Special Report

No Easy Sleddin’

Santa Claus has a proud religious history. So there.

By 12.20.04

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The big news at Wal-Mart as the year ends is that Christmas sales aren't so hot. In contrast, things aren't so bad at the more ritzy stores where those who got the biggest tax cuts go to shop. Here's how it looked at the top of the shopping scene in a recent business article in the New York Times: "As the silver-lined elevator at Bergdorf Goodman lifted the woman with the carefully manicured hair to the couture level on Thursday afternoon, she spoke into her cellphone: 'I've finished shopping -- almost,' she said, looking down at her bags. 'No, not a van. I think a Town Car will be quite big enough, thank you.'"

That's a different picture from someone with a truck outside of Wal-Mart. To get things moving at the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart's execs have announced that there'll be even bigger discounts on those Chinese reindeer, the yard ones made out of wire with the white lights.

My lights didn't work this year, and the reindeer are only a year old. That's the trade deficit. They make junk, cheaper than American products, and we send them the money. Then the stuff doesn't work and we send them more money. In 2002, Wal-Mart sent some $12 billion to China for imported merchandise, the same year Beijing was working overtime to beef up its weapons of mass destruction program and export the technology to Iran, Pakistan, and Libya.

Anyway, back to my reindeer. On one, only the head and antlers would light up, and only three legs and a tail on another. Not one of the five lit up from head to toe. So after cursing out the commies and saying a string of words inappropriate to a religious holiday, I kicked the whole damn bunch up to the end of the driveway, so some lucky soul could light up his whole front yard for just the price of some re-stringing.

The funny thing about deer this time of year is the 1984 Supreme Court ruling known as the "plastic reindeer rule," which said that religious displays on public property might be okay if enough secular stuff is tossed in, like a blinking Frosty or a plastic Santa or Rudolph. The goofy thing about that ruling is that Santa and Rudolph are up to their necks in religion. Rudolph is pulling Santa who's really the fourth century bishop of Myra, Nicholas, a Christian saint, and, more explicitly, the patron saint of Russia, wolves, shopkeepers, sailors, bakers, and pawnbrokers.

A young Nicholas, according to legend, traveled to Palestine and Egypt and was imprisoned by Emperor Diocletian. Later released by Emperor Constantine, Nicholas showed his devotion and appreciation to God through extraordinary generosity, giving anonymous donations of gold coins to the poor. In one story, a father is too poor to provide a dowry for his three daughters. In the morning, each of the daughters finds a bag of gold that had been dropped down the chimney into their stockings which had been hung to dry.

The chubby figure in white fur and a red suit came much later, some three centuries after Columbus named a Haitian port after St. Nicholas, by way of a poem written in 1823, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better know as "The Night Before Christmas." He was "dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; a bundle of toys he had flung on his back." The "beard of his chin was as white as the snow" and he had "a broad face and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly."

Supreme Court or not, it was never easy sledding for Santa Claus. During the Reformation, the magistrates in Amsterdam attempted to stamp out St. Nicholas and take the "fables of the papacy out of the youth's heads." Seeing too much action on the street, they declared that "on Saint Nicholas Eve no persons, whoever they may be, are to be allowed on the Dam or any other places or streets within this town with any kind of candy, eatables, or other merchandise."

Well, now he's allowed back, even judicially encouraged, but only in plastic, and only if we forget the real story and stick him in the same bag as Frosty.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.