Why does Santa wear sunglasses?

3 12 2010
Santa Claus on motorcycle

Santa Claus keeping it cool

A suit and sunglasses might be a fitting sartorial hallmark for a glamorous gangster, FBI agent or nightclub bouncer, but surely nothing could be less appropriate for good old Father Christmas. In fact, dark glasses have been cropping up all over the festive landscape – on polar bears, reindeer, elves, Christmas trees, angels… they’re everywhere. What an unseasonal way to accessorise when most western Christmas imagery creaks under a freezing avalanche of snow, ice, and glitter. These are not snow goggles – they’re the kind of sunglasses previously used to suggest sunbathing, blues brothers, even cold-hearted evil; a sharp contrast with the traditional gold wire-rimmed spectacles handy for reading children’s wish lists.  

Over the last ten years Santa in shades has moved from being an absurd comedy image to being a standard feature of the ‘modern’ Christmas (think minimal graphics and the exhortation to a ‘cool yule’ or possibly ‘cool crimbo’ on cards on sale in Tesco and the like).

Ironically, sunglasses are often being used to suggest ‘coolness’ in terms of temperature (as in a polar bear in the north pole), punning on the double meaning of cool as in cold and cool as in ‘good’ – admirable style, attitude and demeanour. Although of course Father Christmas is usually anything but cool. Characterised by rebellious self-possession, cool heroes rarely hold with tradition or sentimentality. A real cool Santa wouldn’t care enough to arrange pressies, or hurry to deliver them, definitely wouldn’t wear anything as obviously jolly as a red velvet suit, and probably wouldn’t be round enough to fill it.  

We might still like the idea of Santa handing over the goods – but as a role model, the jolly rounded epicurean is outdated. To get a gift from Santa you are supposed to be good  just like Santa himself – but a variety of authors now argue that ‘people no longer want to be good – they want to be cool’.

Recent research at Nottingham Trent University about the development of the strong associations between sunglasses and coolness concluded not only that shades are everywhere in visual culture but that they have become a symbol of a cool most broadly definable as being ‘enviably modern’ – able to achieve an identity both strong and flexible enough to withstand the weight and pace of technological and cultural change.

Covering the eyes protects our most vulnerable physical organs but also protects us from exposed emotions, suggesting we are ‘composed’ in every situation. The high-tech associations of hard man-made materials worn so close to the body imply a close and confident relationship with modern technologies. This has been the case since the earliest days of sunglasses when tinted goggles were worn for driving, cycling and rail travel, and adopted by fighter pilots.

So, images of yuletide characters in shades may seem to be festive fluff – but in fact they relate to profound changes in western values. To be as composed as a jazz musician like Miles Davis; as powerfully seductive as a celebrity, in the face of all the challenges to self-identity modernity brings; these are the elusive gifts so many of us would really like Santa to deliver.

Dr Vanessa Brown
Senior lecturer in design and visual culture at Nottingham Trent University

To speak to Dr Brown, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8782 or email christmas@ntu.ac.uk




4 responses

12 12 2012
Chris Finnigan

I was intrigued by Dr Brown’s analysis of why sunglasses are apparently associated with the concept of “cool” in modern society. Something that has puzzled me for some time is why women, and occasionally men too, wear sunglasses on top of their heads when it is not sunny and even indoors! I concluded that they were worn as a fashion accessory to imply that the wearer was the sort of person who was not unfamiliar with the sort of climate and lifestyle that required sunglasses to be readily available at all times. Is this a reasonable conclusion or have I missed some deeper significance to this habit? Professionally, I have an interest in Human Factors in aviation, including cultural influences.

12 12 2012

Hi – thanks for your question…I’d say all of that is potentially true. Sunglasses do work as a ‘headband’ too – so keep hair out of the face, add structure, which has been one justification. I guess the fact they are not being ‘used’ to shield the eyes in this setting just draws attention to their symbolic role. People do buy them to wear in ‘second life’ as well…

There are many reasons as to why sunglasses have been worn indoors (and not just on the head) – there is reason to believe jazz musicians wore them in clubs in the 1950s partly to discourage the ‘squares’ in the audience from asking them to play tunes they did not want to play! But, no doubt the glamour of dark glasses – which includes associations with military, celebrity, modernity as well as elite sun-soaked leisure spaces – made them a preferable choice of ‘involvement shield’ in this setting. One thing i noted in my research was that even as early as the 1940s, ordinary men and women were taking to wearing them in all kinds of indoor settings, and this was discussed in the optical press as a kind of ‘obsession’. To fully answer the question though… you might be interested in reading my book, forthcoming with Berg.

Also, I am interested in what you might know about human factors in aviation – especially in relation to ‘staying cool’/emotions, so if you have any references, I’d be really interested in them.

Vanessa Brown

13 12 2012
Chris Finnigan

Hi Vanessa, thanks for your response. It was reassuring to hear that my views are not unrealistic. The Civil Aviation Authority’s Safety Regulation Group, where I work, has published a document on the subject of Human Factors in Aviation which you can read at: http://www.caa.co.uk/CAP719 This primarily deals with professional aviators flying for airlines, but refers to many other sources. My safety oversight remit is private and hobby flying where accident rates are much higher and the pilots are mostly amateurs who don’t have the performance scrutiny and continuation training of their professional counterparts. Interestingly, sunglasses designed specifically for pilots are expensive and desirable items that evoke, in some minds, the image of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and are often bought by pilots who wish to look “cool” on the ground. Paradoxically, increasing use of glass cockpit instrument displays in light aircraft mean that sunglasses are worn less in the cockpit. Attitude and behaviours (including Egos) are key to safe flight as they affect pilot decision making. Our challenge is to get private pilots to behave more like professionals, without adding a whole lot of cost to their flying. Private helicopter pilots have been particularly prominent in the accident statistics, and there is some evidence that the sort of person that can afford to operate a helicopter may have personality traits that affect their decision making and attitude to risk.


Chris Finnigan

17 12 2012

Hi Chris

Thanks, I will have a look at the report.

one of the first ‘subcultures’ to be spoken of as ‘cool’ were the WW1 german fighter pilots, who were famously nonchalant about the risks they were taking and apparently showed little respect for authority, having not been trained in the forces but mechanics brought specifically to fly. my own research into the meaning of sunglasses led me to consider risk as highly significant factor in the performance and representation of different notions of cool. you mention ego, do you think that a desire to appear (or to be) cool affects decision-making in flight? cool is an potentially contradictory combination of skill through much practice, effortlessness, and a disregard for rules which is often conflated in popular culture … maybe i might have some materials or ideas which could be of interest to you…?

The book i am writing is about the meaning of sunglasses in relation to cool but i am hoping to write something after i have finished which is more general about cool as part of my phd was really an attempt to define cool. I used sunglasses as a way of exploring a limited set of depictions of cool in popular culture and although there is some literature on the subject, to my knowledge at least, no-one else has really fully explored the connections between techno-cool and its wider forms. I am quite interested in the importance of cool to mental and physical health as it has been seen as a very negative force, for example, in black american males, certain kinds of aspiration to cool have been seen to have profoundly anti-social effects. It is generally accepted though that cool is a model of behaviour which has spread from the black community into wider society…. I must get on with writing my book but feel free to contact me if you would like to swap any more notes.


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