Extreme Makeover: Santa Claus Editionby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Santa's red suit and stocking cap are so yesterday. These days you can find Mr. Claus sporting everything from hunting vests and Speedos to do-rags and yarmulkes.
St. Paul — Most people picture Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf, a round man with cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry.
But some have him pegged as a gangster rapper.
An electronic Santa - in his red track suit, backwards baseball cap and plastic bling - is just one sign that marketers are trying desperately to rid Kris Kringle of his traditional image.
"He's just not that fat guy at the mall. You can bring him home and say that Santa's part of the family," says Terry Friedlander, who sells Saint Nick collectibles at the Mall of America.
He says people today have a hard time relating to an altruistic chap in a velvet pantsuit. They want a Santa who's, well, more like them.
"People love things that speak to their particular lifestyle," according to Friedlander. "That's Santa on a chopper. He is riding to town on a full-blown Harley Davidson. Instead of his red hat, he's got more of the motorcycle rag-do thing."
Americans seem to have had enough of the jovial do-gooder who's always holding that naughty and nice list over their heads. If the top selling Santa figurines are any indication, the public prefers an icon who spends his time at stock car races or plopped in front of a slot machine.
People may not be able to connect with a dude who drives reindeer, but they sure can appreciate a guy who shoots em.
"Here is hunter Santa. I wouldn't have imagined Santa would be known for blood sport. He has the ear-flap thing, a camouflage vest, ducks in his hand, so he's been out shooting birds. He's got a big, huge hunting rifle over his shoulder. We know at the next Armageddon, Santa will be the one to survive and we'll all be camping out at his place as he makes us venison steaks," he says.
On the other side of the mall, Macy Lee also sells Santas -- in the form of porcelain dolls and wooden ornaments and plastic refrigerator magnets.
"Without the Santa, there really isn't much of a Christmas. That's what I think. You gotta have Santa," she says.
Santa Claus is revered everywhere from Japan to Ghana. Yet, according to the store display, this international icon is decidedly American.
"He's wearing the red, white, and blue, a little Uncle Sam hat; he just represents the United States," Lee says.
You can also find Father Christmas covered in camouflage and using a U.S. flag as a parachute -- or donning stars-and-stripes hot pants and holding an eagle in his hand. There's even a fireman Santa wrapped in Old Glory. When you wind him up, he plays "God Bless America" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
It seems the only thing more popular than a patriotic Saint Nick is a drunken one.
Tree decorations portray Santa drinking beer, gulping wine and downing margaritas. There's also a version of him passed out in an oversized martini glass.
"I think it's good to see Santa doing other things. It's good to see him having a life outside of Christmas and, you know, why not? Everyone else has sports and things they want to do with their lives. Why can't Santa have that, too?" she says.
Of course, you can still find images of jolly old Saint Nicolas sliding down a chimney with a pack of toys on his back. But, these days, the classic Kris Kringle is often eclipsed by more contemporary takes -- like a frustrated Santa breaking a golf club over his knee or a somewhat confused Santa sporting a blue yarmulke and holding a dreidel in one hand and a menorah in the other.
Store owner Terry Friedlander admits there's probably no limit to the curious incarnations.
"There could be Sopranos Santa. He's gonna whack ya. Instead of a Christmas gift, you're gonna get whacked," he figures.
So just who would buy a tree ornament of Santa fixing a toilet or purchase a model of Mr. Claus washing his clothes in a metal bucket with a washboard?
It's hard to be sure, but I'm guessing it's the parents who are tired of some soot-covered guy enjoying their cookies and milk and then taking credit for all the best gifts under the tree.