So, it turns out that Santa Claus is gay. Or at least he is according to Norway’s postal service, Posten, which recently released a Christmas advertisement showing him enjoying some festive downtime with his boyfriend. This change has not met with universal approval—but is there anything wrong with the reinvention of culture?
A culture’s shared stories and fictional characters tend to arise either from its traditional myths—which is how we got Santa—or from an author whose work becomes widely popular—which is how we got Superman. Sometimes a society will embrace a particular author’s description of a fictional character or myth as the definitive version. For example, the ancient Greeks probably told stories about the Trojan War before Homer related his version, but his became canonical and was passed down through the generations.
The idea of Santa Claus (and his name) originally derives from stories about a real fourth-century Greek bishop called Saint Nicholas who was known for being kind to children, but is otherwise a long way from the rotund, fur-clad resident of the North Pole we know as Santa. The modern version of the Santa character seems to include elements of an earlier Dutch version, Sinterklaas, who was said to give gifts to children, and of a mediaeval English figure, Father Christmas, who was said to wear red or green robes lined with fur and to spread Christmas cheer. Whatever the origins of the modern Santa, most of the attributes we associate with him were established before 1823, when the now famous poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas was first published (in a local newspaper in Troy, New York).
That poem, which many see as incorporating the definitive description of Santa, actually provides only sparse details about him: he is plump and jolly, and he has a sleigh—and reindeer with names. Later writers added more details, but they were not always consistent with each other. For example, by 1845, some Americans were suggesting that Santa’s real name was “Kris Kringle”—and a “Mrs Claus” was first mentioned in 1849. And these days, it’s considered equally acceptable to think of him as married or not, and as living either in Lapland or at the North Pole.
The legend of King Arthur has followed a somewhat similar pattern. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, drawing on earlier stories, put a version of the Arthur legend down in writing. His Historia Regnum Britanniae introduces us to characters (such as Merlin and Guinevere), and story elements (such as Excalibur and Avalon) that are now generally accepted as integral to the legend. But later continental writers, notably Chrétien de Troyes, tweaked Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur, changing him from a ferocious warrior to a roi-fainéant (a do-nothing king) who is present but not involved in key episodes such as the search for the Holy Grail and the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot. (Geoffrey, by the way, writes that her affair is with Arthur’s enemy, Mordred, whom she later marries.) Today, those who prefer an action-hero version of Arthur can stick with Geoffrey’s story. Similarly, those who prefer Santa to be straight can continue to describe him that way. Posten’s gay Santa, like de Troyes’ laissez-faire Arthur, does not overwrite past portrayals: it merely offers an alternative one.
Although describing Santa as gay may seem like a peculiarly modern move, in fact the practice of reinventing beloved stories and fictional characters is as old as time. And it has long been the case that, after a story or character is set down in writing that becomes widely popular, other writers feel moved to fill in details or extend the story. For example, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey contain remarkably few details about the poems’ central event—the Trojan War. (The Iliad focuses on only a few weeks in the war’s final year, and the Odyssey is set after its conclusion.) After Homer’s versions were written down, ancient Greeks apparently felt moved to fill in the gaps: they composed a series of supplementary poems, known as the Epic Cycle, that describe the war from beginning to end. In addition, Aeschylus’ Oresteia takes one of Homer’s characters, Agamemnon, and tells the tale of his home-coming and its fatal consequences, while Virgil takes the minor Homeric character Aeneas, twice saved by the gods in the Iliad, and gives him his own epic (wherein he travels to Italy and brings about the foundation of Rome).
Indeed, a large proportion of human storytelling involves reinterpreting characters or extending their stories—just as musicians often reinterpret or extend earlier musical pieces (as Brahms does in his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and John Coltrane does when he riffs on “My Favourite Things,” a song from the Broadway musical, The Sound of Music). Making Santa gay is entirely in keeping with this tradition—and his home life has long been treated as fair game, given the nineteenth-century invention of Mrs Claus. In 1952, the Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts, even tried to ban the song I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus on the ground that it mixed kissing and Christmas—an example that demonstrates how new perspectives that may at first ruffle feathers can soon come to seem completely harmless.
A change similar to gay Santa has recently been introduced into the Superman superhero universe: there is a new character, Clark Kent’s son, Jon, who is described as bisexual. This change has not pleased everyone either. But that situation is subtly different. While Superman is a registered trademark of DC Comics, nobody owns Santa Claus. True, early twentieth century Coca-Cola advertisements depicting him may have done much to cement his image in the public mind, but that company’s copyright covers only the exact image they used (which was derived from artwork commissioned from Haddon Sundblom in 1931). Any other portrayal of a jolly, plump man in a red suit with a white beard is in the public domain—as is the notion of using reindeer and a sleigh to deliver presents to good children.
Superman, by contrast, has been the property of DC Comics since 1938, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—having been paid $130 for their original story creating the character—signed over all future rights to any stories about him to their then employer (standard practice in the comic book industry at the time). Since then, the company has continued creating Superman stories—for comic books, radio and television programmes, movies and video games—as well as Superman merchandise. And they are free to do whatever they want with the character and his story. Of course, they have a commercial incentive to produce content that their customers will enjoy, but they are under no obligation to provide fans with any particular version of the character.
So, to some extent, it is relevant whether something is owned or in the public domain. But only to an extent, because fans’—and customers’—attachments can be very particular, and their tastes may hold sway—as many Europeans will have noticed last summer after abortive attempts to launch a European Super League for football teams. (The idea offended many people’s sense of their local football teams as symbols of their local community.) Similarly, when Coca-Cola reformulated its main product in 1985—and launched “New Coke”—a popular backlash prompted the company to bring back the original formula within less than three months.
Furthermore, it matters whether creative alterations obliterate the original versions or merely supplement them. Reinventing existing characters or stories simply creates more options, whereas altering physical works of art can destroy them. If one were to try to modernize, say, Canaletto’s View of the Grand Canal by overpainting it to include a vaporetto, there would be no way to experience the original version. Perhaps for this reason, current plans for the physical restoration of Notre Dame, which was severely damaged in a 2019 fire, remain faithful to the pre-fire cathedral: changing it physically would destroy the original version. Unlike a story or fictional character, it is impossible to create various versions of Notre Dame and then choose which one to experience.
That said, when plans for Notre Dame’s restoration were leaked to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, it emerged that, while the building will be restored to its former condition, the visitor experience will “move with the times”: the plans call for an “art-installation-style visitor experience,” including information projected onto the walls, meditation spaces and what is being called an “initiation trail.” Outraged commenters objected that these changes would convert Notre Dame into—as one of them puts it—a “politically correct Disneyland.” Quelle horreur!
This reaction is not surprising because, when information is projected onto the walls, visitors will no longer experience them purely as stone edifices to be appreciated for their own sake. Instead, the walls will be experienced as a reading medium—in effect, as blackboards. To appreciate the difference, imagine how we would feel if the Louvre decided to project biographical information about Leonardo da Vinci directly onto the surface of the Mona Lisa: we might learn something, but our enjoyment of the painting would almost certainly decline.
But these proposed changes are easily reversible. Just as Coca-Cola was able to quickly make its old formula available again in response to popular backlash, so Notre Dame will presumably be able to turn off projections and remove signposts. Thus the public may be able to choose whether to have the pre-fire experience of the building, or the new one. Perhaps the two alternatives could be offered at different times or on different days, thus allowing tradition and innovation to sit happily together.
This is precisely the approach currently taken by Reims Cathedral. Lights are projected onto its façade during the holiday season to show how it would have looked in the Middle Ages when it was brightly painted. People can choose which way they want to see the cathedral by choosing when to visit it.
The impulse to reinvent fictional characters—or fill out their life stories—should be encouraged, as it has sparked much artistic creativity. But we should be wary of assuming that newer necessarily means better. Art that has survived the passage of time has done so because generations of people have considered it worthy of preservation in its original form. By all means let us embrace innovation—but let us also preserve time-tested artistic experiences, by leaving a way back to the past.