Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

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This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

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No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

raven
A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs. 

Santa Claus: A Fat, Jolly Kleptomaniac with a Raging Coke Addiction

In 1931, Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom was approached by the Coca-Cola Company to reinvent the image of Santa Claus. The artist had a lot to work with. The legend which had begun with the generosity of a 4th-century bishop was Americanized by Washington Irving in 1809.

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Coke and Santa Claus, forever linked by the efforts of Haddon Sundblom. That’s effective advertising.

In 1823, thanks to the poetry of Clement Moore (maybe), he became a jolly elfish figure with magical flying reindeer.  During the American Civil War, artist Thomas Nash gave St. Nicholas his more familiar name. Santa Claus became an enthusiastic Union supporter dressed in fur from head to toe.

American artists Rockwell, Wyeth, and Leyendecker captured the essence of Santa Claus in the early 20th-century. The jolly fat man received a fur-trimmed stocking cap, wide black belt, black boots, and a large bag of toys. This is also when red and white became his undisputed favorite colors.

By the time Sundblom got hold of him, Santa already resembled a Coke can in the American imagination. But Santa was still elfish, stern, and a little bit too much like a random fat guy in a funny suit. Evidently, that didn’t make people want to run out and drink Coca-Cola.

Sundblom solved the problem by recruiting his neighbor, a fat, jolly salesman, to model for him. The result was a magical looking image of a warm and friendly man people the world over began to identify with. For thirty years, Sundblom breathed life into his Santa. He played with toys, relaxed by the fire, and pilfered the Christmas feast from the refrigerator.

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A jolly Sanata demonstrating for an innocent child that it’s perfectly okay to snag a drink from someone else’s fridge without asking permission. By User:Husky [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
All this he did with a warm smile and a bottle of Coke. The images captured the imagination of the world, even in nations where “Santa” was more often portrayed as a wiry bishop. The rumor spread that Sundblom and Coca-Cola invented the iconic red and white suit of the American Santa Claus.

But it isn’t exactly true. What they did was standardize Santa as a fat kleptomaniac with a friendly face and a raging Coke addiction. And Christmas has been all the jollier ever since.  

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Creeptastic. Seriously. photo credit: Elf on a Shelf Playing with Knives via photopin (license)

 

My kiddos have outgrown their Santa years, and thankfully we never got into that creeptastic Elf on a Shelf thing. But they appreciate the magic of the legend, and they’ll have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. Because our stockings are still hung by the chimney with care, and my boys know St. Nicholas soon will be there.

He’ll be jolly-ish as he assembles surprises late into the night (maybe we could use an elf on our shelf). He’ll drink the Coke left for him on the hearth because he’ll need the caffeine. And before he stumbles bleary-eyed into bed, he might even raid the fridge.