Well, it is high yuletide by now, but some of us are still not ready for the annual gift exchange. Finding the right presents for those we love or feel obligated to honor with more or less well-chosen stocking stuffers sure can be a challenge and a chore. It can also be a great joy—but that just doesn’t make for compelling drama or brisk comedy. On this day, 22 December, in 1937, US radio’s foremost satirist, Fred Allen, told listeners of Santa Claus’s own difficulties administering holiday cheer, experiences so disheartening that the man in the red suit threatened to go on strike.
Maybe sit-down Santa was a member of New York City’s Transit Workers’ Union. But that is just so 2005! The ever-topical Allen hardly requires any assistance from me, even though a few footnotes for his jokes might be in order after all these years. That December evening in 1937, Allen turned the gift-swapping season into an occasion for political commentary as he poked fun at the big government of the Roosevelt Administration. The play produced by the Mighty Allen Art Players, the comedian’s imaginary theatre company, was a “Christmas fable” titled “Santa Claus Sits Down; or, Jingle Bells Shall Not Ring Tonight.”
It dramatizes Santa’s misadventures in generosity, his life as a misunderstood and unappreciated, sack-carrying purveyor of joy. Some two thousand years ago, he presented Nero with a new lighter; you know what happened next. Even less fortunate was his encounter with young Bobby Burns, the aspiring Scottish poet, for whom Santa had a “rhyming dictionary” on his sleigh. While the young versifier was delighted to receive this highly useful tome, he simply could not accept it as a present. Instead, Santa was thrown in the “booby hatch” for the lunacy of giving away free stuff. Worse still was Santa’s meeting with Paul Revere, who fired shots at the jolly one for being a “Redcoat.”
All this lies in the past, however. Under the Roosevelt Administration, Santa’s woes are strictly of the bureaucratic kind. With charity and good will so thoroughly organized, he has become quite obsolete. Apparently working overtime, the head of the “Hummingbird Conservation Project” has just given away two million dollars for a “hummingbird community bird bath in Florida” when Santa drops in. The official doesn’t quite know what to make of the kind stranger with the bag: “Santa Claus? One of the Wagner Act Clauses?” No, Santa corrects him, “I’m a mystical creature.” The Hummingbird conservationist assumes him to be a “friend of Jim Farley,” one of Roosevelt’s closest political advisors, but insists that the old man’s services are no longer required.
So, why is there no use for good old Santa under Roosevelt? According to the one whose office is for the birds, “the government is Santa Claus today.” This slight sketch (which might have inspired Norman Corwin to pen “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas”) was Allen’s expression of public dismay at seemingly frivolous government spending during a time when most Americans were still recovering from the Great Depression. Big spending was suspicious to most—and hardly an option for the masses.
“Being Santa Claus is just one pain in the ermine after another,” the old man sighs. In the end, however, he decides to “giv[e] the world one more chance,” just as American voters would find it in their hearts to keep the forger of the New Deal in office until his death in 1945. Perhaps because many of them realized that, bureaucracy notwithstanding, they were at the receiving end after all.