Sunday, December 23, 2012

Santa Claus in Wartime

A Hero of Morality and Militaries

We have long been accustomed to the benevolent Santa Claus bearing gifts of generosity and goodwill.  But throughout the decades, Claus has served another important function, specifically for Uncle Sam.  Old St. Nick has served as a powerful symbol during wartime, acting as a poster boy of American philanthropy, morality, and yes...even superiority.  He has been utilized by newspapermen, advertisers, and War Department officials as a figurehead in the fight of good against evil.  Surely, Santa is always on the good side, right?  In this context, both the spiritual and commercial persona of Claus reached a deeply religious characterization.  Perhaps the first time Claus appeared within this military and political context came shortly after New Year's 1863 during the American Civil War.  Harper's Weekly illustrated newspaper reported of St. Nick's visit to Federal camps:

Santa with a very different gift.
"Children, you mustn't think that Santa Claus comes to you alone. You see him in the picture on pages 8 and 9 [Seen above.] throwing out boxes to the soldiers, and in the one on page 1 you see what they contain. In the fore-ground you see a little drummer-boy, who, on opening his Christmas-box, be-holds a jack-in-a-box spring up, much to his astonishment. His companion is so much amused at so interesting a phenomenon that he forgets his own box, and it lies in the snow, unopened, beside him. He was just going to take a bite out of that apple in his hand, but the sight of his friend's gift has made him forget all about it. He has his other hand on a Harper's Weekly. Santa Claus has brought lots of those for the soldiers, so that they, too, as well as you little folks, may have a peep at the Christmas number.

"One soldier, on the left, finds a stocking in his box stuffed with all sorts of things. Another, right behind him, has got a meerschaum pipe, just what he has been wishing for ever so long.

"Santa Claus is entertaining the soldiers by showing them Jeff Davis's future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.

"He hasn't got to the soldiers in the back-ground yet, and they are still amusing themselves at their merry games. One of them is trying to climb a greased pole, and, as he slips down sometimes faster than he goes up, all the others who are looking at him have a great deal of fun at his expense.  Others are chasing a greased boar. One fellow thought he just had him; but he is so slippery that he can't hold him, and so he tumbles over on his face, and the next one that comes tumbles over him.

"In another place they are playing a game of football, and getting a fine appetite for their Christmas dinner, which is cooking on the fire. See how nicely the soldiers have decorated the encampment with greens in honor of the day! And they are firing a salute to Santa Claus from the fort, and they have erected a triumphal arch to show him how welcome he is to them.

"But Santa Claus must hurry up and not stay here too long; for he has to go as far south as New
Orleans, and ever so far out West; so he says, G'lang! and away he goes through the arch like lightning, for he must give all our soldiers a Merry Christmas."

Santa prefers Chesterfield!
Just eighty years later, Santa was called to service once again, this time in the Second World War.  His character appeared in numerous wartime advertisements as well as the occasional piece of official government propaganda.  On all fronts, Santa became the symbolic personality to convey holiday wishes and gifts amidst the hard times.  On December 22, 1943 The Milwaukee Journal reported in an article entitled "Santa Claus in Olive Drab Is Busy Around the World" that Claus was more active than ever before:

He was "dressed in olive drab and flying an army air forces plane...bringing Christmas to United States troops in icy, barren northern areas, the battle fronts of Europe and the sun baked isles or dripping dim jungles of the Pacific.  The war department reported...that hundreds of evergreens, tons of cigarets, candy, cake, radios and recording machines marked 'hold until Christmas'  have been flown in isolated outposts which are inaccessible in winter except by air.

"The army Santa Claus began deliveries four month ago and will continue until every soldier in the most remote station has received his packages.  Fifteen tons of Christmas mail were moved by air when ice blocked surface shipping.  An army transport plane will drop mail bags in the snow some time this month at a tiny weather station in the Bering sea.  It will be the first mail there in four months."

Just five days later, the same newspaper reported: "Santa Claus, not forgetting American armed forces on the opposite side of the world from home, has arrived by air over the Himalayas and is distributing Christmas packages and mail to American units scattered over free China.  Several tons of gifts and mail have been delivered.  The gift packages, letters and telegrams from home are the biggest holiday thrill of the troops.  But one of the biggest holiday events was the translation of sudsy rumor into fact--each officer and man received several cans of the first issue of beer in China."

Santa brought far more than toys and trinkets.  Bring on the cigarettes and beer.  Claus became an endearing reminder of the home front and of luxuries and loved ones who seemed far from reach.  Such was true in the 1860s, the 1940s, and even today.

"Santa Claus in Wartime" newsreel filmed "Somewhere in England" in 1942.  Priceless!  Click here to view footage.

Presenting arms to Santa and his "jeep sleigh" at Camp Lee, Virginia, December 1941.  (U.S. Army Photo.)

"Thai children greet Santa Claus upon his arrival at the Christmas party. SSG Nicolas Thomas, re-enlistment and training NCO, Co "A", 325th Sig Bn, 29th Sig Gp, 1st Sig Bde, portrays Santa. 20 Dec 1969."  (U.S. Army Photo and Caption.)

Hmm.  I'm not sure how this one fits in with Santa's image.  Apparently, Santa has become executioner again--and not for Jefferson Davis this time.  The figure of Claus represents the United States in all its moral authority and also the mission of it's military.  St. Nicholas (born in Asia Minor) has been accepted into the folds of Americanism more than any other non-American with the exception of Christ himself.  I like to think this has happened for a reason (although perhaps not the one shown above).  

I hope this has been some fun history food for thought as you each gather with your families this Christmas season.  Happy Holidays to you all!

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