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In December 1974, a troop of bearded men in red suits took to the streets of Copenhagen. What was their ...
2020-12-17 09:00:00
An Army of Santas

Adults believe that Santa Claus does not exist. The good news is that he does. The bad news is that just before Christmas 1974 he was arrested in Copenhagen. And they ripped off his beard to boot.

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Tired members of the precariat wandering around shopping centres in ugly Santa costumes at the holiday sales look like the pale and ghastly spectres of the Christmas myth. The popular diagnosis is that this myth has been hacked by marketers; Santa was kidnapped, corrupted and broken long ago. Or perhaps it’s not even a myth at all, but just a tall story completely devoid of truth?

These gloomy meditations are interestingly illuminated by the events of 1974 in Copenhagen. Last autumn’s Berlin biennale brought them up, showing a documentary about that time. How fortunate that we have archives; I watched materials from 46 years ago with fascination and a feeling that, once again, the key to the present is to be found in the past.

Let us, then, abandon our holiday preparations for a while, and travel to the Copenhagen of that time. It’s mid-December, the city is engulfed by Christmas fever – and a hundred-strong army of Santas appears on its streets. This bearded century looks a little like a demonstration, but an innocent one, because it’s demonstrating the holiday mood after all, isn’t it? The Santas greet passers-by, give out hot chocolate, sing carols, make children rejoice, inspire popular goodwill. For now, nobody asks where it was that they came from. As Christmas approaches, the activities of the bearded ones escalate. A group of Santas causes chaos at a bank, demanding low-interest loans. The management of the Copenhagen branch of General Motors sounds a warning that the Santas, having forced their way into the factory, are giving political speeches and persuading the workers to give themselves the holiday gift of taking over the factory. The industrial tribunal complains that the Santas are besieging its office, demanding that it should, for a change, start representing the interests of the employees, not the employers. The growing crowd of gawkers notices that the melodies of the Santas’ carols are accompanied by anti-capitalist lyrics. Was the red of their costumes a subversive shade all along, or does it only look like that now?

The Santa revolution culminates just before Christmas at Magasin – Copenhagen’s largest department store at the time. Among the crowd of shoppers appear bearded figures in red hats, who nonchalantly start to give people merchandise taken straight from the shelves. The audience is delighted, but not entirely surprised. It’s Christmas, after all: don’t we all feel a flicker of hope that life will finally give us a gift, even if it’s a modest one, but one that we don’t have to buy ourselves? And who else should hand us this dream present if not Santa Claus?

In the meantime the store staff panic and call the police. Indescribable chaos erupts. The managers try to make themselves heard over the hubbub. They call on the clients to return the merchandise immediately. No gifts were ever due to anyone, everything must be paid for – and the Santas aren’t real! But the crowd sees that it’s not the case: the Santas are here for real. Not only that, but the police – who have finally arrived – tussle with them, ask for their documents, twist their arms, handcuff them, drag them out of the shop. The Santas offer passive resistance, still wishing everyone Merry Christmas. Watching the mass arrest of Santas who had just given them toys moments ago, children start crying with terror. Perhaps they already suspected that Santa Claus is really a fictional character. Now they’re discovering that it’s much worse: Santa exists, but in the reality in which they live his place is in prison, so no gifts are forthcoming.

The most memorable image from the documentation showed in Berlin was one of the department store managers, who – almost reduced to hysteria – pounces on the arrested Santas, pulls at their fake beards and tears them off with fury, to prove to the people around that it’s just fancy dress.

As it soon turned out, the faces under the stick-on beards belonged to men, women and even children from the Solvognen Theater Group. This anarchist performers’ collective arrived into Copenhagen’s city centre from Christiania. Western Europe’s largest counter-culture commune sprang up three years earlier, on the site of barracks left behind by the Danish army. Anarchists and hippies squatted in the empty buildings, and the government agreed to an unprecedented social experiment. Christiania became partially exempt from state jurisdiction. The micro-district, administered by an anarchist self-governing body, tolerated the sale and possession of soft drugs, polyamory, various sexual identities and lifestyles, collective ownership, and accommodation without rental contracts or notarial deeds. Christiania became something of a refuge for people wanting to get off the grid of the market economy, patriarchy, the traditional idea of success. Soon, the district found itself among the top tourist attractions of Copenhagen. It was also one of Copenhagen’s most disappointing attractions, because – instead of hell or heaven on Earth – the only thing to be seen there was normal life, albeit one taking place outside of the system.

The capitalism of 46 years ago, when the Solvognen activists provoked the police with their happening about redistribution, is nothing compared to the capitalism we’re dealing with today. So, what is the moral of the story about the Santas invading the Copenhagen of yesteryear? Well, if there even is a moral to be found, it can only be an ambiguous one. Perhaps that if the system tears off Santa Claus’ beard, it doesn’t unmask him, but only exposes its own true face. Or that if during this year’s holidays Santa Claus doesn’t visit, it’s not because he doesn’t exist. On the contrary: he won’t come because he’s real. As an inherently subversive creature he lurks somewhere outside the system, preparing a revolutionary gift for which we’re not ready yet. When he eventually comes, everyone will have to make up their own mind as to whether they will call the police, or put on a fake beard and join the Santa army.

In the meantime, have a happy and relaxing Christmas.

A still from the documentary “Dejlig er den himmel blå”, directed by Jon Bang Carlsen, 1975. Courtesy of The Danish Film Institute
A still from the documentary “Dejlig er den himmel blå”, directed by Jon Bang Carlsen, 1975. Courtesy of The Danish Film Institute

Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

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