Spain's Holiday Cry: Down With Santa!

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La Despensa

A stencil spotted on the streets of Madrid suggests a more sinister Santa Claus.

The latest battle in the war on globalization came Friday morning in Madrid, when a handful of demonstrators staged a protest outside the Finnish embassy. Their target was a particular northern Scandinavian toy factory, which they see as an example of the dark side of globalization. Brandishing placards, the protesters' made their message clear: "We're with the Kings!" they chanted. "Down with Santa!"

What's the beef with Santa? In Spain, where manger scenes are still the Christmas holidays' major decoration, few feel the need to "put the Christ back in Christmas." But while Jesus's place remains secure, the three kings — the wise men who followed the Star of Bethlehem to his manger — may need some help. In Spain it is these three, who, upholding the tradition they began when delivering gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus's bedside, bring presents to children on the Epiphany, January 6. The fat guy in the red suit who visits on Christmas Eve (Papa Noel as he is called here) is a foreign import, promoted by Hollywood and international companies eager to expand the gift season. And for many Spaniards, Santa — and the cultural imperialism he represents — must be stopped.

La Despensa, a local boutique marketing firm, appears to be leading the charge. The company's small band of Santa-detractors has blanketed the city with posters bearing slogans like "Down with the Fat Red Capitalist." They have issued a blunt manifesto (example: "Reindeers don't fly. Camels do walk. Enough already with the fraud.") and urged Kings' defenders to sign it. They have also filmed a rap video that features Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, in full bling, dropping lines like "Santa — you think you're on the crest of the ola [wave], but you're just product placement for Coca Cola" — which Spaniards can buy as a ringtone for their cell phones.

"When we were kids, there was no question — it was the Kings who brought presents," says Miguel Olivares, co-director for La Despensa. "So who is this guy in the red suit? Clearly the Kings are losing their market share, they're not getting as many letters as before. As marketing specialists, we could see they needed to communicate better, and to modernize their image."

The "I'm with the Kings" campaign is designed to do just that. Olivares claims La Despensa is not selling any product or service, though he admits the attention has been good for business. The agency has daily events planned through January 6 (last Saturday, one of Santa's elves turned up at the announcement of the winning number in Spain's Christmas lottery to draw attention to the inhumane work conditions that he and his comrades' endure in their service to the greedy gift-giver).

Is the call to arms working? At the Christmas market in Madrid's Plaza Mayor, vendors were doing a brisk business in Papa Noel dolls attached to ladders (in Spain, he comes in through the apartment window, not down the chimney). But Nicholas, age 4, whose grandmother was hustling him into the car for a family gathering, was having none of it. Asked whether he'd side with Santa or the Kings, he was adamant: "The Kings, of course — they're the ones who bring the presents!"