FIONA MAEVE GEIST
The image of Santa nailed to a cross is probably one of the most distinct myths of the holiday season. Gathered with your family on Black Friday watching desperate shoppers trample and punch each other; someone will proffer “did you know for a Christmas display in Japan; they got mixed up and displayed a crucified Santa?” It does not matter that this never happened; you believe it because it is so easy to visualize. When I imagine it his mouth is open in a silent scream and candy canes were used to nail him to the cross. Snopes has almost exhaustive coverage detailing the variations of this story. No matter the version; it is always in Japan, it is always in the post-War era, it always reflects Japanese non-comprehension of the holiday that results in the nightmarish crucifixion of a beloved icon of the holidays. There’s something wonderful about the image—there’s extensive coverage about what the image means in terms of cultural exchange elsewhere; I’m intrigued with what an evocative image it actually is. It has the sort of grotesquery that dives deep into your brain and just sticks with you; it is the sort of image that authors work to cultivate because it burrows into such an unpleasant part of the imagination. Clifford Geertz defines culture as “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves;” what does the persistent story about a crucified Santa Claus tell us about ourselves—or the sorts of stories that stick with us.
One of the reasons the image resonates so strongly—surviving as a holiday myth—is the implicit violation of taboos, especially taboos related to the innocence of the holiday. Yet, the taboos around Santa Claus are honestly fucking weird. It’s absolutely OK to eroticize him—and the season as a whole—there’s probably enough Santa porn to fulfill any fantasy you may wish to indulge in. But nailing him to a cross is apparently transgressive enough to stick—I have no idea when I first saw XXXMas porn but I definitely remember in 5th grade my friend telling me about the crucified Santa Claus in a Japanese Christmas display. Maybe what makes the image stick is that nice transgression of the sacred/profane boundary that is threaded throughout the holiday season. The difficult cohabitation of a religion that stresses the renunciation of all earthly pleasures and suggests self-mutilation as a solution to desires—the whole eye-plucking thing traumatized me as a child, I don’t know how much I would have to cut away to pass muster for a Christian but I don’t think I would survive the excision—with commercialized gift exchange nakedly expressed by a jolly fat man in a red and white suit. If Santa can be used in almost any erotic configuration without meriting too much shock—the claim that The Passion of the Christ qualifies as a gay snuff film with butch legionnaires giving twink Jesus a no holds barred session triggers a far more potent reaction from the faithful than the idea Santa Claus could have a train run on him by his reindeer. Probably because austere people don’t like when the erotic seeps into their faith, the commercial cult that has Santa Claus in almost every commercial from late November onward selling anything from Coke to cars lacks such a rarified distinction.
If the image transgresses a boundary it is probably in collapsing this tension: it violates boundaries of taste around violence—at least for ostensibly commercial purposes—but more importantly it makes Santa Claus into a truly sacred figure. In a weird and confusing way, far more than any actual religion (that is the sort practiced either privately or in houses of worship); alongside Uncle Sam, Santa Claus is an avatar of the state cult of the United States. Grossly commercial and utterly malleable, Santa is functionally some Marxist nightmare of being simultaneously the renunciation of worldly goods—the true meaning of Christmas in every movie—with the inevitability of consumption—the reason your life sucks is because you aren’t giving the sort of thoughtful gifts that people give in movies. It’s functionally meaningless enough to believe in Santa Claus that it is treated as a norm for children (which probably says something about culture and hegemony but that’s far too pretentious). Violence against him makes him something serious which is what separates this cult from religion proper. There’s something unnerving about having your (assumed) childhood violated, the transgression of innocence is a classic in horror—like the crucifix scene in The Exorcist—and there is something about fucking up cultural norms that has an inherent humor. The crucified Santa myth bridges these two artfully.
I’m certainly not the first person to think of this connection. While I was writing this artist Robert Cenedella had his painting “The Presence of Man”—which depicts a crucified Santa Claus above a field of presents—pulled from a gallery amidst complaints and followed this up by displaying it outside of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Naturally, the sort of people who get quoted in papers of record were incensed. Cenedella’s work was taken as an affront to the children and an attempt to ruin Christmas. The artist himself seems bemused about the outcry, commenting that he thought the faithful would be the proper audience for his painting as it is concerned with the commercialization of Christmas—apparently still a relevant theme from when he was originally commissioned to paint it in 1988 by Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency. The work seems perpetually dogged with controversy (probably the Cenedella’s intent as a satirical painter) being taken down from its original exhibition, being protested when displayed by the Art Students League of New York (1997) and its most recent newsworthy status. Managing a piece that is controversial for 30 years is a difficult feat—and Cendella is the subject of the documentary Art Bastard because of his instinct for controversy. He may even be stifling a laugh at the expense of the latest round of outrage concerning his work being from among the sorts of people who believe there is a “War on Christmas”—they are probably not self aware enough to realize that the holiday they feel is under siege has little to do with the professed values of the religion they practice or are aware enough that the religious angle is a dog whistle pretext. Ultimately, the material that makes the icon so effective is the boundary between the sacred and the profane; a boundary which is permeable and prone to rupture. The crossings of this boundary give us such gifts as a straight faced medical post-mortem on the crucifixion and controversies over crucified commercial icons.
Beck is a cosmetologist by day and an illustrator, crafter, and resident artist for Good Rats Barbershop & Social Club by night, residing in a hobbit hole somewhere in the rugged landscape of New Haven County, CT. Her work can be found on Facebook at The Strangest Places by Beck or on instagram at @thestrangestplaces. She’d like to thank Fiona for always seeing the bizarre potential of her artwork, and anyone whose face she’s been inspired by enough to draw.
Fiona Maeve Geist resides in WXXT country with her cat and has a PhD in interdisciplinary philosophy she hasn’t figured out a use for or how to bring up without sounding like a pretentious bitch. Her work has appeared in Lamplight and Trans Studies Quarterly and she can be contacted on twitter @coilingoracle. She would like to thank her sweethearts (tallest to shortest) Daphne, Nihils, Beck, and Hannah for accepting all of the weird shit she won’t shut up about.