Woohoo! Today kicks off the Christmas Spirit Read-a-Thon at Seasons of Reading. Their credo is “a week of relaxed reading during which we can personally challenge ourselves and whittle away those ever looming TBR piles/shelves/libraries. So, no pressure… EVER!”
That’s my kind of read-a-thon.
I’ve started my holiday reading with The Santa Claus Man, a new nonfiction book by Alex Palmer. Here’s my review, which will also appear tomorrow at Black Heart Magazine:
Following the rise and fall of John Duval Gluck, Jr., aka The Santa Claus Man, Alex Palmer’s new book offers a unique behind-the-scenes look at some of the people who first organized the kinds of Christmas celebrations we’ve all come to know and love.
From humble beginnings, operating out of a back room in Henkel’s Chop House, Gluck first took on the task of responding to hundreds of letters addressed to Santa by area children with a sense of pride and the Christmas spirit. But, as with all tales of power, corruption lurks beneath the surface, and it’s only a matter of time before Santa’s Secretary becomes enmeshed in a web of deceit.
Palmer does an excellent job of navigating the many spurious claims made by con-artist Gluck, without painting him as a Grinch out to ruin Christmas simply for personal gain. Instead, he offers a sympathetic portrait of a man who aspired to become something more than an import-export broker, a man with modern PR skills and a knack for clever storytelling, and a man whose own birthday was perpetually eclipsed by Christmas cheer – even as he condemns Gluck’s vices. At times the reader must wonder if Gluck is more to be praised for constantly outwitting those that sought to entrap him, given the cheerless acronyms of some of the groups on his tail (SPUG, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, springs to mind – isn’t most holiday gift-giving technically “useless”?).
But even more than his captivating portrait of Gluck, Palmer also perfectly captures the ever-changing nature of both New York City and America’s particular Christmas celebrations. Following the evolution of St. Nicholas from a whip-wielding punisher of naughtiness in 1810 to the 1927 depiction of a jolly Santa Claus who rewards good behavior, it’s truly fascinating to see how our myths continue to change as the years go by. The way the patron saint of all things Christmas is eventually distanced from his German heritage is perhaps inevitable and frustrating – not to mention culturally relevant, as we listen to current-day political candidates suggest building walls and tagging foreigners with special identification in order to make sure only “real Americans” live in America.
Equally fascinating, the book offers historical tidbits that seem both incredibly foreign and sadly relevant to 2015, including the number of daily newspapers that circulated the city at the time (a whopping 85!), or the fact that Boy Scouts were once allowed to carry loaded handguns as part of their uniforms. It was also striking to discover that NYC mail trucks were originally allowed to break the speed limit of 15 mph in order to deliver mail faster – indeed, as if it were an emergency on par with transporting injured persons to hospitals.
Though the Santa Claus Association was disbanded in 1928, Gluck’s legacy of answering children’s letters to Santa lives on. The much reformed system is now called Operation Santa Claus, and is available nationwide for any adult who wishes to play Santa for up to 10 children who still believe. (You can read about the process here, if you like.)
Highly recommended, both for those who embrace the Christmas spirit and for the Scrooges who are certain every charity contributes to “useless giving.”
In addition to this book, here are a few more Christmas-themed books I plan to read (or re-read, in some cases!) during the challenge:
That should do it for the Mistletoe level for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, too! I might even hit the Christmas Tree level, if I find some more interesting books to read by December 6…
Got a Christmas read-a-thon suggestion for me?
Let me know in the comments section, or tweet me @originaloflaura with the hashtag #CSreadathon!