Monday, 9 December 2013

Becoming Santa (2011)

People always used to tell me that if I worked in a factory that made chocolates I would soon get sick of eating the chocolates. I have a very sweet tooth, and argued that I would never tire of eating chocolate. I didn't realise when I was a young boy that this was just a variation on a well-worn piece of advice: "be careful what you wish for."

In Becoming Santa, Jack Sanderson wants to find some holiday spirit. He dies his beard and hair white, invests in a suit and sets out to become, yes, Santa. On his journey he attends a Santa School (run by the sweet, but clearly a bit bonkers, Susan Mesco), meets many other Santas and starts to realise just how important it is to keep this figure alive and pure in the eyes of the children who look up to him.

While it is at pains to show both the good and the bad of the figure of Santa Claus, and what he means to children and to those who are young at heart, Becoming Santa stumbles a couple of times, for two main reasons.

First of all, almost everyone involved equates Santa Claus with the spirit of Christmas. Even though I'm a happy, fully-fledged atheist I can see why some people might have a bit of a problem with that. Hey, I LOVE Santa, and I have encouraged a love of Santa in my kids over the years, but when discussing the spirit of Christmas I have never first gone to Santa as the embodiment of all that. I've not gone straight to the religious roots either. Instead, I simply think that the season, and its traditions, bring out the goodness in people who wish to engage with it. The spirit of Christmas, as cheesy as it sounds, is in each and every person who works to make it as magical as can be. Santa can embody that, of course, but it's more often the case nowadays that Santa is just the person that kids reach their hands out to for everything that they want. This is highlighted in a sequence that features the "Letters To Santa" program in New York. I thought it was wonderful that these letters were being dealt with, and that the kids would get a little reply from Santa, but it turns out that these letters are browsed by people who then try to get gifts for the kids. I'm sure this is greatly appreciated by the kids - especially one child who needed a wheelchair that the family just couldn't afford - but if parents can't afford to get their kids a gift from Santa then there are bigger problems that a new toy won't fix. The spirit of Christmas should be about helping with those problems.

The second big problem with Becoming Santa stems from the first problem, as it shows how people will spend any money on bizarre little moments to impress their kids (by the way, Santa should never use "the K word"). From a trip on The Polar Express (with Santa working voluntarily, I should add) to an actual visit to the house on Christmas Eve, Santa doesn't seem like such a special, magical figure when you know that he's being hired to pretend to care. With no offence to Santas who also have a real need to spread joy, I realise that this is often the case (hey, even Santa has to eat), but to watch it unfold is to chip away at that Christmas magic. True or not, it feels like time spent watching parents spoil their kids, and I always dislike spoilt children. A Christmas parade through Quincy, Massachusetts, on the other hand, feels like a job well done, so maybe that's just me bristling at something I shouldn't.

Despite these two big flaws, Becoming Santa works quite well. Jack Sanderson is an affable, wry character and there are many little moments that try to clarify the origin of Santa Claus, and his development in to the character we know and love today.

I think, by the time the end credits roll, this documentary will have reaffirmed your opinion of Christmas, whatever that may be. If you love the season then you will still love it, but if you hate it then this will give you at least a couple of reminders of just why that is. An enjoyable, if rather insubstantial, piece of work. Like many other Christmas treats.


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