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Naughty or nice? Is the way we ‘perform’ Santa Claus under threat?

December 16, 2015

London, UK. Santa Claus performers struggle with fulfilling the role of old St Nic due to an acute awareness of the sensitivities around interactions with children, finds a study published by SAGE, in partnership with The Tavistock Institute, in the journal Human Relations.

As the author of the study, “Recognition and the moral taint of sexuality: Threat, masculinity and Santa Claus”, Philp Hancock of the University of Essex explains:

“This relationship [between child and Santa Claus performer] has the potential to result in a condition of misrecognition as a consequence of a cultural re-association of the character with a form of exploitative or perverted male sexuality […] As the interviews developed […] what became increasingly apparent was the sense of unease, and even threat, that many of them experienced.”

The study, included 15 formal interviews, comprising of 14 male performers aged between 52 and 81 and one female grotto assistant (who performed in the guise of an elf, aged 32).

As one Santa in the study commented:

“This is not an area we talk about an awful lot because too much is made of it, but there is a slight, I think nervousness because everyone has this fear in the mind that everyone who’s an old bloke is a pervert is some way.”

In order to keep up the viability of the Santa Claus character as an innocent and benevolent figure whilst ensuring they themselves are protected from accusations, the performers “engage in various techniques of self ‒ management” including making sure that a second, preferably female, member of staff- a helper or ‘elf’‒ is always present in the room. As Hancock also notes, however:

“Both parents and children are, perhaps unsurprisingly, often ignorant of the rules now structuring the encounter between performer and child, and will often try to force physical contact by either hugging or jumping up onto the performer. Thus usually forces the performers to choose between either the rules, or what they consider to be the responsibility towards the child as the embodiment of the ideal of Santa Claus.”

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The article “Recognition and the moral taint of sexuality: Threat, masculinity and Santa Claus” by Philip Hancock, published in Human Relations, will be free to access for a limited time and can be read here.

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SAGE Founded 50 years ago by Sara Miller McCune to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community, SAGE publishes more than 850 journals and over 800 new books each year, spanning a wide range of subject areas. A growing selection of library products includes archives, data and video. SAGE remains majority owned by our founder and after her lifetime will become owned by a charitable trust that secures the company’s continued independence. Principal offices are located in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) applies social science to contemporary issues and problems. It was established as a not for profit organization with charitable purpose in 1947, and that same year founded Human Relations with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. The Institute is engaged with evaluation and action research, organisational development and change consultancy, executive coaching and professional development, all in service of supporting sustainable change and ongoing learning.

Human Relations is an international peer reviewed journal, which publishes the highest quality original research to advance our understanding of social relationships at and around work. Human Relations encourages strong empirical contributions that develop and extend theory as well as more conceptual papers that integrate, critique and expand existing theory. Human Relations also welcomes critical reviews that genuinely advance our understanding of the connections between management, organizations and interdisciplinary social sciences and critical essays that address contemporary scholarly issues and debates within the journal's scope.

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