OM113 - Thomas Nast

This week, Ken and John talk about:

  • Santa Claus being the only lie we still tell our children (Christmas)
  • John’s relationship to Santa (Christmas)
  • Ken’s kids’ relationship to Santa (Christmas)
  • John’s daughter’s relationship to Santa (Christmas)
  • John celebrating Christmas with his mom when he was young (Christmas)
  • The origins of Santa from Europe (Christmas)
  • John’s dad working for the Kennedy campaign (Parents)
  • Boss Tweed scandal (History)
  • Anti-Catholicism in the 1940s (Parents)

Santa Claus being the only lie we still tell our children (OM113)

Honesty and candor is valued above almost everything else in parenting in our time. We are straight with our kids! When they ask a question, we give them the right answer, even if it is simplified. we are just matter of fact and say ”This is called sex and that is where babies come from” and then we amplify as time goes on. When Ken says ”we”, he always means upper-middle-class Americans, because who else is listening to podcasts?

John is always pleasantly surprised at the number of listeners to this show who are heartland Americans from Pumpkintown U.S.A., walking their dogs every day, saying ”Hi!” to all their neighbors whom they know by name. Ken does think telling the truth is more important than it used to be because people would just lie to their kids all the time. Kids weren’t considered fully human, which is not wrong, and adults didn’t consider them necessary. A kid just minded their business until it grew up. You couldn’t get attached to them because you were probably going to lose 6 of the 15 and you didn’t even name them all, but it was like having puppies.

When John and Ken were kids, their parents didn’t devote as much time and attention to listening to their dull, wandering, droning stories as both of them certainly do to their children now. They were post Benjamin Spock babies and their parents didn’t have the same empathetic relationship that parents are supposed to have with their kids today, with one exception: There is one lie that is culturally acceptable to tell your children, and it is the weirdest one of all, that a fat man in a uniform is going to come down your chimney and give gifts, despite all evidence to the contrary. Ken says that if John is dressed as Santa it is a costume, but if Santa is dressed as Santa it is a uniform.

John’s relationship to Santa (OM113)

According to John’s mom he was not willing to let go of Santa for a long time even when his sister was already over it. He remembers being old enough for being awake and reading a book at midnight when he heard his mom get up out of her bed, go out the front door, get in her car and drive away. She never came back and John raised his sister by killing squirrels in the yard. John’s mom went up to their neighbors’ house where she had hidden a gift for Christmas which was a bird, some kind of Parakeet or Budgie or something and it was going to make noise.

Ken gave his kids a puppy a couple of years ago and they also had to take it to a third location. John's mom was a single mom and she had to leave them alone to go up to the neighbor’s house and get this bird, which sounds like a very latchkey Christmas. John heard it all go down and put it together, like ”Aha! I see now! There is no Santa, there is only my mom!” and he was relieved by it. It had occurred to him a few times before. When he was little his mom was no-nonsense and when he asked her ”Mom, is there a Santa Clause?” she would say ”No!” and John started to cry. Then she walked it back and said that she was just kidding, of course there is!

Ken’s kids’ relationship to Santa (OM113)

Ken’s daughter got in trouble in Kindergarten class or in first grade for telling the other kids that there was no Santa. Ken’s son got told by his cousin who ruined it. Ken didn't remember which story belonged to which child and if he only had one kid you wouldn't have the cross to bear of actually not remembering which of these totally unlike kids, a boy and a girl, did which particular thing 5 or 10 years ago. Ken’s parents did a very canny thing and pretended it was some kind of unsolved Leonard Nimoy mystery like the Loch Ness Monster (In Search Of...) and they said ”Nobody really knows! Could there be a mysterious man? We have never explored the waste of the North Pole, it is hard to say!”, which was good because it gave his parents less complicity.

Ken had a prankster room-mate in college. At one point some prank went down and they were all skeptical and suspected that it was a prank, but he was like ”No!”, but surely enough, they opened the door and the prank they predicted was there. When we all know it is a prank and you keep telling us it is not, then it is not a prank, but a lie. If a kid keeps asking if Santa is real and mom and dad keep going like ”Yes, he is!”, at some point you are not keeping the magic alive, but you are just telling a lie, because the kid obviously suspects something or they wouldn’t keep asking.

John’s daughter’s relationship to Santa (OM113)

John is an urban wimp who didn’t ever want to say to his daughter, who is almost eight years old, that Santa was a real person who is watching her all year. He kept the dream alive by being obtuse when she asked about Santa, he said ”Interesting! Tell me more!", something he does when she asks him any question, asking her a follow-up question like ”Why do you think that?” or ”Tell me more about this story that you have heard!”.

She keeps Santa going on her own, but she does not give the signs of someone who truly believes that Santa is real, because if there really was someone coming down the chimney into her home and delivering presents, you would do a Norman Rockwell thing and sneak out to look like you were in a Sirius commercial, or you would act a certain way. She has never given John the side-eye about it, but she accepts it passively.

John’s daughter is much more excited about the Easter Bunny because that is a thing you can hunt and kill, the most dangerous game of all. John feels like she is on the cusp of saying ”Can we just stop pretending that Santa comes down the f… flue of our built-in fireplace?” Ken has a fake gas-fireplace with not even a chimney. It does create some awkward transition moment, because you want the kid to gradually start to think that this is just a silly tradition that mom and dad had been propping up for some reason and they need to see it in a metaphorical light now.

John celebrating Christmas with his mom when he was young (OM113)

John did have a very strong feeling that Christmas was a holy holiday. His family wasn't religious, but Christmas was the one time of year where you could feel the power behind religion, being spooked and also feel kind of merry at the same time, being scared in awe and also be kind of titillated and excited. After Susan had gone to bed John and his mom would turn off all the lights, sit on the couch and watch the Christmas tree lights twinkle. You really felt the magic of the darkest night of the year and a connection to something that was cosmic or bigger (see RL271).

Ken doesn’t like it when people put down the electric, consumerist American Christmas, because he likes the way how they quasi-secularized it enough that everyone can feel a little sense of awe and cheer, peace and goodwill. Tonight is a holy night! Even in a completely secular world it is nice to have at least one holy night where you can feel that you maybe not have to apply all your science all the time. Ken's family didn’t sit there looking at the twinkling tree thinking about Santa. The idea of baby Jesus is fairly well disseminated and while he wasn’t quite like the baby on the ceiling in Train Spotting, he was a baby with some magic powers who is very relatable to kids because he was sleeping in a barn with animals.

The origins of Santa from Europe (OM113)


People in Northern Europe really go crazy with Christmas traditions. Ken is going to have a real Northern-themed Christmas party this season with a Sinterklaas and presents in shoes because his wife grew up in Germany and loves that kind of Christmas market glowing lights affair. When you are there you really do feel that there is something to this. It is partly because the Germans and Dutch and Danish are still practicing a very pagan religion that they have dressed up as Christianity, but they are still tree-worshippers all of them!

Great Britain, Father Christmas

We tend to think that the American Santa Claus and the British Father Christmas are essentially synonymous, like elevators and lifts, or bacon and streaky bacon, but they actually have a totally different origin. The origin of Father Christmas is pretty pagan: He comes down through memories of Odin, a white-bearded personification of the solstice who ironically was brought back into fashion by royalists after the English Civil War. The Puritans tried to ban Christmas because it was ostentatious and excessive and they hated all the electric consumerist stuff, the tree lots, the traffic, the K-Mart, the Back Friday, the waiting in line for Santa at Macy’s, they hated it all!

In order to push back on Christmas being banned, the royalists introduced a personification of Christmas, a white-bearded man who has nothing to do with bringing gifts. He is about old-time Christmas traditions, adult merry-making and drinking. It comes from when feudal lords would let everybody have a feast around a big hearth one time in the year at the solstice, the darkest night. Then he claimed his primae noctis and that is why kids had to go to bed early, it has nothing to do with stockings. That big white Odin-like king fellow Sire Christmas got melted with the Dutch, the last people to enjoy the idea of a Saint Nicholas day, the patron saint of children, the Turkish bishop, one of the early church fathers.

John does have a Turkish bishop over every winter, somebody he has know for a long time. Ken thinks that Turkish Bishop sounds like a Christmas treat, but John thinks it sounds like a Hot Karl, but he warns everybody not to google Hot Karl!

Netherlands, Sinterklaas

The Dutch kept up the idea of a gift-giver for Children and turned him form a saintly bishop into more of a merry elf. Those two traditions combined in America, because America is the continent where all things English and all things Dutch come together. They got the puritans, but then they Christmasized them with that weird Dutch folklore, they got the mercantile instinct of the Dutch and the dour puritans being forced to celebrate Christmas against their will.

John spent several Christmas seasons in the Netherlands. Santa in the Netherland does not have eight tiny reindeer or elves, but he has little black slaves by the name of Black Petes (Zwarte Piet) as his helpers. They are dressed like Moors and they follow him everywhere. Whenever you see Sinterklaas he is followed by this whole cadre of white people in blackface and afro wigs. There are also little Black Petes in all of the windows of the shops, it is a major component and you don’t see Sinterklaas without them. They are Moorish and if you are a bad kid they will take you to Spain, not to Africa, which makes more sense because the Netherlands were a Spanish colony for a century or more and the Dutch have a real sense of Spain as a foreign oppressor and a place full of Moorish Elves.

Santa’s elves

To Ken it seems like elves are just a watered-down version because Santa needed a non-union labor force and slaves were out. In the original printing of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory the Oompa Loompas were explicitly awful racial caricatures of swarthy tropical people. It might specifically say ”Africa”, and Oompa Loompa sounds like Unga Bunga. In later printings they come from Loompa land to make it less racialist and their description is fanciful, like orange and blue and they are little people, so no-one could possibly take offense. Elves are Danish and you can see them throughout Denmark, in fact they work in all the convenience stores and they make LEGO. In Iceland most people will tell you they still believe in elves and trolls. All their Pop-stars are elves.

America, Santa Claus

The American tradition of Santa, elves and jolly Sugarplum Fairies is a goulash of all these Northern European traditions that coalesced in New York City in 1850 or something like that. You got the Dutch influence, you got the English influence, authors like Washington Irving wrote about Santa Claus as an Americanized Sinterklaas and Clement C Moore wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas. He invented the tiny reindeer and the description of Santa: ”His eyes - how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.” Ken wonders why he still knows this and how much other stuff he could have remembered if his 6ht grade teacher hadn’t made him memorize A Visit from St. Nicholas (full text here).

John really wants Ken robotically reading this text as his ringtone on his phone. John starts citing the preamble of the constitution: ”We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare” (see RL109). The American idea of a jolly gift-giving elf formed in this period. John has always objected to Santa being described as an elf himself. In a lot of these 19th century poems they call him a jolly old elf. but maybe he is the biggest elf? Clement C Moore probably spoke metaphorically and didn’t just call him that for the rhyme to work.

Pictorial history

see a pictorial history of Santa Claus here!

It is a popular misconception that our modern view of Santa, a large man with a red fur-lined coat, thick belt and boots, comes from 1930s-1940s Coca Cola advertising and that Coke created the modern Santa. They did do a lot of popular lushly painted adds with Santa interacting with kids, but these illustration by Haddon Sundblom actually reflected what people already believed about Santa. A 1902 cover of Puck Magazine (Ken says Punch Magazine) is showing Santa by an Australian illustrator and he looks just like he does today with exactly the same fashion and beard, like he just walked off of a dollar-store Christmas card.

The American who was most influential in creating our modern Santa is the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (first mentioned at 24:16) who was the great political cartoonist of his time, but he would have called himself an artist or an illustrator (See his Santa Claus illustrations here). He was hired by Harper’s Weekly in 1862, a ”journal of civilization” that was mass-media at the time. Because the magazine was Nation-wide it had to be fairly moderate. In 1863 Nast did a series of illustrations about Santa in Stars and Stripes as a propaganda-figure of the Civil War that popularized the image of Santa. In 1881 he did a picture called Merry Old Santa where Santa is almost indistinguishable from our modern version. He also created the idea that Santa lives at the North Pole, prior to him Santa didn’t have an address.

He is also known for giving the political parties their symbol animals, the donkey and the elephant via the cartoon Third Term Panic. His most famous legacy is what he did for New York City at a crazy time when a corrupt Democratic Party machine would control major American cities, which seems like a fable to us now.

John’s dad working for the Kennedy campaign (OM113)

John has ran for office in large cities with powerful Democratic votes, but he is not going to say that the Washington Democratic party is a corrupt machine. He knows this for a fact because his father worked for Kennedy as his advance-man on the campaign in 1960 and he went to Chicago to lay out what was going to happen when Kennedy arrived. He was taken by the Chicago party-machine and in his time there he got into smoke-filled rooms with the Chicago Democrats. When he came back to Washington he wanted to turn the Washington party, which he was really involved with, into a Chicago-style machine because Washington’s communitarian mealy-mouthed style of Democratic politics needed to circle the wagons.

John's dad and his friend Bernie Heavy (?) made a run at the Democratic party leadership, but they lost and weren’t able to get enough support. In the West where they have this independent Scandinavian streak, they didn't want these Scheisters telling them what to do. It was also the dying era of smoke-filled rooms, except for Chicago where it persists today. It got no traction in Washington and it was a real defeat for John’s dad who lost his political momentum.

Everybody at the time thought he could have ran Seattle, he had been elected to the legislature while he was still in law school, he was the golden-haired child and this was the group that was going to send him to the US Senate once they got their ducks in a row and stopped wandering around in the rain with their waxed cotton hats, but he couldn’t get a quorum and so he moved to Alaska and never really rejoined the Washington State Democrats, but he started the Alaska Democrats.

Ken says that John’s dad is like a Pacific Northwest (William) Boss Tweed who also ended up getting exiled, although John’s dad wasn’t corrupt as much as he believed in a centralized way and he liked the efficiency of it and was more of a Stalinist daily type. John says that his dad felt like the Democrats should determine from the top down who the candidates were and what their platforms were, rather than from the bottom up. Old-school Democrats! In Washington State there is one political party today which is the Democratic Party.

That idea is kind of out of fashion elsewhere and you have these rising stars coming out of nowhere, school teachers or people coming out of the Internet or out of labor who say ”Hey, I could run!”, which has always been the American fantasy, but everybody who is supposedly Joe America is politically connected and politically active. They are not unknowns, but they come from activist backgrounds rather than from party Stalwart backgrounds, but they are super-well-known within the activist world and for them it is easy to rally the right base. Patty Murray's story is about being just a mom in tennis shoes and she became one of the most powerful US Senators, but it wasn’t due to the shoes, but it was Washington State politics.

Boss Tweed scandal (OM113)

Boss Tweed ran the Democratic Party machine in gilded age New York, which was super-corrupted at this time. The source of Tweed’s power was not his elected office, but he realized early on that he needed to be placed on all these boards that actually made the decisions. The city was run on patronage and John’s dad was in charge of patronage for the Washington State Democrats. At one point he held the office Director of Patronage for the Governor of Washington, which was like ”Did you do a favor for the governor? Then you get the contract!” It was just how things were done in the 1950s. Tweed took this to a great extreme and once he was on the county board of supervisors and had appointed all his buddies everywhere else, then they could turn the faucets and the money started to flow out.

Tammany Hall was a fraternal lodge and Tweed got himself elected as the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, a chief or wise man who runs the show and who was skimming millions of dollars from the New York City and State budget. With no oversight it falls to the 5th column, the press to try to rile people up about this naked corruption that was going on and most of the work was done by the New York Times who did a series of hard-hitting looks of exactly how much power Tammany Hall was up to and how they abused it.

Thomas Nast really jumped on this in Harper’s Weekly and riled people up about Tweed in particular. People who would never read 3 columns of 14 inches of tiny type in the New York Times did look at a picture by Thomas Nast where Tweed was drawn as a vulture, as a Napoleon type conqueror or as a corpulent titan with a money-bag for a head. This is what started to change public opinion and these cartoons where Tweed was made into a figure of fun really did a lot of harm.

Anti-Catholicism in the 1940s (OM113)

John’s mom talks about Ohio in the 1940s and they were the most prejudiced against Italians and Irish. There were no Catholics in their town as far as they knew. One little problem about Nast’s legacy is that a lot of his work is pretty racist against people that we don’t think of as victims of racism now.

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