December 12, 2013

How should a Santa be? Well, here’s one take, from Megyn Kelly, after Aisha Harris on Slate suggested making him into a penguin instead of the usual old white man.

This is the kind of argument that keeps Wikipedia humming warmly throughout the winter with postings and edits and repostings and re-edits.

(Sergey Ponomarev, file/Associated Press)<br /> Santa Claus is a concept<br /> He is a concept that brings gifts<br /> <del datetime="2013-12-12T19:45:12+00:00">Santa Claus is a woman?</del><br /> Santa Claus is inside all of us<br /> Santa Claus is inside some of us<br /> When do you stop believing in Santa?<br /> What is Santa?<br /> Santa is not real<br /> Santa is not real, but very detailed
(Sergey Ponomarev, file/Associated Press)
Santa Claus is a concept
He is a concept that brings gifts
Santa Claus is a woman?
Santa Claus is inside all of us
Santa Claus is inside some of us
When do you stop believing in Santa?
What is Santa?
Santa is not real
Santa is not real, but very detailed

We can all agree on the wardrobe. Mostly. Red hat, white trim, black boots. Forget the fur he was wearing in “The Night Before Christmas.” He’s ditched the pipe, I think, but kept the belly, which still shakes when he laughs like a bowlful of jelly.

He’s a male heterosexual living in the North Pole with his wife, Mrs. Claus (what is her first name, anyway?) and a crew of elves, who work all year round to produce toys and electronics for the young, even though those could be obtained more cheaply from the manufacturer, given all the effort involved in making an identical-looking iPhone that is compatible with Apple products and devices. Santa may or may not vacation, but when doing so, he is usually depicted on beaches with white beard and swim trunks in his usual color scheme. Aliases include Kris Kringle, St. Nicholas, Jolly St. Nick (St. Nicholas, after a few egg nogs), Jolly Old St. Nicholas (St. Nicholas after a few egg nogs, in bad lighting), Father Christmas, Santa and Tim Allen. Santa comes in other national variants. In France, he’s Pere Noel. Elsewhere in Europe, he’s Sinterklaas and Der Kerstman. He always looks a little like Dumbledore. He used to ride around on a Yule Goat in Scandinavia, according to Wikipedia, but the goat somehow got lost in the shuffle when he arrived at mainstream fame and acceptance, replaced by the more photogenic reindeer. (The Yule Goat and Pete Best often hang out together around the holidays.)

We can say all of this so definitely because Santa is a crowd-sourced character. Every attribute he has is something we have built up together over hundreds of years. He’s basically like Slenderman. Hear me out on this. Slenderman, for those unfamiliar with him because they hang out in the safe part of the Internet, is a terrifying figure with no face, prodigious height and long arms who appears in nightmares and may eat children. He is basically the anti-Santa — skinny and tall rather than plump and approachable, a creature of fear rather than joy — but, like Santa, he is a crowdsourced myth. Like Santa, he is based in archetypes from a variety of cultures and his physical form as we know it was largely determined by one person’s artwork (Thomas Nast in the case of Santa, Victor Surge in the case of Slenderman) then elaborated upon in subsequent depictions until we reached a form that everyone who knows about the character can recognize.

Every fact we have about him, we have because we made him up. That’s why we have so many facts.

So it’s not unreasonable to suggest turning Santa into a penguin. It’s within our power to do. We made this creature! We can break him! Megyn Kelly buys into one version, but — Santa is a story we tell each other every year. We can change the way we tell it. The only thing that gives the myth power is the number of people who believe it. And it’s always evolving. Rudolph, for instance, is a relatively recent addition.

There is nothing that is easier and more fulfilling to argue about than mythology. There are only so many facts about real things. But there is a limitless supply of fake facts. What color was Mace Windu’s lightsaber? What was Mon Mothma’s educational background? What color are Vampire Jasper’s eyes when he is hungry? Real people supply only limited amounts of trivia. But with imaginary characters, the sky’s the limit. They’re the only people we really can know everything about — what they have for breakfast, what they wish they had for breakfast, what weapons they use, what their favorite day of the week is.

But fake facts can also change. Myths move. Who’s Zeus dating right now? Santa can vary. White, black, penguin? Where there is no authoritative source and the canon consists of one or two poems and a whole passel of holiday songs, it’s all in how convincingly you tell the tale.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.