It occurs to me — as odd, non-sequitorish things often occur to me — that Shakespeare’s ruthless quill may have created the white Santa and struck the first fierce blow in the war on Christmas.
Sure, I guess it’s well-established that the notion of Santa Claus comes from that swarthy Greek, Saint Nicholas. But honestly, isn’t Falstaff — jolly, swill-swilling, party mentor of powerful — the ultimate model for the Anglo-Saxon Santa?
If you’ll remember your Shakespeare, Falstaff spends most of King Henry IV part 1 and 2 playing John Belushi to Prince Hal’s Animal House pledge. They love each other the way Santa and children love each other.
Then Hal’s father, Henry IV, dies. And Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, with a country to rule. What happens next is one of the great literary illustrations that leadership means pain, that professional responsibility and emotional relationships co-exist uneasily, and that leaders must often forsake their friends.
Falstaff lines up his boys at Westminster Abbey and prepares to shower them with gifts from Hal’s largesse.
Stand here by me, Master Robert Shallow; I will
make the king do you grace: I will leer upon him as
a’ comes by; and do but mark the countenance that he
will give me.
He calls out to Henry as the royal entourage strides by.
“God save thee, my sweet boy!”
Henry turns on him coldly. He instructs the Lord Chief Justice: “Speak to that vain man.”
Falstaff answers: “My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!.”
And then Henry drops this on him:
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.
Set on, indeed.
Who knows what the real Henry V did about his real friends? That’s for better historians than me. But Shakespeare knew something about the problems of “government and leadership by friendship.” He would have recognized the Lakeland of today in the London of 1500 because human beings never really change.
Shakespeare killed Falstaff off stage in Henry V. He executed him with a broken heart. Yet the real Queen Elizabeth loved the character Falstaff so much she made the Bard resurrect him for Merry Wives of Windsor. And I bet, somehow, western culture did the same thing, delivering Falstaff’s soul and that jolly belly that shakes like jelly to the North Pole where it belongs.
Sometimes, adults and leaders have to banish the joys of youth. Sometimes honor and duty require you to hurt your friends and the people who love. Sometimes you gotta kill Santa Claus. Doing that means powerful pain and loss. But if the joy was real, the love meaningful and honest, it may prove as resilient and immortal as Falstaff and Santa Claus.
Merry Holidays, everyone. Thanks for reading and thinking and engaging this year.