Imagine millions of Justin Biebers carousing in the streets all across the world. One in every mall. Anyone can be a Bieber. Find a Bieber for your niece's Quinceañera on Craigslist. Whether this idea excites or concerns you, I think we can all agree there would be some awkward embraces, crushed dreams and unfortunate incidents! And that's exactly what's been happening to our favorite American Christmas Superhero for over a century - Santa has lost control of his "personal brand" because anyone can be him.

But how did this all start? Exactly when did Santa become sketchy? Let's take a look.

Originally St. Nick was a beacon of kindness and generosity. His "signature move" back in fourth century Turkey was delivering gifts when everyone was asleep so his identity would remain a mystery (you could argue he was the first Anonymous). Kids appreciated the free swag, and parents could put their kids to bed earlier by telling them Santa would only roll through after they were asleep.

Things were pretty chill for the next ten centuries or so, when the Dutch brought their tradition of celebrating "Sinter Klass" to America. He was soon dubbed New York City's patron saint and everyone began giving presents and high-fives to each other.



By the 1820s, Christmas gift-giving had "gone viral" and Santa was looking to reinvent himself as more fun-loving and commercially viable. He got his first paid gig in 1841, when a Philadelphia department store hired him to climb the chimney and just kind of hang out in order to show children that he was real.

While his saintly robes were gone, this version of St. Nick seemed more charismatic and jolly (maybe that was just the booze?). Kids responded favorably to his new look, and public appearances were in high demand.



Over the next few decades Santa became a leading spokesman for the holiday retail industry. He partnered with leading soft drink and cigarette manufacturers for lucrative print and TV campaigns - but we all know what happens when celebrities get a little too big, too fast. Pretty soon Santa was showing signs of excess. His waistline ballooned, and when he did show up to gigs, he was often completely trashed (no thanks to his red-nosed enabler and drinking buddy Rudolph).



By the early 1900s, Santa seemed to be everywhere - and in fact, he was. In order to meet the increasing demand, he began to "franchise" himself with thousands of lookalikes, an army of bearded clones out to spread the good word of retail-driven generosity.



This was quite a boon to the transient part-time labor force, but it also created some "quality assurance" issues, to put things delicately (see Fig. 1 below). With nearly 50,000 malls and shopping centers in the U.S. alone, there simply aren't enough authentic Santas to go around every year.



Fig 1: A balance between the amount of Santas available and a parent's desire to have their children see St. Nick in a timely manner loosely determines the potential sketchiness of Santas in your area. As demand (D) increases, you can expect a corresponding increase in quantity (Q) of available Santas and the sketchiness (S) of any given Santa.



Somewhere along this path of explosive expansion, we lost sight of the characteristics that made Santa such a great guy in the first place. Now his 'representatives' are robbing banks, getting DUIs and violating their probation. And it doesn't help that there's a considerable amount of Santa Claus porn available (I Googled it so you don't have to).



We've taken a closer look at Santa's meteoric rise from anonymous saint to global hero. We've shown how his personal brand began to erode over time as more malls and shopping centers demanded someone - anyone - with a red suit and a beard. The only thing left to do is ask ourselves: would we really have it any other way?



Sketchy Santas have become a part of our traditions, our memories, and who we are. Parents work so hard to give their kids a perfect Christmas, but as any classic holiday movie shows (pick your favorite), it never really works out that way. Inevitably there will be drama, alcohol, tears, and the occasional awkward embrace.

That's why these "visits with Santa" are an early metaphor for the holiday experiences we'll have later in life - sometimes flawed, but always special. If everything about Christmas were perfect, it wouldn't be so memorable.

I will leave you with a picture of Nancy Reagan gently kissing Mr. T Santa's forehead. Merry Christmas y'all.



This post contains excerpts from Sketchy Santas: A Lighter Look at the Darker Side of St. Nick - available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and everywhere sketchy books are sold.

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