I’m long since used to being a stereotype: straight white male, heterosexual; middle class. Of course, I can put an asterisk and a “Yes, but –” after each of these; yet, at the same time, they’re useful: they ease the quick categorizations I think most of us make many times every day.
Sure, they are also hooks for prejudices, mine and others; but while broad-brush, none of these is actually inaccurate: I AM all those things, more or less. So mostly I don’t sweat it.
But this year I’ve slipped into being something related but qualitatively different: this year, especially this season, I became an archetype: A Santa Claus archetype.
I wasn’t planning on it. It first popped up last spring. I was in Selma, Alabama. Several blocks away, president Obama had just given a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the voting rights movement there.
But I hadn’t heard it. I was sitting on a folding chair, next to a folding table on which copies of my Selma books were stacked. They were for sale, but nobody was buying.
My table had been exiled to a far corner of the celebration’s “street fair,” to an enclave populated mostly by food trucks dispensing fried fish, fried chicken, fried potatoes, and fried other stuff. Those who found it were wanting to feed their physical appetite, not a historical one.
I was being stoic. Stuff happens. (Or doesn’t) Chairs were sparsely distributed here; the next one was several feet away, near an empty table. A young black girl, of eight to ten I’d guess, walked past it, then turned and sat down. I paid no attention; doubtless she was waiting for some adult to bring a plate of fried something.
But then I perceived she was staring at me. And when I glanced over, her brows knit, and she said, almost accusingly: “Are you Santa Claus?”
I was in a bantering mood. Santa Claus? It was, after all, March; almost spring. Except for a middle-length white beard, and the bowl-full-of-jelly paunch, I was completely out of yuletide uniform.
“No,” I answered. “I’m trying to be the Grinch.”
She shook her head. “Nuh-uh,” she said firmly, as if she’d unmasked a rank impostor. “You’re Santa Claus.”
What the hay? I thought. She was clearly sure enough for both of us. “Okay,” I said. “I’m Santa Claus.”
Now she was certain. “What are you doing here?” The tone was still almost accusatory: I was in the wrong place, wrong time, in the wrong livery. But outed all the same.
I shrugged. “I’m on vacation,” I said.
This almost satisfied her. Then the eyes narrowed again: “Where are your elves?”
I feigned shock. “What? Do you think they want to go on vacation with me? I think they went to Florida.”
Next, I figured, she’d demand to know about the reindeer; and I didn’t have a quip ready about Rudolph. But at that moment, a woman walked up, with two paper plates, which gave off the aroma of hot french fries. Thus distracted, the girl stood up, and the pair wandered off to find an unoccupied table.
I was relieved. But made thoughtful. Several years ago, a visiting writer interviewed me as background for a book on the wives of U.S. soldiers in the Iraq War. In the book, she described me as looking like “a melancholy, off-duty Santa.” I figured she about nailed it.
I also recalled that it was definitely past time for my once-every-three-months-whether-I-need-it-or-not haircut and beard trim. I knew a barber shop which had half-price specials for geezers on Mondays. As soon as I get back to Durham, I decided.
Fast forward to October. My end-of-summer visit to the discount barber was due about Labor Day; but life got hectic then, and I missed the target. One of the gratifications of being retired is that there is no boss to give one the hairy eyeball as the beard gets longer and shaggier than the corporate brand and image consultants prefer.
And more stuff kept happening, especially on Mondays; weeks flew by, and Halloween was approaching. About then, two unexpected events occured: A fellow attender at my Friends meeting asked if I would be willing to play the role of Kris Kringle in a nearby town’s holiday adaptation of “Miracle on 34th Street.” It could even be, she hinted, a paying gig.
Which of course appealed to the Scrooge in me, so I signed up. That meant no beard trim til after Christmas. Whatever.
A few days later came the second unexpected thing: I was going into a big box store, looking for this and that, and a complete stranger walking past, broke into a big smile and said, “Hey, Santa! I’ll be seeing you in a few weeks!”
Eh, what? Oh, yeah. The beard. Whatever. But there was something strange about this very brief encounter: Not seeing me as Santa; that was an image I increasingly resembled, given hair on top and bulk in the midsection. A stereotype.
But the stranger’s eyes and lips belied the “stereotype” label. His eyes had lit up, with what seemed a genuinely pleasurable anticipation. The smile was well beyond sardonic or arch: it was real.
And all this on the face of an adult make. A black adult male.
Speaking of stereotypes, this meeting challenged one of the most familiar: the hint, often subdued but rarely entirely absent, of caution and wariness when black males meet white ones like me. I won’t belabor this; it’s well-earned. Yet the familiarity made the beaming smile the more striking. For maybe only a second, all that vigilance was banished.
Well. That was something, I thought.
But then it happened again, a few days later. And again. And again. A couple weeks afterward, I was coming out of the same big box store, carrying a small bag from the pharmacy: more pills for an old man’s regimen. My thoughts were on the meds, and the gloomy conditions that gave need for the pills. Jolly thoughts? Not.
Then a glance toward the door showed three: a young man, wearing a ball cap with a flattened bill; and a young woman, holding a baby in her arms. They were in a long line stretching back from the Customer Service counter, almost, but not quite in my path.
And all three (maybe not the child; too young yet; but she was being prompted) were gazing away from the counter, straight at me. And there was that same glow in the eyes, the grins on their faces, as if my bag did not contain blood pressure capsules but gold, frankincense and myrrh for them and their child, and that my pace was not that of the aged contemplating decline, but that of the bringer of joy, relief, and better days.
So I pulled myself together and pointed a finger at them. “I’m making a list!”
They laughed, and the smiles widened; no more need be said.
And just last Sunday, I sat down in an auditorium seat, waiting in the dark for the curtain to rise on Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.” The Fair Wendy and I may have been the only whites among the thousand or so present. The seats were almost full.
A woman sat down in the seat next to mine, one of the few left. And after a moment, the curtain still down, she leaned over and whispered: “Can I tell you what I want for Christmas”?
I said, “I’m making a list,” and reached for my iPhone. Waving it in her direction I added, “And I have this new app that does an instant ‘Naughty/Nice’ scan.” She giggled.
So. It is not about me, Chuck Fager, for whom saturnine is a fair description of temperament; scrooge/grinchlike would elicit no argument. No, something else was at work here, far beyond anything I aspire to or can claim. Something real.
And thus I realized, I had moved inadvertently from the ordinary realm of stereotype into the world of archetypes.
What’s an archetype? In short, an image with a charge of energy; an icon with magic, magic that goes beyond the individual. Depth psychologists and students of comparative religion know them well. And Santa Claus is one.
What kind of archetype is Santa Claus? One psychologist says he is the carrier of deep memories of “the Good Father.”
Most of us, even many who had overall “bad childhoods”, can summon memories of times, maybe only moments, when a father figure was good to us: comforting, bountiful in comfort and generous in things we wanted as well as what we needed. Indeed, the rarer these occasions were, the more tenacious can be the memories.
Others note that Santa’s character accords with various ancient gods: his knowing all our “lists” of hopes; the ability to get around the entire planet in a single night, despite hopelessly outdated technology; even his ample belly bespeaks abundance and generosity.
Also, he is innocent; we only see him in this time of giving; he asks no more than that we be good, without getting very specific, or becoming more than mock-judgmental about our shortcomings. And beyond all the merchandising, we know that even tiny, homemade gifts from him can be as magical as the latest high-end gadgets. Or if we don’t know this, when we learn it, he’ll still be there.
My own experience this fall points to one more feature, perhaps the most marvelous in these troubled times, verified again and again: it turns out that there seems to be one white man that most black Americans do trust (maybe the only one): not me, but the Santa I have passingly embodied. If he too has “white privilege,” his mission is to give it all away, then make more, for more giving next time.
So I’ve been humbled each time by this repeated recognition: for one thing clear to me, Chuck Fager, is that I do not live up to that Santa Claus archetype. (And I shall not impersonate it much longer: that fateful, long-delayed post-Yule Monday visit to the barber, and thereby the return to incognito status, is coming again very soon.) But I’m grateful to have had the chance to see that this larger figure is still active.
So yes, Carolina, there is a Santa Claus. I’ve glimpsed him once or twice in my mirror, but more clearly and convincingly in the mirrors of your faces. Thank you for that.
PS. For a quick followup on what happens to an archetypal Santa after the Magic Days has passed, click here.