I have an odd holiday tradition of writing a parody of a critical essay about a Christmas carol each December. Maybe it’s revenge for the five-paragraph literary essays I read all year, maybe it’s a perverse desire to fight back against a song I’ve heard 238, 243 times. Whatever it is, here it is:
Though giddy carolers yearly celebrate the jolly figure Michel Fousault once called, “that nitrous oxide huffing gelatinous mass,” some say Santa took a decidedly Puritan turn in 1934 when Eddie Cantor first sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on radio. Children who never expected the avuncular cookie-cruncher to make good on his punitive threats suddenly faced a leaner, meaner John Brown-style Santa, a Santa as intimate with the fragility of salvation as Jonathan Edwards, a fiery judge, a vigilant killjoy, an Old Testament avenger. Modern listeners may accept this horrifying tale of predestination and the inevitable naughtiness of humanity as just so much accompaniment for egg nog chugging contests, but Christmas carol scholars know—Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing a bag full of damnation.
The first three words of the song set the tone—“You better not”—and so begins its long series of not-so-veiled threats. Among the forbidden actions are “crying” and “pouting,” but what this Santa really decries is any complaint. Fate is inexorable, and the song prepares children for disappointment when, fallen human nature assured by their postlapsarian existence, they fall into La Brea Tar Pit of iniquity. There is simply no point in “crying” and “pouting” for both will do no good, and, noted scholar Karl Sharfenberger’s nude dancing rendition of the tune aside, no one dares tempt a Santa whose exhaustive “List” pens the elect and the condemned in permanent ink. Famous philatelist Dennis Tooletone may believe that “Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice” implies ongoing assessment, free will, and the opportunity to elude sin, but he hasn’t done his Puritan homework and still lives with his sister in Queens. During The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards also touted the beneficence of a God that held human souls by a spider’s web over the eternal flames of hell. That was “gonna” too, the implication that at some point or another “finding out” meant discovering which souls plunged and which kept barbequing. In 1958, during a polka contest at the annual conference of the Modern Caroling Association, Fousault uttered what are perhaps his most famous words on the song. Between panting and just before his coronary, Fousault said, “Ack, I see him comin’, I see him comin’.” Everyone there heard Fousault’s final apostrophes loud and clear. The Santa comin’ for Fousault knew who had been “bad or good” and didn’t need a lousy list. The list, like Edward’s spider web, is just for show.
Perhaps the most troubling element of this troubling paean to humanity’s fate is Santa’s vigilance. The song reports that “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Santa watches even when it appears he does not need to. The kids are asleep for God’s sake! But Santa’s business is the unconscious inclinations of sinners, reading their dreams the way Coach Van Haverbeek read your thoughts during those Boys’ Health films. That Santa “knows when you’re awake,” suggests that any attempt at fakery—anyone who’s been to Camp Karankawa knows shut eyes don’t mean sleep—will be futile. Santa will know, and your effort to save yourself from dreaming of that cute girl three cabins down toward the lake will surely fail. “You better watch out!” the singer screams, but a listener is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Santa has him in a triple-bind. A person cannot watch himself while he is sleeping or while he has his eyes closed pretending to snooze or when he’s subject to the capricious visit of his all-too-vivid imagination during roll call. And, if the listeners hoped to escape Santa’s prying eyes while the fat man directs his attention elsewhere, forget it. The great eye of Sauron in the J. R. R. Tolkein classic Lord of the Rings has nothing on Santa. As the song crows, Santa checks his list twice. The list is unalterable and set since the time elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs roamed the earth, and still he checks his list twice. Jonathan Edwards at least promised God’s mercy though God had no reason to spare anyone. The Santa who comes to town is not so kind.
And hope has no place in the song. The lyrics state “You’d better be good for goodness sake,” and scholars like Bertram Chert demanded listeners regard those words colloquially, like “For goodness sake, this bathing cap is tight!” Chert’s sanity was already compromised at that point, of course, but he also was flat wrong. Suppose someone isn’t one of the elect destined to receive Santa’s beneficence, suppose someone had some minor slip up like cursing under his breath or working for a few months after college slaughtering lab animals, his only choice—having been marked by Santa’s anagramatical twin, Satan—is to be good for its own sake, because what other reason might you have for being good when a listener knows, deep down and in his very bones, that being good will really do no good at all. Drunk carolers have long noted that Santa is curiously absent from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” He is the unmoved mover of Christmas fates slouching toward Bethlehem to be born like the beast of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “Second Coming,” and his actual whereabouts are as mysterious as his feelings about a listener’s miserable soul. Santa will not speak for himself and lets some unnamed herald deliver his fire and brimstone for him. A mortal cannot know Santa’s mind. Don’t even try.
Eddie Cantor reportedly cried as soon as he sang the last note of this keening wail of a famously misunderstood Christmas tune, or so someone’s cousin said. That’s probably false, but, in case it is not, an attentive listener might regard Santa’s coming to town as a vow akin to the Lord’s promise to burn the sinful denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. A town is no place for virtue. Look back or don’t look back. It will not matter. Santa has decided, and, chances are, nearly everyone is on the wrong list.