Our next-door neighbor Todd is an event producer, marching-band choreographer, and parade producer. His many roles intersect, and so do the resources at his command: at the climax of last year’s Thanksgiving day parade, Santa and Mrs. Claus were escorted up the wide granite stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum by a double file of glittery Roman centurions. The centurions, complete with five-foot feathered and spiked helmets, were borrowed from West Chester University’s “Glory of Rome” halftime show, and I believe they were merely added to fill out the procession. The martial pomp gave Santa’s arrival an unmistakably triumphalist flair, however. This was no jolly, freelance elf arriving unannounced on the rooftop, but a conquering hero marching in force, an imperial mascot for an imperial time.
Earthly power fades, however, and cobwebs grow fastest on laurel and holly alike. Turn on the radio at noon on Christmas day, and you’ll hear the coup announced in shrieking tones: “Santa didn’t get what you want this year? Visit our after-holiday half-price sale!” “Elf let you down?” “Got the post-Christmas blues?” “Now that the holidays are over, switch to carrot sticks! Work off those unwanted pounds!” After an extended coronation, red-faced elves are immediately out. Cold blue colors and lean, cheerless models in spandex are in, marching their penitence on an aluminum diamondplate floor for a low introductory rate.
Nowhere is this cruel ouster more evident than on Todd’s front lawn, where since November Santa’s disembodied head — a relic of some Fifties float — has sat, surrounded by a guard of seven-foot wooden soldiers. Before Christmas, the giant disembodied head merely seemed odd, but after the holiday it fits. Santa Claus is our king Kerkyon, a sacrificial ruler raised high in an orgy of ceremonial pomp, then swiftly decapitated at the climax of festivities. Unlike Kerkyon, however, Santa will be resurrected at the break of dawn next Halloween.
The mild, apologetic look on Santa’s face makes it clear that he’s an unsuspecting party to this deep and bloody mystery. Santa suspects no Salome, bears no grudge, and (I’m sure) isn’t aware of each year’s Christmas-afternoon coup d’etat mustering in the rustle of wrapping paper. Santa is an unassuming emperor, and — unlike earthly rulers — he’ll be just the same no matter what pedestal we find to hoist him on next year.
The king is dead! Long live the king!