Where would be a better place than at the Arctic Circle to establish a research unit on the ethnography and social anthropology of Santa Clauses? When we think about Santa, we mostly get the image of this Coca-Cola dressed red and white person riding on Rudolf the reindeer bringing presents. But in fact there is a rapidly increasing variety of personages and images connected to the idea of Santa Claus.
One of the most recent, and very innovative, is the West Siberian new invention of Yamal-Iri, which in Nenets language means the grandfather from the end of the land. He and his delegation from Yamal came for a visit to the Arctic Centre, where we discussed the development of tourism mobility, regional branding, and ideas of cooperation. Anna Stammler-Gossmann told about the similarities and differences in concepts of tourism in Russia and the West (ACCESS project, tourism sector in the Barents area), and gave
a short overview of the currently existing Santa Clauses. From Yamal, manager Andrei Nesterov introduced the idea of Yamal-Iri and the branding behind it.
This was very interesting for us, as it is a nice example where we can track how a possibly powerful regional identity is engineered and invented. Being from Russia, they take a lot of inspiration from their main Santa Claus – Father Frost from Veliki Ustyug. From him they took the idea that Yamal Iri is on duty all year round, not just in winter, and that you can order him for weddings to congratulate the just-married. But what I liked most about this particular idea of Yamal-Iri is the social side of the brand. It’s not only about developing tourism, but it’s about infusing a positive spirit and joy into people’s life. Through the Yamal-Iri brand, for example they run a yearly charity campaign for children in need, where you can go to a website, choose a particular child, and make a present – be it to an orphan, to a disabled, or otherwise marginalised.
Moreover, they run a programme where children can become Yamal-Iri’s assistants and so take part in spreading a good spirit in society. In Yamal, this role is called “novogodnik”, or “serebiata”. In Rovaniemi, these assistants are called elves or “tonttu”.
More than in Rovaniemi, Yamal-Iri also uses indigenous symbolism for establishing his brand. The trademark that they already registered depicts him with a shaman’s drum. He wears the Nenets reindeer footwear – kisy.
I also liked this generally positive spirit how they build their brand in cooperation and friendship with everybody else, rather than competing with other already existing Santa Clauses. For example, they plan to organise a fairy-tale figure summit in September 2013, where they invite all possible fairy tale figures, as part of their Social Fairy tale network. Funny enough, the abbreviation of the network’s in Russian is the same like the one for the Soviet Union: USSR СССР – Социальная Сказочная Сеть России)
The fairy tale figure of Santa Claus has become prominent all over the North, in places like Rovaniemi, (Santa Claus Arctic Circle), Tromso (Gollis, the World’s tallest Plastic Santa), Iceland (Yula Lads), Greenland (Nuuk Santa Claus), Alaska (Fairbanks North Pole), Japan (Yamaguchi Prefecture), Yakutia (Pole of Cold Father Frost Chys Khan), Yamal (Yamal-Iri), Veliki Ustyug (Russian Father Frost), Russian Lapland (Laplandskii Ded Moroz), and probably I forgot several still.
That’s why we think it would be very interesting to do a proper comparative anthropological analysis of identity-making basing on the similarities that this fairy-tale figure invokes across all borders. Whoever is interested in this and has ideas, leave them on the comments page here. Who knows, maybe we build at some point a Santa Claus anthropology research consortium?
For those who are interested, here is a list of links to different Santa Clauses (this does not claim to be a complete link collection!!!): by studying their websites we can get a first idea what people want to do with this fairy tale figure.
Iceland: where they have the legendary Yule lad, which has 13 different names
Alaska, North Pole
Japan, where Santa was adopted long ago, but recently commercialised more in Yamaguchi