It is possible to teach a child from an early age that Santa Claus is a fun game to play at Christmas time. The child can be told from an early age that Santa isn't real, but just a fun thing to pretend. And isn't it nice to imagine that such a benevolent person might exist?