As the leaves fall from Christiania’s chestnut trees, a secret monumental event is being planned. Actors from all over Denmark have been invited to a confidential meeting inside an ancient building along Christiania’s ramparts.
One of the organisers of the upcoming event is a man called Derik Von Dash, one of the founders of Sun Chariot Theatre Troupe, who arrived at Christiania at the beginning of the 1970s.
Speaking to a crowd of over 100 actors, Derik is certainly filled with excitement. He straightens his red bowtie. He readjusts double-decker spectacles that are constantly slipping down his nose.
“Close your eyes for a moment,” he says ceremoniously.
“Can you imagine it? Flocks of Santas marching through Copenhagen for Christmas?”
Derik lowers his voice into the microphone. “We go inside the grand department stores. We go into schools, hospitals, homes for the aged. We hand out gifts to one and all … to spread cheer and happiness. Now wouldn’t that be one hell of a performance?”
There is a whisk of chatter. Also a bit of muffled laughter. Holding a finger to his lips, the actor waits for total silence. Now his voice is almost a whisper: “You are not to breathe one word of this to anyone. Not to your wife. Not your kids. And certainly not to the cops.”
During October and November 1974, some 125 Santa Claus costumes are sewn at a little factory in Vesterbro. Those assigned to sew costumes collect cotton wool for the beards and moustaches, together with tons of flannel red material for 125 costumes.
In the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s story ‘The Ugly Duckling’, a 30 foot-tall paper maché goose is sculpted for the event. In the meantime, the actors rehearse new lyrics to Christmas songs, rewritten especially for the event. The Santas also learn how to march in step.
The operation begins peacefully
The clock strikes noon. The bells of Our Lady Church chime throughout Christianshavn. In orderly procession and the best of Christmas spirits, the Santas march out of Christiania’s main entrance. Von Dash leads his flock with the greatest of ease, sailing on his rollerskates back and forth among the rows of Santas, to make sure the procession flows smoothly. Lots of other merry Santas glide as well on their own rollerskates … all cheerful, peaceful Santas, here to remind the Danish community that genuine human kindness still does exist. What Christmas is truly about. The pageant leads itself up Prinsesse Street, passing by the ancient church.
Known as a rebellious Christianite, Liv Jørgensen is also dressed as a Santa, her slight waistline puffed out with pillows, masked behind a long white beard and moustache. Riding on her Christiania bike, the Sun Chariot actress named Else Marie is perched inside Liv’s wagon. Barely fitting inside, the grand lady is dressed in a magnificent Mrs Claus costume topped with a post-box red hat decorated with ostrich feathers.
Just by the canals of Christianshavn, when they stop at a corner, Else Marie passes out gingerbread hearts to the spectators. Along with a hearty embrace and kisses, she and Liv call out: “Glædelig jul allesammen. MERRY CHRISTMAS! Merry Christmas to one and all.”
The Sun Chariot Theatre Troupe strides proudly over Knippels Bridge. As they march toward the centre of Copenhagen, the procession gains momentum. There is power in their stride. Filing toward the Danish Parliament, even Rikki, Christiania’s famous Himalayan bear is here as a part of the parade, riding high on a tractor, observing the great procession from above. Her ears perk up in happiness as she listens to the Santas playing on bongo drums, coffee pots, clarinets and flutes. All to one melody. All in unison:
“Og vi synger. Og we synger
Og vi danser. Og vi danser.
(And we sing. And we sing.
Santa Claus sings.
And we dance. And we dance.
Santa Claus dances)
Passers-by stare in awe. They applaud the Santas, whose underlying mission is to spark public awareness of the discussion of unemployment, poverty and homelessness; the yearly ordeal for the poor who cannot afford gifts for their children; and the underprivileged middle class forced to endure this bourgeois consumer terror. Year after year.
The event is well organised; each actor is assigned to a particular action. One group visits a primary school where they pass out ‘The History Book,’ a newly published, illustrated book. Now the children will learn the truth about capitalism, colonialism and the exploitation of the Third World. When the Santas hand out the colourful books, the children are in awe. But their enthusiasm quickly turns into fear when their headmaster screams out: “Get out of our school! It is illegal to hand out gifts to children.”
With a little help from our friends
At the very same time, over 100 Norwegian Santas hop off the Oslo ferry just berthed in Copenhagen Harbour. In strict rows, they march simultaneously. Behind the procession of Santas, scores of white-robed angels arrive as well, chanting lovely Christmas carols as they float off the boat. The new army joins in on the majestic march.
Other Santas arrive at public institutions, including hospitals and nursing homes, where they sing for the elderly. Others visit the headquarters of Copenhagen Police, handing over a trophy to their deputy chief, who is quite bewildered … to say the least.
Another group struts into Handels Bank in Nytorv to appeal for an interest-free loan of 50 million Danish kroner to construct low-cost housing for the homeless. Only a few manage to get into the bank before the doors are locked. The cops arrive within minutes.
In the centre of town, a crane is lifted: one lone Santa raised high above the tall buildings. He delivers a Marxist-inspired speech, reaching out to the audience below with a megaphone: “Why is there so much unemployment? Why are the banks so full of money while the poor stay penniless? Why are our factories empty? We must open these factories and give the people their jobs back!”
Hundreds cheer his speech as he continues: “While shops and banks are making millions, Christmas is becoming a super bourgeois ritual. And who is the tragic victim of this entire caboodle? It is Santa Claus! We want to rescue him from this horrendous clutch of capitalism.”
The audience below cheers, while the Santa above waits for them to calm down. His megaphone screeches: “The greedy have taken over. Therefore, it is time for us to act. We must take from the rich and give to the poor. This is the only way we can give happiness to the people.”
The talking is over as Magasin is stormed
Equipped with hammers and hoes, a few Santas attack the brick wall of the court, while the Santa up on the crane hurls a smoke bomb down onto the street. It is not at all the way this happening was originally planned. Until then, the police had just been watching the drama, but now they begin to arrest the Santas, who surrender without any struggle – according to the rules of the epic performance.
In the meantime, on the industrial side of Copenhagen, at least 30 Santas equipped with ladders climb over the wired fences of the General Motors car factory. The factory is in the midst of closing down its operations in Denmark, as the costs of labour are too high. The Santas carry Danish flags. They hang up a huge sign painted on old bedsheets: “OPENING HERE: Factory for 1,000 Workers.”
The Santas begin their mission by washing down the factory windows. They sweep the premises. All is going well as planned, but then the manager shows up in quite a fury: “Get the hell out of here! It is undemocratic to enter private property.” Within minutes, police squads arrive to physically remove the Santas from the General Motors factory.
Events reach a crescendo inside the exclusive, enormous Magasin Du Nord department store in the centre of Copenhagen. In plain clothes 48 actors take a back entrance, rushing down the steps to the toilets in the basement where they quickly change into their costumes. Each carrying a black sack, they sneak up the steps to the second floor where the book department is located.
On this pre-holiday afternoon with so many children and parents, the book department is overcrowded. Everyone there is searching for Christmas gifts. In her distinctive deep voice, Else Marie exclaims to the customers: “Merry Christmas, everybody! Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages. Here are some lovely Christmas presents for you. Today, nobody has to pay!”
In their excitement, the parents and children push and shove. Through all the pandemonium, the Santas hand out gifts from the shelves to the children, replacing them with their own socialist history books.
The Santas are so joyful, they begin singing carols, while parents stand by in wonder, a few joining in with the choir. But in the swish of a kitten’s tail, the security guards arrive, interrupting the magic. The shop supervisor shouts: “They are STEALING!” as he tears a book from a little boy’s hands. The boy’s wail is heartbreaking; his parents are infuriated.
A manager bellows out from Magasin’s loud speaker: “We have a message for our customers. Those dressed in Santa Claus costumes do not belong here! Please return the stolen items to their shelves. The police have been summoned.”
A little girl whimpers to her mother, tears bulging from the corners of her eyes. “Mor, why are they taking Santa?” A shop detective is suddenly attacking Liv Jørgensen, tearing at her beard. She jerks herself away. The detective yells out: “Hah, you’re no Santa. You’re not even a man.” More cops arrive, dashing up the escalator. Poker-faced cops seize one Santa after the next. A little girl shrieks: “They’re taking Santa! You CAN’T DO THAT! You CAN’T DO that!”
Despite the chaos, the Santas refuse to give up. Derik Von Dash kindly offers a gingerbread cookie to an officer, but he refuses the gift with rage written all over his face. Yet two other Santas grab hands to dance with the chief manager of Magasin. Total Bedlam!
A distinguished looking man in a cashmere overcoat stands among the crowd. His wife is beside him in a mink coat. Suspiciously, he whispers: “Something strange is going on – this smells of left-wing propaganda. Let’s get the hell out of here.” The parents grab their son, who refuses to budge, dragging him all the way to the elevator. Only once the elevator disappears down the shaft, does the child’s scream fade into nothingness.
All except for one Santa in a lone back corner, sitting quietly with a little girl on his lap. Telling her a Christmas story. All so quietly. The child touches his beard in wonder. Both are so absorbed in the story, they are completely unaware of their surroundings. The few customers who witness this precious moment see it as a blessing from heaven.
Police officer Helene Hansen arrives at the location. Her orders are to arrest any Santas left on the second floor. Helene is equipped with eleven pairs of handcuffs attached to her belt, ready for the assignment. She tries to take in the chaotic scene before her. Helene is herself a mother raising four children alone who can barely afford her rent. What her own children wouldn’t give to be here sitting on Santa’s lap … just like that little girl. It surprises Helene to hear herself saying aloud: “I can’t arrest these Santas! Oh, if only my own kids were here now.”
In the meantime, at the snowy entrance to Magasin, the commanding officer screams over the angry crowds into his walkie-talkie. “Send reinforcements and police dogs! NOW!” One after the next, the Santas are thrown mercilessly into paddy wagons. One of them screeches out from the paddy wagon: “Generosity is impossible in this capitalist society!!!!”
Silence returns as capitalism lives on
On this dramatic night, at least 45 Santas are arrested. All taking place at the entrance to Magasin, over 1,000 shoppers come together in spirit. In total solidarity with the arrested Santas, they all begin to sing ‘Glædelig Jul’, the Danish version of ‘Silent Night’.
“Glade jul, dejlige jul,
engle dale ned i skjul!
Hid de flyve med Paradisgrønt,
hvor de se, hvad for Gud er kønt,
lønlig iblandt os de gå, lønlig iblandt os de gå.”
The Danish newspapers present the event, each from a different angle. The media widely distribute photos of Santas getting beaten up for being generous. All this is followed by major headlines, parliamentary debates, and storms of readers’ letters to the newspapers.
International TV broadcasts the event around the globe. Both Christiania and the Sun Chariot Theater Troupe are acclaimed as the visionary forces behind the common people of Denmark. Proclaimed a great success, winning sympathy from the general public, Santa Claus is lauded for his conscious rebellion against consumerism.
And as for the little girl on Santa’s lap? It’s a day she’ll never forget.
‘The Santa Claus Army’, Chapter 11 of the soon to be published English-language novel ‘A Daughter of Christiania’, has been republished here with the permission of its author Linda Ruth Horowitz.