This holiday season, the Mall of America sparked a huge controversy when it hired an African-American Santa Claus, which enraged the Facebook crowd that always posts in ALL CAPS. Fifteen years ago, conservative folk in the Netherlands staged a similar Christmas protest, but their complaint was a lot funnier. These Dutch moralists took issue with a sculpture best known by its nickname, Butt-Plug Santa.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rotterdam, home of Butt-Plug Santa (or Gnome), is a Dutch port city famous for edgy architecture and public displays of artwork and sculptures. In 2001, the city sought to enhance its open-air collection with an oversized bronze sculpture titled Santa Claus. The gnome-like figure holds a large bell in his left hand and what should be a Christmas tree in his right. The Dutch certainly know a little something about kink, and the locals immediately mistook the tree for a butt plug.
For the uninitiated, a butt plug is a dildo-like sex toy inserted into the anal cavity for sexual pleasure, if that’s your thing, and they date back to the late 19th century when people found that Dr. Young’s Ideal Rectal Dilators are good for more than just fighting constipation. We’re also guessing a new butt plug is on Mike Pence’s Christmas wish list for any Secret Santas out there.
The sculpture was made by Paul McCarthy—and for those speed reading, no he did not write “Let It Be”—a twisted Los Angeles-based artist who possibly did intend for the tree to look like a giant butt plug. Nevertheless, Santa Claus, a name that literally no one uses, sparked such debate and criticism that it later prompted clinical studies such as 2012’s “Engaging geographies of public art: indwellers, the ‘Butt Plug Gnome’ and their locale.” Butt-Plug Santa was intended for Schouwburgplein (Theatre Square), but the protests kept it from this location and several others. In the end, St. Nick was banished to a courtyard away from the public eye at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
Then something interesting happened. Attendance at the museum spiked as people came to see and take pictures with Butt-Plug Santa. The sculpture became an international hit! Soon—and this is serious—a giant inflatable version of Butt-Plug Santa (with a flesh-colored “Christmas tree” no less) went on tour stopping in places like Germany and Belgium. Edible chocolate versions of Butt-Plug Santa soon followed. In New York alone, $100 chocolate gift sets sold at a rate of 1,000 per day in 2007.
Ultimately, the popularity of Butt-Plug Santa led to questions about what qualifies as art, the dangers of censorship and why exactly is St. Nick so jolly? Predictably, the city of Rotterdam came around and gave Santa the respect he deserved. On November 28, 2008, the sculpture found a new home in the famed Eendrachtsplein Square near the city’s street-art route and lots and lots of cannabis coffeeshops. During the actual move, a large parade accompanied the sculpture to celebrate Butt-Plug Santa coming to town. The procession included a marching band and little children in Christmas hats.
Today, Butt-Plug Santa remains a major tourist attraction, and McCarthy continues to provoke controversy. After creating a semi-pornographic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exhibit in New York, he unveiled a new 80-foot Christmas tree in Place Vendôme square in Paris. The inflatable sculpture quickly prompted vandalism and an assault on the artist himself.
We’ll give you one guess what the tree looked like.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Butt-Plug Santa image by Jannes Linders, courtesy of Sculpture International Rotterdam/CBK Rotterdam.