Anybody want to venture a guess where our modern image of Santa Claus comes from? It’s not the church. It’s not from literature. It’s not from the art world. The image of Santa Claus that generally springs to mind was created by illustrator Haddon Sundblom in 1931 for the Coca-Cola company.
Haddon Sundblom’s illustration of Santa Claus for his client, Coca-Cola, painted in the 1930s.
Santa Claus’ origins as we know him today in the U.S. stem from a variety of sources, both pagan and religious. While some urban legends and apparently serious accounts claim that Coca-Cola created Santa, Snopes has debunked that and I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m suggesting, either. Our Santa evolved over time, though most accounts of his modern personage start with Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” although most people know it by the first line, “Twas the night before Christmas.” Moore fixed the number of reindeer at eight and came up with the names we know today (minus Rudolph, who was added much later in 1938). And like many facets of our melting pot amalgamated society, we freely borrowed from different cultures and Santa continued to evolve as Christmas became increasingly secularized and commercial. Of course, our version of Christmas, including Santa Claus, is now exported around the world.
So look at Sundblom’s image. That is what most of us think of if pressed to picture Santa Claus in our mind. If you look at drawings and paintings of Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas before that time and in other cultures, you’ll see flowing robes of blue, green and other colors. You’ll see a variety of beards or even no beard. You’ll see different headdresses, staff’s, and other symbolic implements and accessories. My point is that the American version of Santa Claus is our creation and has its roots in crass commercialism, which began at least seventy-five years ago.
Today Santa Claus is used to sell everything under the sun from cigarettes to soda pop. Why bring this up? What does it have to do with beer? I mention this because once again several states will not approve beer labels that depict Santa Claus on them. These states — this year so far it’s New York and Maine — claim that showing Santa Claus on the label “might appeal to underage drinkers,” “the Christmas themes … would appeal to children,” and are “undignified and improper.” That last one, from Maine, is one of fourteen mostly ridiculous standards such as “Advertisements of liquor shall not contain any undignified or improper illustration.”
Setting aside the label itself for the moment, let’s just talk about the hypocrisy in these state’s assertions, that it might somehow make underage kids want to drink beer. First of all, what age group believes in Santa Claus? I know it varies, but let’s assume that it’s under ten, which seems to be pretty common. At that age, when Santa is something a child is drawn to, how many have an interest in beer? I’d say next to none. And if you’ve done your job as a parent, your kids would know the difference between an adult drink and one they’re allowed to have. Alcoholic beverages, when they’re even allowed to be sold where children are — like the more enlightened states that allow them to be sold in grocery stores and other general retail outlets — are still segregated together and kept separate from soda, juice and milk. So unless you choose to take your kid down the beer aisle, then I’d say the average kid will be protected from accidentally seeing a beer label with Santa on it. As for older kids, let’s say an underaged kid is interested in buying a beer with Santa on the label. I’m pretty sure it would still be illegal for him to do so. It doesn’t become legal if the label is cute, does it? Did I miss another meeting? Children aren’t permitted to buy whatever appeals to them, are they? So why the hell are these states wasting their time on such utter non-issues? Beer is intended for adults and it’s labels should reflect that. Period. The fact that a minor might accidentally see the label does not and should not matter one whit. The state has no business trying to turn the world into such a kid-friendly place that no adult only things are permitted to be seen by those of us who are, in fact, adults. We should not all be forced to live like ten-year olds in order to “protect” our children. Not only is it impossible, but it’s not even desirable. Overly protected children grow up to be adults with no idea how to deal with controversy, differences of opinion or offense. We already see the effects of this as every subgroup of humanity cries foul whenever their point of view is not completely tolerated. The amount of insult that has led to fatal retaliation is staggering in the world. We need to live with our differences, not try to erase them or pretend they don’t exist.
And why every time a controversy of this kind surfaces, do the authorities conclude — with no evidence whatsoever — that cartoons are exclusively for children. The first newspaper cartoons were for adults and comic strips remained adult-themed for many years. The first animated cartoons were all made for adults. Back before television assumed its place of prominence as the altar of the living room, people went to the cinema far more often than today. And before the film began, they were treated to a newsreel and a cartoon. All of the early cartoons by Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM and the underrated Flesicher Studios were made for adults. Many adults still love cartoons today. I know that’s true because I’m one of them. In America, as usual, the 1950s saw fringe groups censor the violence and adult themes out of comic books with the creation of the “Comics Code” which made comic books suitable only for children until the 1980s, when companies started ignoring the Code and producing works for adults again. In Japan and France, and undoubtedly many other countries, comics for adults in the form of magazines, graphic novels and manga are a very popular medium for adults. In France, for example, the number one magazine is Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal), which contains ongoing graphic stories for adults. In the U.S., the best-selling magazine is TV Guide. Some of the most popular Japanese films for adults today are animated, films like Akira. Adults there know the best directors and illustrators of anime the way we know football players. The point is that it’s absurd for our government agencies to assume that if it’s a cartoon image that it will automatically appeal to children more than adults, or that kids are the target. Adults love cartoons, too, and we should be allowed to see ones created specifically for us without fear that a child might see it, too.
But I also want to make one more bold assertion about this controversy. All things being equal, and if there were no minimum age to drink alcohol, it would probably be better for kids to drink a beer versus a soda. I know that’s not going to be a popular suggestion, but the fact is beer is healthier than the average soda, which is loaded with caffeine, sugar and all manner of chemicals. Take a look at the label. It reads like a chemistry experiment. I once read that there is so much sugar in a 12 oz. serving of cola that after drinking one, your body will crave additional liquids to dilute all of the sugar you just swallowed in the soda. This leads to you drinking even more soda — a great boon to the companies selling this swill — but a tragic health epidemic for the rest of us. And many schools now accept money from the major soft drink companies to put soda machines right there in school. That’s doing far more harm to our kids than beer is. So why aren’t Maine and New York (and the rest of the states) up in arms over Santa Claus being so closely associated with Coca-Cola or being used to sell cigarettes the way they are with beer? Simple, it’s not really about any concern over the kids. It’s about neo-prohibitionist agendas and the desire to keep alcohol away from everyone, using children as the excuse. [NOTE: I want to be clear that I'm not advocating that we should give beer to kids, just that in terms of protecting them from harm beer is probably less harmful than soda. It's just an argument. Please, no more misunderstanding e-mails calling me the devil.]
But let’s get back to the labels.
All of the labels in question are imported by Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts. I’ve known Dan Shelton since he first called on me when I was the beer buyer at BevMo around ten years ago. He and two brothers, Will and Joel, import some of the best beers in the world. Just ask them, they’ll tell you. Dan has a much-deserved reputation for speaking his mind. He believes in the beers he sells probably more passionately than any other person I know. Shelton is now suing both states, New York and Maine, over this ridiculous label issue. So I’m certainly glad to see him fighting for his beers.
He’s had to fight this fight before, so he at least knows what he’s up against. He’s had similar difficulties with Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Ohio. Last year, the state of Connecticut initially wouldn’t approve the label for Seriously Bad Elf, but then backed off. This year, New York state is saying no to Bad Elf, Very Bad Elf, Criminally Bad Elf (a barleywine), Warm Welcome Nut Brown Ale, Santa’s Butt Winter Porter and Rudolph’s Revenge. The first five are all from a single brewery, Ridgeway Brewery in Oxfordshire, England, and the last is from Cropton Brewery in Yorkshire. Shelton Brothers have filed suit seeking a reversal of the State Liquor Authority’s decision along with damages and legal fees.
Albany’s Times Union has an overview of the conflict in New York. And Stan at the Real Beer Blog has also weighed in, as has Joe Sixpack. Don Russell’s piece also has an excellent list of other Christmas-themed beers divided into those also depicting Santa Claus, local ones (he’s in Philadelphia), and some of his other favorites from around the country.
But for some reason (no pun intended) the one causing the most trouble is Santa’s Butt to the state officials apparently unaware that a “butt” is a brewing term for a measure of beer. A butt is the equivalent of 2 hogsheads, or 108 imperial gallons (129.7 U.S. gallons). Both New York and Maine are objecting to this label. In Maine, the local Civil Liberties Union has also taken up the fight saying “the beer labels are entitled to First Amendment protection.” According to an AP article, “[t]here is no good reason for the state to censor art, even art found on a beer label,” said Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the MCLU.
You might at this point be thinking, art? Yes, art, because in addition to Santa’s Butt, the State of Maine is also objecting to two other labels for non-Christmas beers, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus and Brasserie Les Choulette’s Les Sans Culottes because, according to the state, “they show bare-breasted women.” Gasp!
The Cantillon label is from a painting by famous Belgian artist Raymond Coumans, who is a friend of Cantillon’s owners and created it specifically for the label. The subject is the legendary King of Flanders, who was a patron of beer and brewing. For a long while, here in California to be sold legally, the naked woman on the king’s lap had to wear a blue dress printed over her body. I cringe every time I think what prudes we are as a nation and how ridiculous we must seem to the rest of the civilized world.
The other beer, Les Sans Culottes from the French brewery, Brasserie Les Choulette, is a Biere de Garde style beer. The label is a detail from the iconic Eugene Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People that hangs in the Louvre. That the people of Maine might be offended by this image is, in and of itself, offensive to reason and common sense. That they feel their citizens need to be protected from seeing this image on a bottle of beer is ludicrous in the extreme.
This whole episode points out yet another oddity in our nation’s alcohol laws. Most states have this extra layer of the approval process that often denies basic First Amendment rights because the states claim some higher purpose, simply because it’s alcohol. Some of the reasons for the process make a modicum of sense, say, for example, so that labels are not misleading. But to bring in such subjective standards as decency, offensiveness or inappropriateness should never be a part of the procedure. And to pretend to be protecting “the children” is the flimsiest of reasons of all for a product already reserved for only adults. If the rationale is that by using an image that appeals to a child it will create a situation where nothing can stop a minor from obtaining the beer, then fine.
But there are already numerous — I would frankly say too many — impediments to insure alcohol can be obtained only by those adults entitled to buy it. Endless education and programs are created by retailers, distributors and the manufacturers to ensure it never happens, and the penalties imposed to a business when it does are often quite substantially punitive (certainly out of perspective with the actual harm done) so that no business wants to risk selling to a minor. Yet to people in organizations like MADD and other neo-prohibitionists that is still not considered to be enough. Not if there’s even one chance that a teenager might lay his hands on a bottle of beer. That is apparently worse than nuclear war in these people’s minds. I drank alcohol as a teenager, years before it was legal for me to do so. Am I an alcoholic today, a burden on society? Did I ruin my life? No. I am so f*&#ing sick of not being able to buy a beer or it being unreasonably inconvenient to do so just because we’re trying to keep it out of the hands of our kids. Why doesn’t the rest of the world have this problem, or at least doesn’t have it to this degree? Because the rest of the world isn’t quite as preoccupied with controlling the lives of everyone around them, foisting their own set of values on everybody else. Geez, this is pissing me off. Hey Dan, I think it’s time to open up some Christmas beers just so I can relax. Where’s my Santa suit.
Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People, which is apparently inappropriate for the people in the state of Maine to see.