The Birthday Man was simply a fact of life I grew up with. My mother always told me about the big ledger where he writes down the birthdays of all the little boys and girls in the world. Then, every night, he flies on the back of an elephant delivering birthday presents before anyone is even awake. Of course when I was six or seven I figured out the Birthday Man was really my father wearing a cardboard fez, but the magic has never entirely gone away. So you can understand how shocked I was when I handed my friend a birthday present wrapped in Birthday Man wrapping paper, only for him to exclaim, “But it’s got Santa Claus on it!” I was, for a moment, speechless. Santa Claus indeed! My friend had the effrontery to suggest that I had wrapped his birthday present in Christmas paper. It took a few seconds, but I realized I had finally come face-to-face with a proponent of the so-called “Santa Claus”.
The Santa Claus myth and the Birthday Man myth have their origins in the same historical figure — Hannibal. Hannibal is famous today for his march across the Alps and invasion of Italy, with elephants. In contemporary Roman depictions Hannibal is clearly shown with long, aggressive nasal hair that was the style for Carthaginian generals of the time. It was said that the sight of untrimmed nasal hair at a distance of two or three miles was enough to strike fear into the heart of the toughest Roman soldier. Hannibal is also shown wearing lurid red battle armor, an artistic embellishment designed to portray a man steeped in the blood of the Roman people. These key features — the nose hair and the red armor — are the origin of the modern Birthday Man’s luxuriant white nose hair and red fez. Even more iconic, however, were the elephants on which Hannibal crossed the Alps. These elephants worked their way into the modern tradition as the animals on which the Birthday Man flies around the world in a single night. The flying elephant bears a number of uncanny parallels with the 1941 film Dumbo, leading many historians to suspect that Walt Disney was a closet believer in the Birthday Man at a time when Birthday Man followers were suffering terrible persecution.
The same cues that inspired the Birthday Man also evolved into the myth of Santa Claus. In the case of Santa Claus, however, we shall see that the myth has become significantly bowdlerized. The warrior’s nose hair, so threatening and deadly in Roman times, became Santa’s jolly white beard. The blood-soaked battle armor evolved somehow into a set of pajamas so oversized they could only be worn by a morbidly obese man of advanced years. This “Father Christmas”, if you will, is supposed to live at the North Pole (ridiculous!) and fly around the world on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, an animal which no-one has ever actually seen and which is currently thought to have been invented by drunk and unsuccessful game-hunters. We know for a fact that Santa supporters had to reinvent the elephants into reindeer in the 14th century when Pope Innocent VI, embroiled in the theological debate over whether elephants can become priests, stated unequivocally than elephants don’t have souls.
The supporters of each myth have a sorry history of hatred, conflict and blood-letting. Henry VIII famously rejected the Birthday Man and turned instead to Santa Claus, while Mary I reversed his decision and burned Santa supporters at the stake. These events were couched in the political dialogue of the time, but their visceral dispute over Santa Claus vs. the Birthday Man is self-evident. The debate continued to rage as recently as the Iraq War, no mere war for oil, but actually a desperate bid to reclaim Hannibal’s final resting place and determine once and for all what he wore — was it a fez or was it pajamas?
Too much blood has been spilled over these petty details. After our misunderstanding my friend and I were able to take pleasure from each other’s cultural differences. I look forward to that day, maybe in the near future, when a man who believes in Santa Claus and a woman who believes in the Birthday Man can, in happiness and harmony, be married by an elephant priest.
- “Amnesty For Santa Heretics?”. Tomorrow’s Times 25 October 1941: 7. Web.
- Clodhopper & Grosset. “Depictions of Fezes in the Early Roman Republic”. The American Journal of Antique and Antiquarian Headgear 11.7 (1925): 344. Print.
- Gloom, Prometheus E. Pardon My Nasal Hair London: Hutchinson & Co., 1898. Print.
- “Race Riots Mar Birthday Bash — Hundreds of Fezes Destroyed”. The Sydney Morning Herald 10 February 1953: 16. Print.