COMMENTARY: The Warmth of the North Pole

by Larry Floersch

Christmas Postcard, 1911

In my mind the North Pole seems warm compared with the South Pole. I know that is not logical. Both places are treeless, barren, bleak, and very cold. And although technically it is colder at the South Pole, does it really matter once you reach 30 below and the temperature is still dropping? At least at the South Pole you eventually have solid ground under you, after about 9,000 feet of ice! At the North Pole you are floating on 10 feet of ice over more than 13,000 feet of liquid ocean. That seems far less hospitable even before considering the top-of-the-food-chain polar bears there that would happily make a snack of you. The coastline near the South Pole, on the other hand, is populated by less-threatening, fish-eating penguins.

The relative “warmth” of the North Pole, of course, has to do with Santa Claus. If Santa and his elves can live at the North Pole, can it really be so bad? We’ve all seen images in films and books of a cozy house and workshop nestled among snow drifts, with warm light pouring from the windows across a snowy landscape dotted with Christmas trees and reindeer. We give little thought to the realities of who delivers the firewood and heating oil to such a remote location. No doubt it’s a good thing that kids around the world leave milk and cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer on Christmas Eve, because the nearest supermarket has to be thousands of miles away. Where do Santa and the elves get food for the other 364 days?

The answer is that Santa’s world involves a lot of magic—a magic that sprang from a monk of Greek heritage, who lived centuries ago nowhere near the North Pole, but on the south coast of Turkey. Saint Nicholas was known for his secretive gift giving and generosity. Tales of his spirit of generosity were carried by travelers to the far ends of the known world. Depending on the culture, today that spirit of giving without needing to receive goes by the names of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and, of course, Santa Claus.

No one today knows what Saint Nicholas looked like (there were no smart phones or even film cameras in the 300s), although Russian iconographers some ten centuries after he roamed the streets of Myra produced images of what they think he looked like. It is no surprise he resembled all the other saints of the Russian Orthodox Church—thin, serious, and bearded.

And the same is true for Santa. No one really knows his true appearance. He takes great care to never be seen.

It was the American illustrator, caricaturist, and cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who gave a modern face to the spirit of generosity we know as Santa. Nast was born in Bavaria and brought to the United States by his parents when he was about 10 years old. He attended school in New York City. He loved to draw and eventually began working for newspapers and magazines as an illustrator, where he made a name for himself as a creator of political cartoons, especially ones attacking Boss Tweed’s corrupt political machine, Tammany Hall.

Between 1863 and 1886 Nast submitted a number of cartoons to Harper’s Weekly magazine depicting Santa Claus as a portly, jolly elf dressed in fur. Nast had been influenced by the writer Clement C. Moore, whose poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—better known as, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—was published in 1823 in a newspaper in Troy, New York. Between the poem and Nast’s illustrations, the world of Santa and his elves, his workshop, and the enormous book in which he kept his lists of naughty and nice children around the world became indelible images in our collective psyche. Just as important, Nast gave Santa a home: the North Pole.

No one knows the secret location of Santa’s house and workshop. Some places have tried to claim him as their own. There are at least four towns in the United States named “North Pole” (Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and New York), and at least three named “Santa Claus” (Indiana, Georgia, and Arizona). All try in some form or another to claim Santa.

Each of the Scandinavian countries claims Santa lives within its territory—in Drøbak, Norway; Mora, Sweden; Korvatunturi, Finland; while the Danes believe he lives in Uummannaq, Greenland.

But the beauty of it is that Santa lives in a warm, cozy house somewhere near the North Pole, which means that no country can claim him because the North Pole is off limits to territorial claims. And therefore the spirit of peace, generosity, and gift giving that Santa represents belongs to everyone on this planet.

On behalf of the staff of The Bridge, may your holidays be warm and bright and may the New Year bring us all peace and happiness.

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