Lists of names: Santa’s in particular

Sean O’Neill; © Condé Nast

by Martha Rust

In a cartoon by Sean O’Neill published in the New Yorker, Santa Claus stands behind a rope barrier looking decidedly not jolly.[1] On the other side of the rope stands a man holding a clipboard with a sheet of paper showing three columns of text. Above the door behind him, a sign reads “Club.” The cartoon’s caption translates Santa’s dour look as outrage: “Not on the list? I invented the list!”

We’ve all been there: if not barred from a nightclub because of a list, then certainly left off the list of entrants into one kind of club or another, be it a winner’s list, a short list, a guest list, a dean’s list, an honor roll, a casting list, an “A list”–and the list of “best of” and “in group” lists could go on. Such lists are no joke, for they may bear heavily not only on one’s sense of self but also on one’s very livelihood. We may be thrilled to be on a certain list and feel devastated if we’re not. And a cruel fact about any list of this kind is that there is no in-between: you are in one category or the other, on the list or not. These lists are thus divisive by definition and as such may beget a range of uncharitable feelings: pride and envy, vainglory and self-pity. Worse yet, arguing that one should rightfully have a spot on a given sunny list will likely only result in feelings of envy or self-pity descending to outright humiliation. Given these perils, no wonder Santa doesn’t dispute his absence from that list on the clipboard but instead wrests power over it by proclaiming that he invented the list form in the first place.

That’s a rather grandiose claim, but Santa has a larger-than-life role in western culture and has also enjoyed fame for his list writing ever since the release of the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in November 1939.[2] As the song has it, Santa prepares for his yearly gift-giving journey by making a list of good and bad children: “He’s making a list, / Checking it twice, / Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Compared to the list in O’Neill’s cartoon, Santa’s list is at least inclusive, for it includes all children. That said, the “nice” list is clearly the only one worth being on. To be on the “naughty” list is to be excluded from the “nice” list, banned from the club of nice children who will be rewarded with presents from Santa. What should children do to make the cut? According to the song, they’d “better not cry … better not pout,” and they’d better understand that Santa knows when they do because, as the song warns, “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” According to self-styled storyteller Ace Collins, these particular lines were not the invention of the song’s writer, Frederick Gillespie, but rather of his mother, who used to tell her children that Santa knew about their good and bad deeds, “warnings [that] … caused all of the kids to toe the line around the holidays.”[3]

Generations of parents have doubtless thanked Gillespie for his tuneful version of his mother’s holiday child-control strategy, but the image of the all-seeing Santa helps us to see that all lists of fame–and of infamy–involve not only categorizing people, with its aforementioned problems, but also a degree of surveillance. How does a student get on a dean’s list? Because her performance has been measured and tracked week after week after month after month. In turn, the current forms of tracking are not even human generated. Despite its title, a “dean’s list” is not a list of names compiled by an individual dean whose office one could find in a building on a campus, but rather the product of surveillance in the form of machine-gathered statistics and of the committees, which are faceless to students, that sort through them. Thus the authorship and scene of composition of these and other honorific lists is obscured, both nowhere and everywhere. In this light, the popular image of an omniscient imaginary being–Santa–compiling a list of naughty and nice children from his cozy home on the north pole makes a comical picture of the unlocatable, hence dubious authority of any list of the good, let alone of the best.

How should we live in a world of such lists? Given that we can’t claim ownership of the very form of the list as Santa does in O’Neill’s cartoon, perhaps an understanding of the genre would help. To that end, it is worth noting that among the 18 posts (including this one) on Listology so far, five of them have concerned lists of personal names: A Roll Call of Lovers’ Roles in Lydgate’s Temple of Glas, Friending Thebes, “An Epic ‘Hit List,’” and “The Bede Roll for the Church of St. Mary in Sandwich.” It would seem that despite their problems, lists of names, including Santa’s, enjoy a perennial appeal.

[1] The New Yorker. 20 Dec. 2008. p. 73

[2] The song was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. Ace Collins recounts the history of its composition and release in chapter 4 of Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[3] Collins, Stories Behind, np.

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