President Claus: The Chief Executive as Santa

President Harry Truman with an Atomic Age Santa Claus. (HSTL)

President Harry Truman with an Atomic Age Santa Claus. (HSTL)

Both are invested with powers that reach mythological proportions.

Simply by the title they hold, each represents a long history of various traditions and customs which is nothing less than their duty to carry out.

The President has his global intelligence means - and so does Santa Claus.

The President has his global intelligence means – and so does Santa Claus.

Within the seemingly secret realms of their kingdoms behind tall locked gates, they are expected to show levels of compassion for all of humanity and act with lightening swift decisiveness in judging just who is naughty and who is nice.

Certainly both enjoy dispensing with presents of all types, especially to children but also to adults.

Santa with U.S. Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama.

Santa with U.S. Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama.

And long before a President of the United States had a National Security Agency collecting information on every citizen, flipping through our selfies and watching our every move thanks to smartphone, iphone and all android global positioning systems, Santa Claus was doing the same exact thing.

In his case, it was the self-crafted, jerry-rigged Globoscope, an archaic but reliable gadget of various magnifying lenses focused precisely on every spot of longitude and latitude from the tippy-top point of planet earth.

The President and Santa Claus of the United States share a far longer intertwined history than might be meet the mind’s eye.

The way each persona is now perceived is, of course, a distillation of hundreds of years of how world leaders have been viewed with antecedents of both roles reaching back into deeply rooted European history.

And yet, without any real conscious effort, over the decades the original foreign concepts of “Head of State” and “Father Winter” expanded, shaped by internal domestic factors within the United States such as war, immigration, economic conditions, government reform and technology to emerge as distinct and recognizable figures.

Foreign countries may still hold dear their own distinct “Father Winter” images but somehow they’ve remained quite apart from the sober, serious and humorless concepts of world leaders.

The Presidents of Finland, India and Russia greet their versions of Santa Claus with considerably less cheer than their American counterparts.

With skepticism, discomfort and disappointment, the Presidents of Finland, India and Russia greet Santa Claus.

Going back nearly a century there have been reports of Presidents and their spouses meeting and greeting Santa Claus at various parties and receptions, mostly for children.

Reagan sits on Santa's lap.

Reagan sits on Santa’s lap.

In fact, in contrast to leaders of other nations, Ronald Reagan was so comfortable with Santa Claus, he even sat on his lap.

Certainly for a good half a century now, the President will stand alongside Santa Claus to preside over Washington, D.C.’s annual National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.

Without a government mandate to turn the event into one that must reference religious beliefs or s absolutely secular or absolutely religious, the event evokes the far more ancient tradition of pre-modern winter celebrations of light which nevertheless manages to integrate the religious origins of the holiday.

Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus as visiting Union troops during the Civil War.

Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus as visiting Union troops during the Civil War.

Not until very recent years, by comparison, have the leaders of other nations condescended to be photographed alongside otherwise common tall and fat men dressed in white beards, fur hats and long coats. And when they have, their faces betray their bewilderment, discomfort or consternation.

In the December 1864 issue of a publication known as the Comic Monthly, President Abraham Lincoln was cast as Santa Claus.

In the December 1864 issue of a publication known as the Comic Monthly, President Abraham Lincoln was cast as Santa Claus.

An important turning point in the evolution of the American Santa Claus as we know him today occurred during the Civil War, a talented hand guided by the whimsical imagination of the famous illustrator Thomas Nast.

Nast was a leading artist, caricature cartoonist for the leading weekly national newspaper-magazines, starting at Harper’s, then going to the the New York Illustrated News and finally to Leslie’s and working in a day before the new visual format of photography could be printed in pulp paper publications like magazines and newspapers, he provided both realistic drawings and cartoons of political satire.

Nast is credited with giving form and face to the evolving Santa Claus, regularly featuring the Christmas symbol after 1862 on the cover and in the pages of Leslie’s.

He also politicized Santa Claus. Since his drawings were pen-sketches and reproduced only in black and white, there was no need for him to worry about getting the iconic red-white color theme of Jolly Ole’ St. Nick, and so he had no problem showing Mr. Kringle in a robe of stars, as he offered cheer to Union Army soldiers.

Benjamin Harrison was the first of only two known Presidents to dress up as Santa Claus.

Benjamin Harrison was the first of only two known Presidents to dress up as Santa Claus.

Nast is also famous for being one of the most prolific cartoonists to depict President Abraham Lincoln. Derided, disliked and denigrated even by supporters of the Union, President Lincoln was cast in thousands of newspaper and magazine cartoons in various shapes, from Satan to a woman to a monkey.

But it may very well be that it was Nast  (or some other unidentified period cartoonist) who took his sketch pen to make a genius stroke or two, becoming the first to cast a U.S. President as Santa Claus.

While Santa Claus was firmly entrenched in the American popular culture throughout the post Civil War years, no known images of Presidents Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur either with or as him seem to exist.

Ronald Reagan dresses as Santa Claus at a friend's Christmas Eve party.

Ronald Reagan dresses as Santa Claus at a friend’s Christmas Eve party.

The cult of Santa Claus reached a zenith in the high Victorian decade of the 1890s. And credit goes to President Benjamin Harrison for putting up the first documented Christmas tree in the private quarters of the White House.

Harrison, described by Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice not unlike the era’s popular concept of Santa Claus as “bearded and gnome-like,” was clearly aware of his resemblance to the famous man of Christmas.

To give his three little grandchildren who lived in the White House, the otherwise remote President Harrison donned a red-and-white costume and turned himself into Santa Claus.

Teddy Roosevelt shakes his tree of political plums in front of politicos hoping one will fall their way.

Teddy Roosevelt shakes his tree of political plums in front of politicos hoping one will fall their way.

It was not until nearly a century later that a President of the United States was known to have dressed up as Santa Claus, or at least permitted himself to be photographed doing so.

In keeping with a tradition of Christmas Eve shared by his family and their friends, the family of Charles Wick, one Christmas came the turn for Reagan to do the dressing up as Santa Claus, and it just so happened to occur during one of his eight years as President.

As far as public depictions of Presidents as Santa Claus, one of the most vivid and pointed was the one which appeared with Theodore Roosevelt cast in the lead role in the weeks following his election to a full term in November of 1904.

A month later, as the Christmas season was beginning, the inevitable rumors circulated about what changes he would make in his Cabinet and other top executive branch positions – and just which prominent political figures he was said to be considering for each job.

Whether its to stir up politics, sell a product or usually both depicting Presidents as Santa Clauses has become a annual, uniquely American tradition unto itself.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower depicted as a 1959 Cold War Santa Claus eager to beat the competing Soviet Premier Khrushchev Santa Claus in dispensing gifts to non-aligned nations.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower depicted as a 1959 Cold War Santa Claus eager to beat the competing Soviet Premier Khrushchev Santa Claus in dispensing gifts to non-aligned nations.

President Jimmy Carter as a grounded Santa Claus weighed down by warring reindeers, the House and Senate.

President Jimmy Carter as a grounded Santa Claus weighed down by warring reindeers, the House and Senate.

George H. Bush depicted as a peculiar plastic Santa Claus squeeze toy.

George H. Bush depicted as a peculiar plastic Santa Claus squeeze toy.

A  souvenir statue of President Bil lClinton as Santa Claus.

A 1993 souvenir statue of President Bill Clinton as Santa Claus, hoping to deliver a package of “health care.”

President George W. Bush, swapped in for the traditional department store Santa Claus on whose lap kiddies tell what they want.

President George W. Bush, swapped in for the traditional department store Santa Claus on whose lap kiddies tell what they want.

President Obama as Santa Clause leaving lumps of coal to the Grinches during Christmas 2012, a parody on Norman Rockwell's A Drum for Tommy painting.

President Obama as Santa Clause leaving lumps of coal to the Grinches during Christmas 2012, a parody on Norman Rockwell’s A Drum for Tommy painting.

Could it be him?

Could it be him?

And in this last but not least depiction of Santa Claus there seems to figure bearing a formidably familiar face beneath that white beard, someone who quite naturally shares the attribute of a snow white beard.

And why is it that this Santa Claus is not wearing a red coat but rather a blue one – not unlike the one worn during the American Revolution by colonial militias and their leader.

Could it be that Father Christmas did some double duty as the Father of His Country?

That’s what national top-secrets are for.

A Victorian Santa Claus peering from beneath his beard and looking suspiciously like George Washington.

A Victorian Santa Claus peering from beneath his beard and looking suspiciously like George Washington.

 

 


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