December 10, 2019

Santa's Workshop

        The folklore of Santa Claus, his predecessors, his counterparts in various cultures, and his assorted attributes, is a long and complicated topic.  Today I’m just going to look at the fantasy location where he lives and works.  Even this seemingly simple location has enough complication for one day.
        In my standard North American culture, I have always heard the story that Santa lives at the North Pole.  Question one is where that idea originated?  Like so much of our current image of Santa Claus, this may have been an invention of cartoonist Thomas Nast, in 1866.  At the very least, Nast’s illustrations accompanying a poem by George P. Webster in 1869, served to popularize the idea.  But why did he pick the North Pole?  Well, since the 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” people had known that Santa travels by reindeer sleigh, so he must live somewhere in the far north, and despite recent avidly-followed expeditions, no one had yet reached the North Pole, so it was still quite mysterious.  By 1879 Nast informed the world that Santa’s Workshop is specifically at the North Magnetic Pole, which at the time was situated on land.
Unfortunately for Santa, the magnetic pole is currently moving toward Siberia at approximately 34 miles per year, and is now at sea.  I suspect that most people don’t give much thought to these scientific niceties, and therefore think of Santa’s Workshop as being located at the Geographic North Pole.  Without getting too specific, the folklore probably assumes a small magical island that exists for the sole purpose of supporting Santa’s workshop, dwelling, and so on.  At any rate, this seems reasonable to me.
        Many countries with a Santa or equivalent figure, however, place his location within their own borders.  Canada, which has held the North Magnetic Pole until just about now, claims the postal code for the Workshop as H0H 0H0.  The USA claims that the address is 1225 Reindeer Rd, North Pole, Alaska 20190.  Norway places Santa’s Workshop in Drøbak, Finland places it in Korvatunturi, and Denmark places it near Uummannaq in Greenland.  This is interesting, because while it’s natural to think that countries might be proud to claim Santa Claus (Canada has even officially given him citizenship), it is an integral part of the lore that his location be somewhere far away, where ordinary people can never actually encounter it.
        As for the characteristics of Santa’s Workshop, it is primarily known as the place where toys are made by elves.  Just as the industrial revolution transformed the manufacture of other products, it transformed the legends surrounding Santa’s toy-making process.  Originally toys were manufactured by hand by skilled craftsmen, but Santa’s Workshop is now often portrayed as a modern factory with machines and assembly lines.  In addition to the toy factory, the facility must also include kitchens for cookies and other Christmas treats, stables for the reindeer, and homes for Santa and his family, as well as the elves who help with all the work.  It is snowy there, of course, with plenty of icicles, and often copious decoration in red-and-white candy cane stripes.
        The idea of Santa’s Workshop includes elements that appear in many other fantasy locations: the Utopia of Shangri-La, paradise in the midst of snow; the magic/magically-advanced technology of Atlantis; perhaps some of the greed of Eldorado, although people don’t search for it in order to take possession of its riches; and of course its physical location seems to be closest to Ultime Thule.  Whether you’ll be following the Santa-tracking radar this Christmas Eve, or scorn the whole over-commercialized schlock, it’s interesting to consider with what qualities we have invested this mythical place.
        (My A-to-Z post on Santa's Workshop, with lots of pretty pictures, here.)

[Pictures: Visit the North Pole, poster design by Steve Thomas, 2010 (Image from Rocket Tours);
Santa Claus’s Route, wood engraving from illustration by Thomas Nast, 1885 (Image from ArtfulUnicorn);
The Trip of Santa Claus, illustration by Nast, 1892 (Image from Princeton University).]

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