Monday 23 October 2017

Santa to tread the boards nationwide – and not just for (that) one night only

Colin Murphy

When Marc MacLochlainn started making plays for children, he was working in a language that they didn't understand. So he learned to make sure his plays could be understood "regardless of language".

MacLochlainn formed his theatre company, Branar, to make plays for children in Irish. Gradually, he found himself using fewer words and more mime and puppetry. But his latest play, Twas the Night Before Christmas, currently touring, has "the most language and the most English" he has ever used in a show.

That seems appropriate. The play is an adaptation of the famous poem about Santa Claus. Though the story of Santa is now so universal as to not need words, it only found that form relatively recently; and this poem was a critical part of that. Santa Claus, of course, has always proved elusive. That probably explains why, prior to mass media, different European cultures gave him different names and figures: Sinterklaas and Sankt Nikolaus; Christkindl (Christ child), which became Kriss Kringle; and Belsnickle (furry Nicholas).

In America in the 1800s, these figures met and began to merge. The nascent patriotism of the newly independent United States gave momentum to the search for new, national symbols.

In 1809, Washington Irving published a hugely successful, fictionalised history of New York, containing references to a jolly St Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees", bringing presents and leaving them in stockings hung on the chimney. In 1821, an anonymous book, The Children's Friend, depicted 'Sante Claus' arriving from the North with presents for children, in a sleigh with flying reindeer.

Then, in 1823, the poem known as The Night Before Christmas was published in a local paper in New York state. The poem was anonymous, and told of Santa arriving in a miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. (Oddly, given his luminous nose, Rudolph wasn't identified till 1939, in a booklet by Robert L May).

Twenty years later, a professor of biblical languages named Clement Clark Moore finally claimed authorship of the poem. In a wonderfully incongruous pairing, you can hear Bob Dylan read it on YouTube.

A key innovation of Moore's poem and the 1921 book was that they recorded Santa as arriving on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. This moved the emphasis away from the religious, and allowed different Christian traditions to embrace Santa without compromising their beliefs on the propriety of Christmas Day traditions.

Coca-Cola is often credited with creating the popular image of Santa Claus. Though it certainly popularised it through a series of ads from the early 1930s on, that image was already well established in America, where Santa had been recruited to serve the interests of commerce from the early 1800s.

It was the cartoonist Thomas Nash in the 1860s who firmly established the image of Santa with flowing bear and fur garments, and who confirmed that Santa lived at the North Pole. (That was likely the first time, too, that Santa would take sides in a war – Nash had him supporting the Union in the American Civil War.)

Given Santa's role in the development of a national, modern, American culture, it seems appropriate also that Marc MacLochlainn has set his play in 1948, in an Irish village teetering on modernity, celebrating its first Christmas with electricity. It sounds like a delight. See www.branar.ie for tour details.

There's a further Irish adaptation of an American Christmas classic, this time for adults, with Gary Duggan's version of It's a Wonderful Life, the world's only feelgood movie about a bank run, playing at Theatre Upstairs in Dublin. It's one of three "Yule tide tales" running in repertory till December 21. The other two are Gemma Doorly's version of The Gift of the Magi and Katie McCann's version of The Little Match Girl. (Details on their Facebook page.)

And there will be more nostalgia on offer in the Pavilion Theatre tomorrow, no doubt, when the wonderful Des Keogh, who was interviewed here earlier this year, takes to the stage with his family for an evening of music and old-school entertainment. (Details on www.paviliontheatre.ie.)

colinmurphy@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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