As I type in this cafe, the strains of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town are being implanted in a Pavlovian manner via a speaker in the kitchen. Presumably the intention is to get everyone salivating at the prospect of annual Yuletide bankruptcy, but the song has always provoked a shiver in me – and not because of any wayward icicle.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town belongs with Darkness At Noon and One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich , not Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Though given Rudolph’s nasal coloration and apparent infiltration of an elite German airborne unit (all that Donner und Blitzen stuff sounds suspect) he may well be a Soviet spy.
The lyrics of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town describe an Orwellian nightmare of thought crime and powerlessness against the arbitrary decisions of an unaccountable and absolute tyrant.
You’d better watch out
You’d better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
This warning tells you not to betray your true emotions, particularly if they are of a negative nature. Better to stick to the sort of stony-faced neutrality favoured by Socialist Realism if you can’t go the whole hog and enter into ecstatic fervour at the prospect of Santa Claus’ arrival, which like the Last Judgment or a factory inspection by Kim Jong-Il will take place at an imminent yet unspecified time…
He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
Things become even more sinister with mention of Santa Claus’ terrifying “list”. Again the echoes of Revelation are obvious, though even vengeful Jehovah doesn’t go to the crypto-scientific lengths of “checking it twice” to ensure the absolute veracity of his eternal wrath.
The world is divided into just two groups: those on the list and those not on the list. But the real Kafka-style horror is that we are not told whether the list is of those who are “naughty” or those who are “nice” placing us in a dreadful limbo where we can never be sure whether it is better to be on the list or off it…
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness’ sake!
The picture of Santa’s all-pervasive surveillance state is complete. His attentions extend even into the bedroom with the clear implication that unconsciousness offers no haven from his relentless monitoring. Thought crime – even unintentional – is a reality in the world of Santa Claus, as it is in all theocratic and totalitarian regimes. He applies the classic ploy of the dictator, making the default psychological setting of society one of guilt and humiliation.
The last line with its “for goodness’ sake!” is most pitiful of all: it sounds like an entreaty from someone whose own individuality has already been crushed. It is the voice of Winston Smith at the end of 1984, the failure of rebellion, a voice of total and everlasting defeat. Sod the Eurythmics – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town should be playing over the final credits as John Hurt gets on with his worthless life on Airstrip 1, where it really is Christmas every day. But that leads us to another song with a horror all of its own…