On Christmas Eve, 1823, a mysterious, white-haired stranger appeared in Montfermeil carrying a large bundle. From this bundle, he magically produced the exact doll that a sweet little girl had been longing after.
What I’m saying is that Jean Valjean is pretty much Santa Claus.
But what about the part where he leaves town with a freed child in tow? That might seem like a sinister sort of Santa, but it turns out that’s a much deeper part of Saint Nicholas lore than the reindeer or red suit. Before St. Nick became fat, jolly, and commercialized (more on that in a moment), he was revered as a fourth-century Turkish bishop with a soft spot for the poor and oppressed. This extended beyond mere alms-giving; he straight-up helped people escape slavery.
If you’ve ever listened to David Sedaris’ so-funny-you’ll-cry “Santa Claus and the Six to Eight Black Men,” you know that the Dutch Santa is always portrayed as being accompanied by a guy named “Black Peter.” And okay, yeah, depictions of Black Peter can be pretty awkwardly racist, but to focus on European caricatures of him is to miss the point that this is a man whom Saint Nicholas freed from slavery. The saintly bishop was so horrified when he saw a slave market in his hometown that he flew into a rage against the slavers and bought Peter’s liberty. Peter was thereafter so devoted to the man who saved him that he became Nicholas’ constant companion.
But whence the chimneys and the gift-giving? Surprise, more opposition the slave trade! Nicholas got wind that a poor man in town was about to sell his “spare” daughters into (presumably sexual) slavery, so took some bags of gold from the church (hi, Bishop Myriel!) and threw them down the man’s chimney so that he wouldn’t need to exchange his children for the money he needed to pay off his debts. This gave birth to the tradition of special almsgiving in the weeks leading up to Christmas for centuries to come.
Secretly giving money to the poor…rescuing little girls from servitude…something about a tricky bishop who makes unapproved use of church money when vulnerable lives are at stake… The Valjean we know and love is starting to come into focus. But it’s super intriguing how Valjean’s sack with Catherine the doll points towards today’s Christmas myths, so let’s take a quick look at how the commercial Santa took shape, at least in the US.
The Santa floodgates were released with the printing of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (now better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), which was, in an almost Hugolian coincidence, published in a New York paper for Christmas of 1823 – the same night that Valjean rescues Cosette. That charming tale of Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinte Klaas for St. Nicholas) was an instant hit, but gained further iconographic steam from the likes of Thomas Nast in the 1860s and the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. I don’t know enough about how that Santa has spread around the world, but AFAIK he’s the dominant children’s myth in cultures that celebrate Christmas. Now the “jolly old elf” in a silly hat is far more a part of our consciousness than the Myriel-like bishop who diverted church funds to help the poor.
And it is so intriguing to think about where Valjean stands in this development, because he isn’t purely the liberating churchman; he’s not Myriel. He’s a layman in a funny outfit who materializes at the perfect moment with gift for the abused “good little girl” but who leaves nothing for the bullies who torment her. Éponine and Azelma find themselves on the naughty list.
Now, I’ll confess that these musings are pretty US-centric, and I’d need to learn a lot more about the development of Père Noël lore before saying anything about what Hugo was trying to accomplish with Valjean’s stint as Father Christmas. But if I were to try to retrospectively identify the literary pivot point between Saint Nicholas the liberator and Santa Claus the gift-giver, I couldn’t help but linger on Jean Valjean’s actions on Christmas Eve, 1823.
TL;DR Valjean is Santa, but, like, the old-school, slave-freeing Saint Nicholas. And “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written for Christmas Eve 1823, the night when Valjean saves Cosette, which is some pretty crazy stuff. Merry Christmas!