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

Article title: Recognition and the moral taint of sexuality: Threat, masculinity and Santa Claus

From Human Relations.

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 this study published in partnership with The Tavistock Institute.

As the author Philp Hancock 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). 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.


This article explores the ways in which a desire for recognition characterizes the work of a particular category of service worker, the semi-professional Santa Claus performer. Employing a series of observations and in-depth, semi-structured interviews, it considers ways in which such work is underpinned by a struggle for recognition based on an exchange of love and social esteem that is immanent to the perceived reality of the performance of the character himself. The discussion focuses on the risk posed to the possibility of this relationship by the attribution to these performers of a tainted identity, one premised on the combination of a debased version of male sexuality and an increasingly prevalent cultural unease surrounding the relationship between children and adults. It concludes by arguing for a broader reconsideration of the concept of taint – particularly moral taint – as a far more fluid and contingent concept than has traditionally been deployed, as well as the value of engaging with the importance of recognition as a conceptual resource for both understanding, and possibly improving, the experiences of the contemporary service worker.

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Article details
Philip Hancock
Recognition and the moral taint of sexuality: Threat, masculinity and Santa Claus Human Relations 0018726715589798, first published on September 29, 2015 doi:10.1177/0018726715589798



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