The conventional view of Santa Claus posits a centralized operation run by a bearded fanatic in an undisclosed Arctic location. His agents are everywhere, and this spy ring provides the raw data that allow him to calculate the details of each year's mission. He then enters America illegally, plants packages in homes around the country, and returns to his base, from which he issues occasional communiqués urging peace, good will, and our presence at various post-Christmas sales.
Certain improbabilities in this account have inspired a revisionist take on the topic, in which Santa either is a figurehead dependent on a decentralized network of "helpers" or—according to more radical scholars—does not exist at all. (While this might seem to contradict the visual evidence of Santa's appearances on video and eyewitness accounts placing him in shopping malls around the country, forensic analysis suggests that these Clauses are not, in fact, the same person.) The revisionists offer a darker view, in which activities attributed in the media to Santa Claus are actually accomplished by local loyalists operating with little or no centralized direction. Even if Santa were splattered across a cave in Tora Bora, they argue, his minions would continue to act in his name.
But everyone, traditionalist or revisionist, agrees that Santa is struggling with Jesus for control of Christmas. What might not be as obvious is that this is the year—in the U.S., anyway—that Santa finally won.
Legend identifies Santa Claus with St. Nicholas, an Anatolian bishop of the fourth century and the patron saint of thieves. He's also identified with a host of pagan gods and sprites—Krampus, Black Peter, Kris Kringle—who either work as Santa's assistants or take his place entirely, depending on the culture in question. (In a more direct substitution, Kringle is known in parts of Germany as the Christkind, or "the Christ child.") Santa himself, rumored to be a jolly old elf, looks more like a sprite than a saint; even more, he looks like the one-eyed Viking god Odin, who had a big beard, lived in the north, and left gifts in Norse children's boots every winter. In her 1997 book Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker declares forthrightly that "Saint Nicholas and Santa are totally antithetical"; the Santa of legend, she argues, is closer to the pied piper, Robin Hood, the pooka Robin Goodfellow, and Satan.
Such views have long had a foothold among not just folklorists but fundamentalists, many of whom resent this pagan intrusion into Christmas and denounce Mr. Claus as a devil in disguise. But even mainstream Christians—parents who happily hang stockings on December 24—will sigh wearily that Santa represents the commercialization of Christmas and will do their best to ensure their children learn the "true meaning" of the holiday. Their pop-culture spokesman is Linus van Pelt, who took the stage at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas to remind everyone that Christmas was meant to celebrate the birth of Christ, not material plenty.
This remained the standard American Christian view until 2004, when the religious right suddenly discovered the so-called War on Christmas, represented by the shocking fact that clerks sometimes wish their customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" as they sell them toys. In 2005, the war against the War on Christmas is bigger, noisier, and better organized than it was last year; it has become the position most readily identified with America's conservative Christians. It fulfills many functions: It lets Bill O'Reilly fill airtime, it lets John Gibson sell books, and it lets Fox-watchers everywhere see the strange spectacle of people actually offended by the friendly greeting "Merry Christmas" facing off against people actually offended by the friendly greeting "Happy Holidays," a debate with all the resonance of a Def Comedy Jam standoff between Dick Smothers and Margaret Dumont. But most of all, it's a declaration of surrender. The alleged War on Christmas consists not of materialism invading a spiritual holiday, but of materialism's agents sometimes failing to pay lip service to the holiday they have conquered. Drawing the line there is like building fortifications against Germany along the border of Vichy France.
And Linus? Ten months after A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, he returned to America's TV screens in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a special that undermines its predecessor more thoroughly than any sequel this side of the Alexandria Quartet. Where the first film is a testament to religious faith, the second is all about doubt, as Linus waits patiently for a supernatural being that everyone in the audience knows will never come. While his pals happily celebrate a proudly pagan holiday, Linus haplessly attempts to preach the true meaning of Halloween. Only one friend is briefly convinced, and even she is essentially motivated by lust and greed.
For a moment, despite everything, the Great Pumpkin seems to appear. It turns out to be the neighborhood beagle, himself suffering from the delusion that he's a World War I flying ace. Ho ho ho.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).