It was thought that Santa Claus, like God, was everywhere. For this photo project, the Press's Phillipe Diederich looked on street corners, in schools and homeless shelters, but Claus was reliably found only in the shopping malls. The Santa of the malls wore the same old suit and the same old beard and looked so real that he seemed utterly unreal, like the malls themselves, or a thousand actors all reading the same silly script.
Diederich took these Santas out of the malls to photograph them, and it was like taking a snowflake inside, or trying to take a picture of a ghost. Santa, or at least his mirth, disappeared. In his place, stood only another laborer.
It seemed wrong to photograph Santa in doldrums, but it mostly seemed dull. So the Santa photo project was dying, until Diederich discovered the Santa mutants. These were people who refused to let Santa get in a rut. For 2,000 years, Santa had joyfully evolved, the myths laying themselves one on top of another, until the birth in a barn of a religious savior was commemorated by the arrival on the roof of a flying sleigh. And if now the fat man in blazing red had grown weary of hauling gimcracks down chimneys, why not change the script and character?
Why not let Santa cackle with a hee-hee-hee, instead of the old ho-ho-ho? And why should Santa by jolly and not wry or ironic? And why Anglo? Why fat? Why old? And why, oh why, must Santa be a mall rat?
He is a work in progress, putty in the hands, whatever we want him to be. Santa puts on a zoot suit and becomes Pancho Claus, swapping his sleigh for a low rider. Richard Reyes does his perfomances as Pancho Claus, hoping to give Hispanic children someone to believe in. Explaining the new Claus spirit, he said it's "A badness goodness. It's coolness."
Santa becomes the man of the moment, and the woman, too: He is Monica Lewinsky and safe sex and all in all, he is the party Santa. Except for Pancho, all Santas pictured here are part of Santa Rampage, a loosely knit group of "santarchists" whose general purpose, said Penny ("Kabuki Santa") Smith, "is to bend people's minds." The santarchists prefer beer to milk and cookies. They do not sit placidly in the malls but run in wild hordes through them. They clang bells and scream bizarre carols, and Smith seems to think what they do is not only outrageous but vaguely political.
She lets it slip, though, that the real point is "to have fun and act silly," and if this is true, the santarchists are nothing less than great championss of tradition. If they will never be the image of Christmas goodness, they are the picture of joy, and that will do.
Wanna deliver one of these Santas-with-a-twist to your loved ones via e-mail? Go to www.houstonpress.com/extra/postcard.
Kabuki Santa: Penny Smith
Pyro Santa: Eric Stephenson
Snowbunny Santa: Susan Wingfield
Queen and King Claus: Charlotte Taylor and the Reverend Brian Taylor
Party Santa: "Chef Dave"
Pancho Elf and Pancho Claus: Mark Anthony Perez and Richard Reyes
Mardi Gras Santa: Tina Landry
Krishna Claus: Harry Leverette
Ho, Ho, Ho and Gangsta SMan: D.J. Stephenson and Gary Seven
Santa-nista: Bev Hayes
Santa Monica: Shelley Buscher
Dead Santa: Bill Chittum
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.