This year was a quiet Christmas at my childhood home in Virginia with just my parents and me. Inevitably, we began reminiscing about young Shana and her hilarious ideas about Santa. I realized that when you are honest with your children about labor, wages, and money, Santa is somehow less magical. My innocent questions (and my parents’ answers) about Father Christmas reveal a lot about my current fixation with labor and workers’ resistance movements.
Like any black working class kid, my first mission was to make sense of the disconnect between common narratives of Santa Claus and my own reality. We didn’t have a chimney and my parents were pretty serious about making sure that no one came into our house uninvited, so my first question was, of course, how did Santa gain entry? Their answer: Every year we loan him a spare key to the back door. Thus, he came in via the garage, a place that I associated with my mother’s arrival from work everyday.
I’m pretty sure Santa gave me my first lesson in capitalist consumption because my second question was: How did Santa afford presents for children all over the world? I was not interested in how they got made. Or how he knew what to make for whom. I did not leave any room for Santa to wave a magic wand or sprinkle jingle dust and make toys appear. Somebody was paying for these toys and I wanted to know who.
Adult, marxist scholar Shana has even more questions. For starters, how do the elves make all these toys and never get tired? I idolized my parents as wonderful and nurturing super humans. But when I met my mother at the garage door everyday, she was ALWAYS tired.
At worst they were enslaved. At best, their status was similar to the domestic workers I’ve been studying for the last several years. Do they work in exchange for living expenses, like pre-Depression era live-in domestic laborers? Or do they live in North Pole tenements where they return to their families after working long hours for inadequate wages?
My parents’ answer? It was simple. Every year we (and all mommies and daddies) write Santa a check. He uses that money to acquire the gifts that end up under the tree. Somehow, they knew that would be a sufficient answer for me. It was THEIR labor and THEIR wages that made Christmas magical for me every year. Santa was simply a liaison.
To this day, I believe that I am entitled to love, respect, and care. That, too, comes from Paula and Charles Russell. Good behavior isn’t enough to deserve material things. Those things always come from someone’s hard work. And that work must always be compensated.
Hence my shock when I discovered in 2012 that domestic workers were not entitled to basic labor protections. A living wage is a human right, even for Santa.
With love and respect to all workers this holiday season,
Shana A. Russell (writing from the cutting room floor)