Thursday, December 18, 2014


MARGARET MEAD HAD THE DISTINCTION, perhaps still has the distinction, of being the most famous anthropologist in the world. Close to the birth of modern anthropology, Mead's landmark book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) helped introduce the idea of cultural relativism to the masses. For the rest of her life, even as her work was sometimes questioned, she remained a vocal and visible member of the intelligentsia on a wide range of subjects: sexual mores, parenting, folk traditions, and....even Santa Claus.

IN DECEMBER 1942, with America's entry into World War II, Margaret Mead became the executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. One of her research assistants was a woman thirteen years her junior named Rhoda Metraux. After the war, Metraux followed Mead to New York to became a graduate student at Columbia University, where Mead was a professor. From that time until Mead's death, the women collaborated on countless papers and books, and starting in 1955, Mead, divorced from her third husband, and Metraux, separated from her husband, moved in together as lifelong partners.

In 1977, the women decided they needed to answer some of the difficult questions Metraux's three-year-old granddaughter (Mead's goddaughter) had regarding Santa Claus. "Where does Santa come from?" "Where does he live?" "How can Santa be in so many places at one time?"
The obvious solution was to go to the source. They needed to interview Santa Claus. So they gave him a call. 
SANTA CLAUS: I suppose you might say so, yes.
M & R: Are you really alive?
SANTA: I certainly am--and very busy these days, too.
The interview appeared in Redbook Magazine, where Mead and Metraux were contributing editors for over fifteen years. It turned out Santa was extremely knowledgeable about his familial history.
SANTA: I belong to a very big clan and a very old one--a clan of givers. As far as I know, our history goes back at least two thousand years, and maybe much longer, but when you get back that far, it's all hearsay and tales that are almost like fairy tales.
Pressed to talk about his first ancestor, Santa explained who Saint Nicholas was.
M & R: But how did he leave Asia Minor and come to Europe?
(I'm sure that was one of three-year-old Kate's questions.)
SANTA: Well, there are two different stories about that.
There were actually many more stories than two. And they included how Santa got conflated with St. Nicholas, how some of the clan "had to pretend to be scary" like Knecht Ruprecht and Klaubach to punish naughty children, how some of the gift-givers were women like St. Lucia in Sweden and Austria and Babushka in Russia.
M & R: But, Santa Claus, let's come back to you.
SANTA: Oh, that's an exciting saga in itself. You know my immediate ancestors came to America with Dutch and German families. We were immigrants. And like all the other immigrants, we developed a whole new life style as we became Americans.
It turned out, in the New World, the Santa clan used airplanes, helicopters, snowmobiles, and speedboats to get the toy deliveries done. But what about the reindeer? Oh, he still kept some reindeer, for the sake of tradition.
SANTA: Besides, there's a legend about a man--or maybe he was a god--who is said to have been one of our earliest ancestors. Thor, his name was, and people say that in the Far North, in midwinter, he used to come rushing down on the wind, bringing snow and ice and driving a team of reindeer. I wouldn't want to forget that, even if maybe it's only a legend.
(See, Santa proved you could be both jolly and academic.)
In case any children might have gotten confused about the conceit of this history lesson, Mead and Metraux revealed at the end that the phone call was all a dream, and that "gifts that seem to be given freely by wonderful, benign visitors are tokens of happy care given by mothers and fathers."
WE HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING how satisfied little Kate was with her grand- and godmothers' Christmas story. Sey Chassler, editor-in-chief at Redbook Magazine, wrote in the preface to the book edition of An Interview With Santa Claus (1978), "we believe [it] will become the new classic Christmas story." The New York Times wrote, "If aiming for something in the tradition of 'Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,' this one disappoints."
Despite the question as to whether An Interview With Santa Claus is appropriate for the intended audience, Mead and Metraux should at least be applauded for adhering to their ideological beliefs. In Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views edited by Metraux and released the next year, Mead said:
One thing my parents did — and I did for my own child — was to tell stories about the different kinds of Santa Claus figures known in different countries. The story I especially loved was the Russian legend of the little grandmother, the babushka, at whose home the Wise Men stopped on their journey. They invited her to come with them, but she had no gift fit for the Christ child and she stayed behind to prepare it. Later she set out after the Wise Men but she never caught up with them, and so even today she wanders around the world, and each Christmas she stops to leave gifts for sleeping children.
Mead's hope was that:
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
As they said at the end of the Interview:
Now it is enough for Kate, and all small children, to learn the legends of Santa Claus. Later, when legend and reality meet in a new way, she will begin to understand, we think, that giving is itself a kind of thank offering.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Mead's ideas about Santa Claus, see Maria Popova's article on Brain Pickings, which is where I found the quotes from Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views.
For more literary Christmas fun, see my previous holiday posts:
Pearl S. Buck's Christmas Stories here, here, and here.
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