Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sister Susy and Santa Claus - How We Learned that Santa Claus Lives at the North Pole

In a recent post I traced the origin of the expression “flyover country” to the dismissive attitude of television executives and writers who referred to a large portion of their audience as the “people they fly over” while shutting back and forth between New York and Hollywood.

In this post, I look at a more positive form of “flyover” – Santa Claus’ annual trek around the world dispensing gifts and joy to girls and boys (and hopefully someday to a blog writer who’s been very good this year).

While the origins of the Santa Claus myth ("If we can call something that is absolutely true a myth," he adds, hedging his bets) are generally well known, there are a few elements of secular Christmas folklore whose origins are less well known.  The leg-lamp made famous in the classic film A Christmas Story, for example, dates to at least 1921;  Charlie Brown’s sad Christmas tree predates the TV-special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, by nearly a century; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s dentist friend, Hermie the Elf (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), appeared in an advertisement for Gimbel’s Department Store in 1914; and the popular notion that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole is several years older than generally believed – at least as early as 1863 as opposed to 1866.

Leg Lamps

A series of drawings illustrating life on the streets of Washington DC during the holiday season of 1921 included this image of an early leg-lamp.

The Washington Times, December 4, 1921, 36.

I was also naively unaware of and never fully appreciated the "deep" thematic relationship between leg-lamp stockings and Christmas stockings until I saw this shapely poem published in 1884:

What’s in your stocking?

Sad Christmas Trees

The cover art for the book, Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree (Philadelphia, E. Ferrett & Co., 1845) shows a very short Santa Claus hanging toys in a Spartan, if not quite Charlie Brown-like, tree.

A spittin’ image of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree appeared on the cover of a German humor magazine in 1867:

And a photograph of a more authentic American version appeared in the New York Tribune in 1903 (left):

Hermie the Elf

Rudolph the Reindeer’s dentist friend, Hermie the Elf, appeared (it seems) without his cap in a Christmas ad for Gimbel’s department store in 1914 (lower left):

The Evening World (New York), November 23, 1914, page 9.

1914 - 1964

Santa Claus at the North Pole

In this age of satellite imagery and regularly scheduled transcontinental flights along the polar route, it is a well established fact that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.  But when transportation and technology was more primitive and more limited, it was more difficult to pin him down to a precise location. 

In 1844 the signature line of a letter to the editor by Santa Claus himself suggested that he may have lived at Mont Blanc, Quebec.  But the letter was dated January 1, 1844, so perhaps he was just relaxing there after a busy Christmas before returning home to the Pole.  Surprisingly, the letter also reveals that he used to deliver gifts on Christmas and New Year’s Eve:

A Letter From Santa Claus.

My dear Young Friends;

Doubtless you will be surprised, as you glance over this paper, to discover a piece addressed to yourselves; and still greater will be your surprise when you see by whom it is written. . . .

On account of the extent over which I am obliged to travel, I have appointed two nights in which to perform this office,  - the eves of Christmas and New Year.  At these times the stockings are duly  hung up, ready to receive, with open mouths, anything which I may be pleased to deposite in them. . . .

And now, as I bid you adieu, I wish you a happy New Year, and that you may spend, not only this, but many more years, in peace and prosperity.

Ever Yours, Santa Claus.
Mt. Blanc, January 1st, 1844. [i]

In 1848, one writer placed Santa Claus and his toy-making elves in “dream-land”:

We do know my dear child that it will be Christmas, and Santa Claus will bring you the most beautiful horse and sleigh, and caps and feathers, that can be made by the elves and fairies, who are always working for good children in dream-land![ii]

A Christmas story published in 1853 suggested that Santa Claus’ home base was still not widely known:

Wherever Santa Claus lives, and in what ever spot of the Universe he harnesses his reindeer and loads up his sleigh, one thing is for certain – he never yet put anything in that sleigh for little Carl Krinken.[iii]

Even the crack investigative staff of the New York Times was stymied, referring merely to Santa's "mysterious home" (December 28, 1857).  And in 1860, the humorist Philander Doesticks wrote that he had heard, "Santy kept a toy-shop in the moon . . . ." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 27, 1860, page 2.

A story about Santa's pre-Christmas dress-rehearsal and ball in the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly does not reveal Santa's primary residence, but suggests that he may have more than one, including a palace on a volcano in Iceland.

The gala was held in Santa Claus's favorite winter palace, an immense snow-cave in the side of Mount Hecla [(Hekla)].

Harpers Weekly, January 3, 1863, page 13.

The cover art for that issue was Thomas Nast's first known drawing of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly, "Santa Claus in Camp."

Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863, cover art.
Thomas Nast's frequent illustrations of Santa Claus in Harper's over the next decades are considered a primary influence in crystalizing the popular image of Santa Claus.  But while that may be true, Nast did not work from a clean slate.  His representations built off a long line of similar, earlier representations of Santa.

Many sources also credit Nast's 1866 illustration, “Santa Claus and His Works,”[iv] as the earliest indication that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
Harper’s Weekly (New York), Volume 10, Number 522, December 29, 1866, page 825.

A detail from just to the right of top-center reads:


The initials N. P. presumably refer to the North Pole.  An illustrated book published three years later, and likewise entitled Santa Claus and His Works, expressly referred to his home as the “North Pole”.

But Thomas Nast and the editors of Harper’s Weekly were not the first people to know the location of Santa’s base of operations.  Young readers of Sophia May’s (real name Rebecca Sophia Clarke) popular Little Prudie Series of books knew where Santa lived as early as 1863:

Yes, my dears . . . , here I am, as jolly as ever!  But bless your sweet little hearts, I’ve had a terrible time getting here! . . . I’ve been ducked up to the chin in some awful deep snowdrifts, up there by the North Pole!  This is the very first time the storms have come so heavy as to cover over the end of the North Pole!  But this year they had to dig three days before they could find it. O, ho![v]

Sister Susy (1863)

Sister Susy (1863)

 It is not clear whether Sophie May invented the story from whole cloth or merely put into print something that had already been widely known or suspected.  But she was from Maine, so perhaps her proximity to the North Pole gave her access to some inside information.

The Real Santa Claus

Just in case there are still any doubters out there, here is an image of the real Santa Claus:

Minneapolis Journal, December 25, 1906, page 4.

So have a merry Christmas, Festivus or other appropriate holiday as desired, but please – be careful.  If you can’t wait for the real Santa Claus, and choose to dress up as Santa Claus yourself, dress appropriately – or use electric lights instead of traditional candles because you might get burned, stockings and all:

Puck, Volume 80, December 2, 1916, page 30.
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse --
* * * * * * *
And I heard him exclaim as he drover out sight,
"That is no place for me on my one busy night!"

The Nebraska Advertiser (Nemaha City, Nebraska), December 22, 1905, page 6.

Portage Sentinel (Ravenna, Ohio), January 12, 1853, page 2.

Merry Christmas!!!

[i] Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, Vermont), January 5, 1844.
[ii] Brooklyn Evening Star, December 22, 1848,page 2.
[iii] Susan Warner, Carl Krinken: His Christmas Stocking, New York, G. P. Putnam, 1854, page 11. 
[iv] Harper’s Weekly (New York), Volume 10, Number 522, December 29, 1866, page 825.
[v] Sophie May, Sister Susy (part of the Little Prudy Series), Boston, Lee, Shepard & Dillingham, 1863, page 28.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hollywood Execs, New York Writers, and the People They Fly Over - the Origin of "Flyover Country"

The Des Moines Register, September 3, 1911, page 15.

Late in the evening of November 8, 2016, Election Day, I settled in to watch the election returns and relax after spending sixteen hours volunteering at my local polling place.  As the red-in-the-center/blue-on-the-coast maps flashed across the screen, the expression “flyover country” flashed through my mind.   

But I didn’t know where the expression came from.

A quick search with my favorite search engine dug up a relevant, recent article, The Surprising Origin of the Phrase ‘Flyover Country’ (Gabe Bullard, National Geographic online, March 15, 2016).  The article suggested that the expression originated not as an insult hurled by so-called “elites” on the coasts, but as a self-deprecating (at best) or paranoid (at worst) projection onto others of how those in the middle imagine others see them:

It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention. It’s the linguistic nexus of Minnesota nice and Iowa stubborn.

As someone who grew up on the border of Iowa and Minnesota, the explanation did not ring true.  Although I identified with the self-deprecating usage, I wasn’t sure that the fear of being ignored or dismissed was entirely unfounded.  "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that they're not really out to get me."  But in any case, I did not know for sure and was curious to see whether the suggested self-referential origin was on target or not.

It’s not.

"Flyover Country" was preceded by the earlier expressions, "the people we fly over" and "flyover people," which sprung up among television executives and writers in Hollywood and New York City.

“The People We Flyover”

A decade before the expression “flyover country” appeared in print, Mary Tyler Moore and her production team spoke to a group of entertainment reporters to talk up a new sitcom – The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

Reporters were apparently having a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept for the show, which represented a break from long-standing television programming patterns.  The action took place in Minneapolis, not Los Angeles or New York City:

The press shredded their story idea until all of them looked like idiots in an idiot comedy.  [The show’s producer James L.] Brooks attempted to extricate them, to explain that the show won’t be a cornball directed at the boondocks.  “We’re not doing the show for mid-America,” he protested, as unfortunate choice of words which didn’t endear him to mid-America.

He suggested then that “mid-America was a figure of speech; that in Hollywood it’s cute say say, “Middle America is the people we fly over.”

The Greenville News (Greenville, South Carolina), August 3, 1970, page 27.

The expression “the people we fly over” appeared in print several times throughout the 1970s, generally credited to a television executive:

[V]iewers . . . could well be startled by former CBS program director Mike Dann (earlier quoted by Klein as saying “the public is the people we fly over”) admitting that some of the shows he scheduled “I never saw once.”[i]

[The actor Hal Holbrook said] I don’t know anything about country music really . . . . But the people – that’s what interests me . . . what one network official called “the people we fly over.”[ii]

Those of us who see the networks’ Family Viewing Time as just another excuse to program mediocrity were somewhat taken aback to read . . . that 82% of the Americans sampled favored the concept.  So much for being in touch with popular taste, we thought – and immediately scheduled a whistlestop tour of what video execs call “the people we fly over.”[iii]

The phrase may have originated with James Aubrey, who served as the President of CBS from 1959 to 1965.  Although the phrase would later be used more dismissively, Aubrey was said to have used it to encourage his executives to spend more time understanding their audience:

Jim Aubrey (one-time head of CBS-TV and later MGM) used to say it’s not New York or Los Angeles, it’s the people we fly over.  It’s important that we spend more time in the grass roots, in Des Moines or Minneapolis.[iv]

“Flyover People”

In 1979, the novelist Tom Wolfe noted how writers from New York change after moving to Hollywood (a subject addressed in Woody Allen's film, Annie Hall, a few years earlier):

Now when the New York writer moves to the West Coast . . . to work in the television industry, this has rather marked results.  He has moved from this marvelous apartment, he moves to Hollywood, and he mellows a bit.  He no longer thinks of all the people in between as Middle America or the Silent Majority.  He thinks of them instead, in the current phrase, as the flyover people.  The flyover people are the people that you fly over on the way to someplace interesting.[v]

One year later, Wolfe’s satirical look at “The Secret Heart of the New York Culturatus” (from his book, In Our time, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, page 52) suggested that the term had since caught on in New York City:

[The New York Culturatus is] anti-Nuke, like everybody else, but he wishes the movement wasn’t so full of earnest California types playing guitars and singing those dreadful Pete Seeger Enlightened Backpacker songs . . . .

He’s for human rights and he’s against repression, but somehow he can’t get excited about the Boat People: they’re a greedy grasping little race that refuses to be assimilated into the new order.  Besides, the subject encourages revisionism about the war in Vietnam.

It’s tacky to use terms like “Middle America” and “the silent majority.” They’re so sixties, so out of date.  He calls them “the fly-over people” instead.  They’re the people you fly over on the way to Los Angeles.

“Flyover Country”

If the people you fly over are flyover people, then the place they live might naturally be called “Flyover Country.”  The earliest example of the expression that I found in print is from Donald Bowie’s memoir of his fascination with Television, Station Identification: Confessions of a Video Kid (New York, M. Evans and Company, 1980).  Bowie, who grew up and went to college in Boston, “sought shelter from the draft” and reluctantly found it in Indiana – he didn’t like it:

Newton Minow, who said television was a “vast wasteland,” should have lived for a while in Indiana, where I was in graduate school.  Then he would have been grateful for television, which, even at its worst, can offer the saving grace of not being filmed in a place like Indiana. . . .

One Sunday evening the Smothers Brothers devoted a segment to a Bobby Goldsboro song entitled “Honey.” So sentimental it could sweeten every apple pie at the church fair, and suited for the national anthem of the flyover country . . . .

His acerbic observations must have some merit because he claims to have had a good education.  He went out of his way to reassure the reader that he “didn’t go to Harvard” but “didn’t have to go to B. U. either,” which makes me wonder whether “flyover country” is as much of a self-defense mechanism for insecure people from the coasts as it is a self-deprecating coping tool for people in between.

Coincidentally, Bowie’s book ends where “the people we fly over” began (or at least came into into public view) – the Mary Tyler Moore Show: 

[W]ith Mary Tyler Moore off the air I didn’t know where to stop spinning the dial – there was nothing on.”

As for my part, I find state-by-state binary coloration of election maps a bit misleading (except for the limited purpose of showing electoral votes).  Many people in the reddest states vote blue and many people in the bluest states vote red, making most states a shade of purple, perhaps.  And in any case, red and blue are both just parts of a larger color spectrum that runs from scarlet to pink and cerulean to turquoise with many shades in between.  

And in any case, the color conventions are arbitrary.  I am neither red nor blue regardless of how I voted – well, red, white and blue, perhaps.

See also, "After the Election, the Concept of "Flyover Country" Rises," Ben Zimmer, Wall Street Journal (online), November 22, 2016 (print edition November 26, 2016).

[i] The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1974, Part IV (View), page 11.
[ii] The Tennessean (Nashville), October 21, 1975, page 15.
[iii] The Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1976, Part IV, page 14.
[iv] The Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1978, Part III, page 13.
[v] The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa), June 12, 1979, page 7.