Hank Stuever has an excellent piece in today’s Washington Post that addresses an issue that has really been bugging me. But first, he recommends a documentary premiering tonight on Oprah’s OWN station called “Becoming Santa.” It is the story of Jack Sanderson.
Sanderson, a single Los Angeles man in his mid-40s, decides to learn everything he can about the men who dress as Santa Claus every November and December to work in malls or at other paying gigs or who volunteer for charity appearances. While going through old family photos, Sanderson discovers a picture of his recently deceased father dressed as Santa Claus, taken not long after the death of Sanderson’s mother. Was his father finding some mysterious comfort in donning the red suit and white beard? Would doing so help Sanderson cope with his own feelings of loss and mortality?
Santas and historians provide background as Sanderson attends Santa school, rings a bell on a street corner, listens to children’s wishes, and leads a parade. Stuever likes the show a lot.
“Becoming Santa” would have quickly become hokey and glib in someone else’s hands, but [director Jeff] Myers and Sanderson approach the project with an earnest and searching tone. The result is both happy and melancholy, and admirably real, as we learn more about the icon’s complicated history — a mashup of religion, superstition and marketing. The act of being Santa is far from perfect, Sanderson discovers, but something about it remains magical. “Becoming Santa” is filled with a fresh take on hope.
What I especially like about Stuever’s piece is the way he contrasts the sincerity of this film with the ugliness of some of the Christmas shopping ads on television this season. Ever since those awful Black Friday ads with the woman in training for shopping at Target it has seemed to me that commercials have been harsher than usual and off-key with current economic conditions and sensibilities.
Best Buy, in particular, is running a terribly callous series of commercials called “Game On, Santa,” in which obsessed female shoppers purchase the gifts that their loved ones really want at Best Buy and then wait up on Christmas Eve to accost Santa Claus in their living rooms and gloat that they’ve already beat him to the punch. In your face, you outdated fat man with your outdated presents!
“Awk-ward,” a woman mock-hisses at a baffled, sweet Santa caught standing at her tree, ready to lay out his gifts to her family. She points out that she’s already filled her children’s stockings with Best Buy junk, offering him a chance to fill her dog’s stocking instead. No one can watch this ad and feel at all good about its message, or about a society that would become so fixated on transactions that it viciously turns on Santa.
His description of these and other commercials in the context of this program’s sweet reminder that playing Santa can keep alive the spirit of giving is well worth reading.