What’s In a Santa Name?

It’s Christmas week, and every good little girl and boy has started their final countdown to the expected arrival of Santa Claus. As for the naughty ones, well, how many children today have ever even seen a lump of coal?

Since the days when we were young boomers, the equation has flipped: where in our day Santa Claus was the most-often used name, now it’s simply, Santa. If you ask today’s kids who will be coming down the chimney, chances are very good that they will answer, “Santa” — not “Santa Claus” or “Old Saint Nick.” They are on a first name basis with the jolly man in the red suit. Mister Boomer sees this as further evidence of the casualization of our culture. Calling a person in authority by his first name wasn’t always the norm.

In our day, we were taught that grown-ups demanded a certain level of respect, and that meant always addressing them by a title and last name, like Mister or Missus. Surely the rule would apply to Santa Claus, as our elder. Can you imagine Eddie Haskell calling his friends’ parents “Ward” and “June?” Not a chance! It was always “Mr.” or “Mrs. Cleaver.” So it was for us throughout the strata of society, with store clerks, postmen, teachers, milkmen and even parents of neighbors and friends.

So when did this casual trend begin? We boomers may, in fact, be guilty of propagating the beginnings of the first-name trend. During the War, men and women from all walks of life and all ethnic groups mingled. Coincidentally or not, crooners such as Bing Crosby sang about “Santa” in Christmas songs of the 1940s. After the War, the returning G.I.s formed a burgeoning middle class, which, coupled with FHA loans for veterans, fueled a wider pool of possible homeowners. More money in the hands of a middle class also meant a new market for automobiles, and the the industry flourished throughout the 1950s and ’60s. This in turn gave rise to an exodus from cities to suburbs, as new families were started. At the same time, many men returning home were able to advance their education, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Thus, in Mister Boomer’s theory, the rise of the middle class and an increase in an educated public worked in tandem to soften the differences between the classes. As the playing field became a little more level — at least much more than previously — people began to know and refer to each other on a first-name basis.

By comparison, take a look at the movies of the 1920s and ’30s. Many films depicted the idle rich, lounging around in tuxedos and gowns and driving the most technologically advanced cars, while their day-to-day existence is maintained by a staff of hired help. There was certainly no first-name familiarity there between the classes. As for Santa Claus, look at the post-war “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Not only is the man called by his full name, but “kids” are always referred to as “children,” continuing the traditional titles of pre-War language.

Five years after the end of the War, perhaps the Christmas song that helped to change it all was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Though the song appeared in November 1950, sung by Harry Brannon, it was Gene Autry’s version, released in Christmas week of that same year, that became a favorite of early boomers. Mister Boomer recalls early childhood schooldays when the class would sing the Rudolph song, taking to heart that on that foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say…

The evolution of the Santa Claus name change was reflected perfectly in the quintessential iconic singer of the early boomer era — Elvis Presley. While Elvis sang a rockin’ version of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” he also sang “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me.” So the use of both Santa Claus and Santa continued throughout our Wonder years.

By the late sixties, the casualization of our society picked up steam. Longer hair and bell bottoms infiltrated the workplace, while companies such as IBM still held fast with uniforms of white shirts and plain ties. By the time we mid-level boomers came of age in the early 1970s, casualization was in full force. The older we got, the more we wanted to be different than our parents. Meanwhile, the “cool” teachers — themselves often part of the first wave of boomers — allowed students to call them by their first name. Then, as soon as we became parents, aunts and uncles ourselves, we much preferred that the offspring of friends and relatives call us by our first names.

Perhaps the bellwether moment for Santa Claus can be marked with a song released in 1979, at a time when the last wave of boomers were reaching their mid-teen years. Both beloved and hated by boomers and the subsequent generation, “Santa Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” in no uncertain terms, wasn’t your father’s Santa Claus.

Today we see the trend continue. Walk into any restaurant or store and you’ll see that servers and clerks wear name tags bearing only their first names. The Casual Fridays of the 1990s workplace has given way to Business Casual, every day. All language continues to change, so perhaps it was inevitable that the Santa Claus of our youth became the Santa of today. Yet Mister Boomer can’t help but harbor a little nostalgia for the days when Santa Claus was a magical being who may have frightened us in person, but delighted us on Christmas morning. Come Christmas morning, Mister Boomer suggests you inject jolly old Saint Nick’s full name into the conversation with your grandchildren and great grandchildren.

When did you first call Santa by only his first name, boomers?

Boomer Boys Learned to Speak “Car”

To pre-teen and early teen boomer boys, summer was a magical time. Lazy days of 100-inning baseball games, meandering insect captures and mock army battles inevitably gave way to hanging out in a garage while an older brother or neighbor worked on their car, which in itself seemed to be a never-ending activity.

There we learned the lingo of 1960s car-speak, pretty much by osmosis. Earlier we had obtained a foundation from the rock ‘n roll music on our portable radios. Songs like Little Deuce Coupe and 409 by The Beach Boys (1963), Little Old Lady from Pasadena by Jan & Dean (1964), The Rip Chords’ Hey Little Cobra (1964) and the classic G.T.O. from Ronny and the Daytonas (1964), among others, were filled with references about fast, cool cars. Suddenly it all came together as car words and phrases crept into our own daily conversations.

Mister B recalls how, early on, he did not understand the references in car songs. One day a classmate explained that Little Old Lady from Pasadena was about an older woman who liked to challenge younger guys to a street race with her souped-up car. We came to learn that her car was described as a Super Stock Dodge, which was a limited-production Dodge Polara originally designed for drag racing.

When The Beach Boys sang, “She’s so fine my 409,” we knew exactly what they were singing about: a 409 cubic-inch engine. General Motors produced the powerhouse in the ’60s as engine blocks got bigger and more powerful, spawning what became known as “muscle cars.” Chances are, man, if your car had a 409, it would really squeal!

Likewise, everyone knew a “little deuce coupe” was a 1932 Ford Coupe, nicknamed “deuce” for the year it was released. It was a favorite car among the earliest boomers because it was so durable that many had survived until the the 1950s and ’60s, and could be purchased with available funds from part-time jobs. The car was also easily customizable. Thus, it became the quintessential hot rod. Fenders were often removed and the engine, a flathead V8, provided more lessons for us. Though V8 engines (so named for the number of cylinders it held) had been placed into cars since the early 1900s, Ford was the first to release a production model engine to the masses in an affordable car. This configuration happened to have a flat appearance to the top.

“Three deuces and a four speed,” a phrase from G.T.O. by Ronny and the Daytonas, had particular resonance with Mister B. A neighbor had a terrific turquoise Pontiac G.T.O. with a triple carburetor (tri-carb). Mister B would watch his neighbor shine every inch of his car incessantly, including the “three deuces,” which meant a triple carb, each with dual injection slots (deuces). A four speed, or four-on-the-floor as it became known, was a manual four-speed transmission with the shifter mounted in the middle of the car’s front floor within reach of the driver’s right hand. The song’s lyrics line concludes with “and a 389.” Like “409,” the reference was to the engine’s cubic-inch size, which was considered more high performance than the average family car.

Before long we’d talk about the cool T-Bird we saw with the rolled and tufted interior — a type of upholstery job where “rolls,” most often made of leather, were crafted for bucket or bench seats. The tufts were buttons sewn in at intervals that would dimple the rolls. The result was a luxurious, custom and expensive look. One neighbor who raced his old car at a local speedway installed a roll bar, which was essentially a metal tube cage built inside the car to protect the driver in case it rolled over. In movies from the fifties that portray hot rods you’ll often see the cars with a single roll bar directly behind the driver. Later an entire cage was built, which is the procedure race cars follow to this day.

The most common car phrase spoken by Mister Boomer’s boyhood friends was “peel out,” or “burn rubber.” That referred to a car accelerating so quickly that it left marks from the tires on the pavement. Kids in the neighborhood would use the newly-paved alleys at the end of the block, or occasionally the street right outside their homes, to show off the power of their machines by burning rubber. The longer the patch, the greater the oohs and ahs from the onlookers.

By the time Mister Boomer reached driving age a few years later, there wasn’t as much emphasis on high performance as there was simple transportation. The language was fading. Perhaps it was the crackdown on street racing that dampened the enthusiasm, or maybe it was part of the wave of change that enveloped us all between the mid- and late-sixties. In any case, Mister B attributes much of what he knows about cars today to those days spent watching older boomers reassembling engines and installing four-speed transmissions.

It’s too bad that the workings of the internal combustion engine no longer resemble the simplicity of our youth. The language of car speak has changed as well for a new generation. Well mothers and fathers throughout the land, I won’t criticize what I can’t understand. But it sure explains the desire among boomer men to recapture those memories with the fantastic machines of the sixties and early seventies. If Mister B had the cash, it’d be fun, fun, fun until the wife took the T-Bird away!

What part did car language play in your boomer years?