- Courtesy Of HBO Max/John Tully
- Fin Ciappara of Barre is one of three nontraditional Clauses featured in the heartwarming documentary Santa Camp.
Black Friday is upon us — which means that, for the next month, we won't be able to venture into busy shopping areas without hearing the joyful jingling of bells and intermittent cries of "Ho ho ho!"
Full disclosure: I haven't believed in jolly old St. Nick since I was 5. While I may not be a devotee of the man in red, however, my cold heart couldn't help being warmed by the new HBO Max documentary Santa Camp. Directed by Nick Sweeney, it spotlights a group of seasonal Santas who gather each summer to hone their ho-ho-ho-ing skills in Greenfield, N.H., under the auspices of the New England Santa Society. Among the newcomers spotlighted in the doc is Fin Ciappara, a Barre resident whom Sally Pollak profiled in last week's Seven Days.
The film opens with a meeting of the New England Santa Society at a New Hampshire country store. Decked out in summer versions of Santa regalia, the members chuckle over anecdotes of their experiences as St. Nick. Then Santa Dan, the group's founder, brings up something that silences everyone: the time someone asked him if all the local Santas he knew were white.
They were. Now Dan would like to recruit a more diverse crew of Clauses — ones who "aren't the cookie-cutter white, 65 years old, fat," as he puts it, describing most of the group around him.
The society's members go online to find less traditional Santas to invite to their annual Santa Camp. They discover Santa Chris, who received racist hate mail from a neighbor after he put up an inflatable Black Santa as part of his Christmas décor. The incident solidified his determination to become a real-life Black Santa for kids like his daughter.
Santa Levi bills himself as "Trans Santa" and appears with his partner, Heidi, who is not just a Mrs. Claus, like most of the other women at Santa Camp, but a Dr. Claus. And Vermonter Santa Fin has a rare form of spina bifida and communicates mostly through a text-to-speech iPad app, though he sometimes lets loose a resonant "Ho ho ho!"
The Santa Camp old-timers welcome the three new recruits with a mixture of warmth and awkwardness. We follow Levi, Chris and Fin as they sharpen their Santa skills, then return home to don their red suits for the holiday season.
Will you like it?
Director Sweeney is doing two things in Santa Camp: painting an affectionate portrait of a quirky subculture — you haven't seen Christmas obsession until you've seen these folks — and exploring broader American cultural conflicts.
Fox News pundits love to harp on liberals' so-called "War on Christmas." In that heated atmosphere, a lot is riding on the Santa Society's first, fumbling attempts to be inclusive. At best, this session of Santa Camp could be a powerful affirmation that Santa Claus isn't a symbol of division but a generous spirit that lives in all our hearts. At worst, the elder Santas could alienate their new recruits rather than make them feel truly included, leaving the effort a token one.
What actually happens? It's hard to say for sure. Sweeney shows us several conflicts between the longtime Santas and the newcomers, each of which appears to be resolved in an uplifting group bonding moment.
After seething silently while several Mrs. Clauses expound on the importance of being the perfect Santa spouse, for instance, Heidi makes an impassioned speech about the importance of representing queer and other nontraditional relationships. She gets applause, but only after a shocked silence. Can she find common cause with the bolder Mrs. Clauses who demand equal pay with Santa? One hopes so.
There's a lot of goodwill in all these self-styled Santas, but the friction among generations and cultures is palpable. Fin's mom admits that she's constantly on guard, waiting for someone to call her son the "R-word." His enthusiasm and good cheer seem to win over everyone at camp, though, and we later see him waving triumphantly from a sleigh in Waterbury's annual A River of Light lantern parade.
Chris' arc in the film has a happy holiday ending, too. But when Levi and Heidi organize a Trans Santa event in their hometown, a group mobilizes to protest them — including the Proud Boys.
It's painful to watch that scene, especially after the shootings over the weekend at Club Q in Colorado Springs, which coincided with the Transgender Day of Remembrance. The Santa spirit is powerful, but so is the rage of those who claim it as their exclusive property. Santa Camp offers no solutions, only a potent spark of hope for a future when kids will expect — and perhaps even demand — to see Santas of all kinds.
If you like this, try...
Krampus (2015; fubo, Peacock, rentable): If all the Santa-related paraphernalia in Santa Camp is a little too much for you, rediscover the darker side of Christmas folklore with this horror-comedy about a demon who punishes the not-so-nice children.
Saint Nicholas: The Real Story (2015; Kanopy, tubi, rentable): Twice in Santa Camp, people suggest that the original St. Nicholas may not have been white. In this hourlong documentary, an archeologist explores the known facts behind the legend.
Cosplay Universe (2022; rentable): While playing Santa can be a seasonal job, for the red suit-obsessed folks in Santa Camp, it also seems a lot like a form of cosplay. This documentary explores how playing dress-up can help adults explore and express facets of their identity.