The Santa Claus Army
By Lone Nyhuus, journalist, former dancer and choreographer, 2006
Reality in the theater
At precisely 12 noon, on December 18, 1974, 100 Father Christmases in red and white gowns poured out of the car deck of the Oslo ferry to fill Copenhagen with red and white merriment in the week preceding Christmas. They were roller-skating, singing songs, and carrying live animals. They visited nursing homes, entertaining the old people with ballads, and visited schools where they played old games with the children and distributed alternative history books; and suddenly they were all gathered in the Magasin department store. Here they passed out presents to the customers. Presents they plucked from the shelves.
“The most important thing was not whether we were right; the most important thing is that we argued in a new way,” explains Nina Rasmussen who was one of the co-founders of the theatre group Solvognen (the Sun Chariot) in 1969.
Solvognen came from Copenhagen’s hippie district, Christiania. The group wanted to create political theatre of action through humorous and peaceful protest. These were directed against the rising price of milk, the repression of the indigenous population by the imperialist United States (the Wounded Knee action), and the existence of NATO (the Nato Army action) - as well as the commercialisation and developed bourgeois nature of Christmas. That’s where Julemandshaeren came in.
Is it theatre?!
Solvognen, which was dissolved in 1983, played a part in real life, and real life played a part in the theatre of Solvognen. When 100 red Father Christmases ventured out in the streets of Copenhagen, they were all enthusiastic about “playing the part” as the naïve Santa who believes in happiness and goodness. When they clashed with the police, were arrested and hand-cuffed, it was because the policemen were as plausible in playing their parts. All of them!
The week-long performance had an even longer aftermath. A furious debate raged in the newspapers in the ensuing months. About the freedom of speech (and limitations to it), about the general state of democracy, about theatre - and its definition. Is it theatre when 100 Father Christmases walk into Magasin and distribute presents? Solvognen said yes.
Did you know?
A giant goose with Santa Claus swirling out of the stomach. It was originally Solvognens thought when they made the "Trojan goose" for the Santa Claus Army actions. The idea was unfortunately too difficult to carry out, but the giant goose was in turn pulled by the Santa Claus Army all the way through Copenhagen's streets from Christiania to the Town Hall Square. In fact, the goose was so huge that the Christmas decoration Copenhagen were in danger, and at Knippelsbro it was necessary to bend the goose's neck to bring it all the way to the destination.
The committee's justification
By The Committee for Performing Arts, 2006
In 1974, the Christiania-based theatre group Solvognen carried out an eight-day long protest against unemployment. They called it Julemandshæren: in the English news, the Santa Claus Army. Not just because it began in the days before Christmas, but because it renounced capitalistic Christmas consumer terror. It characterised Christmas as a super-bourgeois ritual and full of emotional disappointment.
Dressed up as Santa Claus, those taking part handed out history books to school pupils, sang for the elderly in care homes, and at the police station they handed the flying squad a Christmas plate. But Santa Claus was soon done with being nice and kind. Next, it was time to get serious, and the Santa Clauses decided to take on American automobile factory General Motors, which had just decided to shut down its business in Denmark, where the wages were too high.
When the white-bearded army suddenly turned up at the Magasin department store and began to hand out goods, the protest entered into a dialogue with the entire population. “Merry Christmas!” they shouted, “Today, nobody needs to pay.” Children cried at the sight of the Santa Clauses being led away in police vans, and the remaining Santas went into the bank, where they tried to take up a loan of 50 million Danish kroner. They demanded capital for the needs of the people.
The smiles on faces in Copenhagen later began to fade when the Santa Claus army revealed its true face: Activism on the boundary between civil disobedience and theatre. Activist theatre is the antithesis of normal theatre, where repetition and rehearsals are a part of the theatre’s artistic reality. In other words, the conservative element is inextricably intertwined with theatre art. The Santa Claus army attempted to break out of these aesthetic boundaries, and it is for this ambush we must pay tribute to them.