Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Here Comes Santa Claus

Who knew your average shopping mall Santa has to risk so much? From crying, inconsolable toddlers to sick children vomiting on their freshly-laundered suits and the "post-Christmas depression" that sets in for many of them come December 26th, it isn't easy being the North Pole's jolliest inhabitant. The illuminating, highly enjoyable new documentary Becoming Santa (now available on DVDjust in time for the holidays from Cinema Libre Studio) reveals all these perils of the trade as well as its many joys.

"It's not a job; it's a calling, a destiny," according to one interviewee in the film who annually dons the familiar red and white. Director Jeff Myers primarily follows the journey of Los Angeles resident Jack Sanderson, who found Christmas had lost much of its value and meaning following the deaths of his parents. The funny, well-spoken Sanderson decided to try to re-discover the holiday spirit by growing out his beard, dyeing it white and attending one of several schools for professional Santas scattered across the US. Myers' camera tracks Sanderson as he learns such valuable lessons as never refer to children as "kids," never add an additional exclamation to Santa's traditionally triune "Ho, ho, ho," and to always assure the children sitting on his lap that he will do everything possible to satisfy their Christmas wish lists. "In essence," Sanderson confesses, "I've been given a license to lie to children, and to lie big."

As a lifelong devotee of the pleasantly-plump mascot of gift giving, I was impressed not just by the caliber of character(s) depicted in Becoming Santa but by the documentary's incorporation of historical facts behind the contemporary legend. The source tale of St. Nicholas -- a 3rd-century benefactor known for his secret support of the poor and needy in what is now known as southern Turkey -- is given considerable time, as are the Civil War-era innovations to the tradition. These included the first American artistic illustration of Santa (which would later be appropriated by the Coca-Cola Company to even greater effect), the first Christmas tree sales in the US, and the introduction of Christmas greeting cards. The first "live" Santa, personified by James Edgar, debuted in a Boston department store in 1890.


I wish Myers would have focused less on Sanderson, entertaining though he be, and given some of his supporting Santas a little more screen time. Each has a fascinating back story, and most unselfishly volunteer their considerable time spent as Santa each year in malls, parades and at parties. But Myers succeeds, movingly so, at showing the great good done each year in the name of Santa Claus via considerable fund-raising efforts and gift donations that support underprivileged children, men and women worldwide.

Although I've become increasingly horrified by the greed and commercialism that drive "Black Friday" and the holiday shopping season, I will always believe in Santa and the overly-generous devotion to humankind's good that he represents. If there is anyone out there who needs your Christmas spirit renewed, rent Becoming Santa today. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Reverend's Rating: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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