Q: What accounts for the fat guy's success as an enduring, worldwide symbol of the holiday? The quirky suit? The fawning elves? The antlered entourage? How often do unlikely figures catch fire and seize the popular imagination?
We are infatuated with Santa -- and the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Cupid, Fairy Godmother -- because they symbolize something beyond the human experience, capture our fancy, and offer pure delight. They help to explain significant experiences and help to materialize abstract and mysterious situations.
Santa allows us to "pretend" in the moment. Using such symbols dates back to the beginning of human time. The most notable are the Greek and Roman gods with their playfulness, shenanigans, and spells of helpfulness or disaster. Our children's stories and fables are chock-full-of symbolic creatures -- the ogre, giant, and big bad wolf. We love our symbols because they deliver multiple messages in the embodiment of one entity.
All you need to do is say "she's a witch" and we all see the hag holding the red apple in "Sleeping Beauty" or the melting witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Such characters evoke memories, fantasies, dreams, wishes, emotions, fear, and humor. We even have more mundane symbols in the cuteness of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the strength of Mr. Clean, and laughter of the Green Giant. And for every American symbol I have cited in this narrative, every other culture can add its own.
We need these characterizations to complete our human story, gather the spirit of multiple populations, and guide thought toward one idea. Symbols provide this same role within organizations and politics.
Successful leaders use symbols and stories to provide a unifying vision that can inspire others towards action. When I worked for the former AT&T, new employees were handed a copy of the Rockwell painting where a lineman is repairing phone wires in a horrible snow storm. That picture embodied the mission and vision of Ma Bell.
At this time of year we have Santa, and all at once we remember all past holidays -- both the joyous and the melancholy -- as we follow Santa in the malls, newspapers, commercials, and our hearts.
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