‘Becoming Santa’: There’s life in the old guy yet


"Becoming Santa" airs on OWN. (OWN)
December 7, 2011

I bring glad and mad tidings about the Christmastime TV offerings. There’s a fantastic documentary on OWN Thursday night called “Becoming Santa,” which is one of the most honest, lovely and quietly intelligent inquiries ever made into the symbolic meaning of the big man in the red suit.

For reasons I’ll get to, I hope you catch “Becoming Santa,” even though doing so will mean you’ll have to endure yet another barrage of holiday ads during the commercial breaks, which brings me to today’s critical tirade: The commercials have gone too far this year, with many of them depicting a consumer culture that is grabby, hasty, heartless and smug. Is that the only way left to entice the beleaguered American consumer to shop? By depicting us as jerks?

Is there really a war on Christmas? Rabbi Brad Hirshfield and other Washington Post readers discussed this topic Thursday. Read the chat transcript now.

Best Buy, in particular, is running a terribly callous series of commercials called “Game On, Santa,” in which obsessed female shoppers purchase the gifts that their loved ones really want at Best Buy and then wait up on Christmas Eve to accost Santa Claus in their living rooms and gloat that they’ve already beat him to the punch. In your face, you outdated fat man with your outdated presents!

“Awk-ward,” a woman mock-hisses at a baffled, sweet Santa caught standing at her tree, ready to lay out his gifts to her family. She points out that she’s already filled her children’s stockings with Best Buy junk, offering him a chance to fill her dog’s stocking instead. No one can watch this ad and feel at all good about its message, or about a society that would become so fixated on transactions that it viciously turns on Santa.

In another Best Buy ad, a woman triumphantly and loudly gulps down the glass of milk left for Santa by her children, while Santa watches with a confused and intimidated look on his face. In still another, as Santa prepares to leave a bottle of cologne by the tree, he is confronted by the lady of the house, who boasts that “Daddy don’t want no cologne” and gestures toward the flat-screen TV she’s already bought her hubby at Best Buy.

Months ago, there must have been a roomful of Best Buy mucketymucks who were presented with this atonal, needlessly mean-spirited ad campaign and were utterly delighted by the notion, laughing their heads off. I wonder if anyone in charge had second thoughts.

But why would they? Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target have encouraged the prolonging of Black Friday mania, further emphasizing the holiday’s sense of panic and deadline and savings one-upmanship. In a Wal-Mart ad, a customer (again depicted as a manners-challenged, busy-bee mom) asks a Wal-Mart electronics department clerk if he will take a look at her to-do list. “It’s all crossed out,” he observes.

“That’s ’cause I got everything on it — BOOM!” she taunts loudly, in the employee’s face, using gestures usually reserved for the basketball court or hockey rink.

For its part, Target has added a commercial to its holiday mix in which a variety of Christmas strivers all shout “DONE!” to themselves or to others, with a self-satisfied tone: Baking, DONE! Decorating, DONE! Cards, DONE! Shopping, DONE! Wrapping, DONE! One woman dances a victory jig, punching the air.

That’s the point of Christmas? To get it over with? Certainly we can all relate to the satisfaction of completing the errands and chores so as to find that ever-shrinking nanosecond of peace and joy (“all is calm, all is bright,” etc.) that the season promises.

What these ads have all either sensed or stumbled onto, however, is our increasing need to turn everything into a heated competition. Life now plays out like bitter sports rivalries — us vs. them, or really, me against everyone else in the Best Buy. It’s pepper-spray attacks and tramplings in the Wal-Mart, etc., only it’s a year-round feeling now.

On the eve of what promises to be an ugly (and costly) 2012 election cycle, amid an atmosphere of growing worry about wealth and resources, with palpable acrimony simmering between the haves and the have-nots (the haves are still seen on TV giving one another Lexuses with big red bows atop), watching the ads that lard up the airwaves this Christmas has become a depressing activity. The Groupon mentality has taken over: Me first, at a sharp discount, whether or not it harms other customers, or business owners, or even the idea of Santa himself.

Which makes “Becoming Santa” all the more compelling — it’s a break from the noise. Having made the film festival rounds earlier this year, this unconventional documentary was directed by Jeff Myers; it was conceived by and stars Jack Sanderson.

Sanderson, a single Los Angeles man in his mid-40s, decides to learn everything he can about the men who dress as Santa Claus every November and December to work in malls or at other paying gigs or who volunteer for charity appearances. While going through old family photos, Sanderson discovers a picture of his recently deceased father dressed as Santa Claus, taken not long after the death of Sanderson’s mother. Was his father finding some mysterious comfort in donning the red suit and white beard? Would doing so help Sanderson cope with his own feelings of loss and mortality?

Putting his girth and hirsuteness to use, Sanderson embarks on a journey to become a Santa. He bleaches his beard and hair and attends a summertime training camp for would-be Santas, where he passes with flying colors. From there, he gets a grueling initiation to the life of Claus, appearing on a “Polar Express” train ride for children on the old New York Susquehanna & Western Railway, and then at a town parade and tree-lighting in Massachusetts. He also hires himself out for Christmas Eve “sneak and peeks,” where parents pay him to tiptoe around their living rooms so they can wake their sleepy children for a private glimpse of Santa.

“Becoming Santa” would have quickly become hokey and glib in someone else’s hands, but Myers and Sanderson approach the project with an earnest and searching tone. The result is both happy and melancholy, and admirably real, as we learn more about the icon’s complicated history — a mashup of religion, superstition and marketing. The act of being Santa is far from perfect, Sanderson discovers, but something about it remains magical. “Becoming Santa” is filled with a fresh take on hope. I wish it were showing on every screen in Best Buy.

Becoming Santa

(two hours) airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on OWN.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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