In a recent discussion with my partner discussing Christmas’s future, a question came up that divided us: what place, if any, should Santa Claus have in our leftist household, if it is ever populated with children?
At first blush, there would seem to be a strong left case against any mention of St Nick. For one thing, he doesn’t exist, and his purported gift-distributing vehicle violates basic laws of Newtonian Physics as well as the fundamentals of reindeer physiology. And the Left has, throughout its history, fervently embraced science and disdained superstition — see Karl Marx’s deep esteem for Charles Darwin, for starters.
Then there is the issue of the surplus value appropriated from elvish workers working in subzero conditions at Santa’s arctic toy factory, an issue previously explored at length in Jacobin.
But if we put aside the historical left commitment to scientific rationality (which can be inculcated into children’s brains in other ways, like regular family viewings of the Knick), as well as exploitative productive practices at Santa’s toy-making enterprise (we can just tell them it’s a workers’ cooperative since we’re just making this shit up anyway), I contend that there is a left case to be made for Kris Kringle from the distributive perspective.
For the fundamental nature of Santa Claus’ gift-provision operation is this: he and his elves produce and provide gifts, on an industrial scale, entirely outside of the nexus of callous cash payment.
Gifts are distributed to children not on the basis of their labor value, nor on the basis of their ownership of capital. Gift distribution is not tied to their parents’ economic or social or political standing — Santa eschews means-testing. Moreover, Santa flagrantly (and jollily) violates national borders — Trump’s wall would be ineffectual in any case, but certainly would not impede a super-sonic, supernatural, airborne sleigh late in the night of the Twenty-fourth of December.
Santa’s operation, in other words, amounts to an egalitarian, internationalist, luxury-commodity distribution apparatus that blatantly disregards the mores of the free market, and is based neither in the pursuit of profit nor in the hierarchy of charity, nor grounded in the nation state.
Contrast this with the political symbolism of other holidays involving gift exchange that we impose on small children. The exchange of teeth for cold cash under a pillow by an organ-trafficker nicknamed the “tooth fairy” suggests that the human body, or pieces of it anyway, are commodities to be bartered and trucked in the marketplace. When your child comes to you a few weeks later after mulling over the dental exchange and asks why, exactly, is it that the sale of one’s kidney is so ethically problematic, don’t feign surprise.
Or consider the medieval origins of “trick or treating,” which according to the website Today I Found Out (which I’ll assume is accurate) began when “children and sometimes poor adults would dress up … and go around door to door … begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers.”
In other words, performance labor by children is being reimbursed not by decent wages and health benefits, but by the crumbs of charity (or even worse, candy corn). Hardly the left vision of worker empowerment and universal provision of basic goods that we ought to be impressing upon our children.
But yes, I hear you, there is also much to be said against Santa Claus. In particular, the idea that his distribution apparatus is egalitarian clashes harshly with reality: whatever the myth promises, the rich kids will not only receive better, fancier, and shinier gifts, but they’ll also be ensured the essential social goods that poorer children are denied even in our rich nation: quality nutrition, secure housing, good healthcare, clean water.
But is that the fault of Santa Claus? Or is it the fault of capitalism? If the economic system stayed the same, but we convinced every Tiny Tim that Santa Claus was nothing but a lie, would the distribution of bread or roses, or for that matter, roast goose and plum pudding, become any more just?
So leftists, go ahead and let visions of sugarplums — and, needless to say, single-payer — dance in the kids’ heads. A better world is possible, but until we have it, we can fake it once a year by lying to our kids.