Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

Approximately 525 million children around the world will be celebrating Christmas—and most will be expecting presents under their Christmas tree courtesy of Santa Claus. Santa, of course, is the mythic symbol of the Christmas season. But he’s also a significant economic figure, operating a productive workshop in the North Pole together with a team of elves to build toys for kids across the globe. In what economic jurisdiction is Santa’s workshop located? What sort of labor relationship does he have with his elves? And what is the current state of the global reindeer economy? Those are a few of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with FP economics columnist Adam Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts. And check out Adam’s Substack newsletter. Cameron Abadi: First, I wanted to ask about the North Pole, which is where Santa operates together with his elves. I was wondering: What exactly is the economic status right now of the North Pole? Is it subject to any country’s economic laws? You know, what sort of jurisdiction is it? Is it in any country’s exclusive economic zone? Or does Santa just kind of have dominion over this territory? Adam Tooze: The fact that we’re asking this question at all is a sign of the times, really, because 100 years ago, the North Pole was totally inaccessible. Countries were racing each other to actually reach it with daring expeditions, many of which came to grief. Nowadays, with climate change, the entire zone of the Arctic has become open and up for grabs, really, and is the subject of really intense competition between Russia, the United States, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Canada. And the legal terms of this are supposed to be sorted by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been ratified by all of those states, other than the United States. What that specifies is that you have a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea zone and then a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and then if you can claim a contiguous shelf, continental shelf, much more territory. And the drama of the Arctic is that these claims, unsurprisingly, if you think about the top of an orange and you’re slicing it, they tend to intersect as you go straight out. And the real drama is that in February 2023, the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf recognized a prior claim to the North Pole and at least part of the fabulously named Lomonosov Ridge to [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, which currently has the standing legal claims ratified by the U.N. to the North Pole. Canada and Denmark also have claims that could be in contention to contest this. But it has to be said that one would rather the whole thing was maybe declared Santa Land and we could have enough of this dispute, because it’s otherwise looking pretty ugly. CA: Let’s turn to reindeer, which, in addition to elves, is probably the other essential ingredient of the Santa story. So what is the state of the reindeer herd economy in the polar region right now? And when it comes to reindeer sledding, in particular, have there been any important developments there? AT: The Sámi people of the Arctic have been herding reindeer in the modern sense for about 500 years. They originally were purely itinerant and would live in symbiosis with the wild reindeer herds. But for about half a millennium, they’ve now been cultivating the reindeer. Mainly, it has to be said, and unfortunately, for their meat and their antlers, but also as a source of attraction. Reindeer are kind of phenomenal creatures. They’re smaller and heavier than caribou that folks in North America may know, but they have extraordinary adaptations to winter weather. They’ve got giant splayed hooves, which means that they can move over soft snow, and they’re very good at swimming. And the most astonishing thing about them is their heavy coats. So they have two coats, an outer one which has long hollow hair, which gives aerating insulation, about 5,000 hairs per square inch on the outer layer. And then the inner coat, which is wooly and fine, they have up to 13,000 hairs per square inch. And the effect of this is that a full-sized reindeer can sit in snow and the snow doesn’t melt around the warm animal’s body. They can give birth in extreme temperatures. Their nostrils are adapted so that they don’t freeze up. They have ways of eating snow which allow them to hydrate in extreme weather, but they are really driven to migrate as a result of their adaptation. They don’t do very well in warm temperatures, which is why climate change is such a threat to these populations. They are and have always been routinely used for pulling sleighs, sledging. They are not, however, as well-developed as the dog technology. Dog sleighs are a much more developed technology. CA: So finally, I wanted to ask about the relationship between Christmas and Germany. Obviously, we’re sitting here in Berlin right now, and Germany is often a topic on this podcast, and in reflecting on Christmas, it struck me that the traditions associated with Christmas—all of them from the Christmas tree to the sentimental spending of time with family and the nostalgia associated with the holiday—it’s all especially intense here. And I’m curious if Christmas in some ways really derived from Germany? Or whether German politics made a decision to cultivate Christmas here in a special way? And whether it’s really all traced back to German bourgeois national culture, everything that we think about and associate with Christmas. AT: Yeah, I was in fact teaching as part of an end-of-term class at Columbia a really fascinating book by a historian called Joe Perry, which is literally called Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. And he tells a really fascinating story about the emergence of our modern conception of Christmas as this sentimental moment. He sees it emerging in Germany in the early 1800s, really in the post-Napoleonic period, and then it migrates from there by way of figures like Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort to Victorian Britain, which is one of the great taste-making capitals of the world at the time. But I mean, the book is fascinating as a cultural history because, as he points out, the first quintessential description of a modern Christmas, as we understand it, with a tree and the presents and the excitement and the parents kind of manipulating the kids’ emotions all around, this is The Nutcracker. And “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which we think of as a ballet scored by Tchaikovsky. But it was actually written by the German romantic folklorist, if you like, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and it was published in 1816, a year after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo. And if you think about it in those terms, the entire story takes on a different vein because like, who is the Mouse King really in the story? And you suddenly realize that Marie is constantly struggling with her little brother who actually lives in a world of toy soldiers, which were essentially just replicating the Napoleonic campaigns, which finished a year before. So the whole thing takes on a much more contemporary feel. And if that, as it were, is the script for what a bourgeois family Christmas looks like—with fancy presents under a tree and a world of fantasy that the kids are ushered into, for the theology, the kind of weird hybrid Christian piety that associated with modern Christmas, which has some elements which are sort of disturbingly superstitious, and which we nevertheless embrace as a kind of moment of family harmony in which women in particular are absolutely essential, there again, you go to German texts from the same period.

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