In the English-speaking world, “Santa Baby” has been the go-to Santa-as-lover song for ladies since Eartha Kitt‘s original 1953 version. The lyrics propose, slyly but unmistakably, that the dynamics of a hypothetical relationship with Santa, while grotesque, would nevertheless be topologically conjugate to the norms of postwar US gender relations.
Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me.
Been an awful good girl, Santa baby,
So hurry down the chimney tonight. […]
Think of all the fun I’ve missed,
Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed,
Next year I could be just as good,
If you’ll check off my Christmas list […]
Santa honey, forgot to mention one little thing: a ring.
I don’t mean on the phone, Santa honey…
Having located a potential lover of unlimited means, generosity, and kindness, the narrator of “Santa Baby” reveals herself as a true Homo economicus. Through both double entendre and frank bargaining, she outlines her terms: material comfort in exchange for exclusivity of erotic access, socially legitimated by marriage. The erotic frisson — still felt by many today, to judge by the unbroken stream of cover versions — arises from the directness. There will be no dating, no manipulation, no need to work around the rules of propriety: bring enough boxes from Tiffany, and you can “trim my Christmas tree” tonight.
What is the equivalent in Japan? I put it to you that it is “Koibito ga Santa Claus” (“My Lover is Santa Claus”) by Matsutōya Yumi. Originally released on her 1980 semi-concept album Surf & Snow, it became a monster hit a few years later as the theme song for Watashi o ski ni tsuretette! and has been the Christmas pop song in Japan ever since.
In “Koibito ga,” the narrator recounts an episode from one Christmas Day in her childhood on which a glamorous next-door neighbor claimed to be expecting a visit from Santa at eight o’clock (sharp).
“Chigau yo, sore wa ehon dake no ohanashi”
Sō iu watashi ni wink shite
“Demo ne, otona ni nareba, anata mo wakaru, sono uchi ni […]
“Koibito ga Santa Claus, se no takai Santa Claus…”
“No way, that’s just a story from picture books”
I said, and she replied with a wink:
“When you grow up, you’ll understand too, one day […]
“My lover is Santa Claus, a tall Santa Claus…”
“Many winters” later, the “glamorous neighbor” long gone, the narrator recalls this exchange and hints at her own imminent enlightenment. The song is about the awakening from childhood innocence, excitement and impatience for the passage into adulthood. The contrast with the knowing come-ons of “Santa Baby”, its playful yet fundamentally cynical take on gender relations, could not be starker. At the root of these differences is the approach to Santa himself.
In “Santa Baby,” Santa remains unchanged as a concept. Although it is not explicitly stated, there is no reason to believe that this Santa is not the jolly, toy-distributing, entirely asexual figure of childhood fantasy. It is these characteristics which enable the narrator to access the outer limits of her utility curve, grossly distending the expected pattern of a romantic relationship. (If the narrator went on to date and buy gifts for a sexy elf behind Santa’s back, it would be Honda Tōru’s “Akahori System” in its purest form.)
But in “Koibito ga,” Santa is the one who changes. Present-bringing is included as only one of his characteristics, but the fact that he is “tall” — that is, conventionally attractive — is repeated twice, and what the narrator seems to be looking forward to most is the excitement and knowledge of the outside (which is to say, adult) world that he will bring.
Nevertheless, the references to whirlwinds and cities of snow ensure that the song remains firmly grounded in fantasy, if you will — unlike, say, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” where Santa is forced into the real world so completely that he ends up just being Dad. (The fact that the glamorous neighbor’s Santa suddenly “took her to a distant town one day” is a highly realistic outcome for a postwar salaryman Santa, though, and might be a nod at the drab realities of domestic life that lie beyond the thrill of young love.)
Does this represent a greater Santaic fluidity in Japanese culture, perhaps owing to the tradition’s shallow roots here? Or is Santa’s transformation into a trim, handsome suitor an unsurprising result of Christmas being hijacked by lovers?