Paul McCarthy's Santa Claus – Rotterdam, Netherlands - Atlas Obscura

Paul McCarthy's Santa Claus

Rotterdammers' dirty minds gave this santa a dirty nickname and cursed it to a life of wandering. 


Sent from one place to the next, this Christmas-y, controversial piece of public art has seen more of Rotterdam than most tourists.

The city of Rotterdam commissioned a 280,000 euro piece of public art by American sculptor Paul McCarthy in 2001 for the Schouwburgplein square near De Doelen, the city’s orchestra building. In true McCarthy fashion, the work he created—a stylized, massive, and dark statue of Santa Claus holding a pine tree—stirred such a controversy that it was never installed at Schouwburgplein.

The people of Rotterdam objected to the statue not for reasons of religious tolerance, but because they found the tree in its hand to be too sexual. Immediately thereafter, McCarthy’s “Santa Claus” gained the more popular nickname of “the Butt Plug Gnome,” which has stuck ever since. 

Wonderful as this nickname is for the international, sex-positive community, the Butt Plug Gnome has proved nothing but problematic for a local government, who spent an enormous amount of money commissioning public art that, suddenly, no one wanted to display. 

After Schouwburgplein rejected Santa Claus, officials sought to put it Rotterdam’s main shopping street, but this plan was again met with resistance. Four years later, McCarthy’s sculpture was set and unveiled in the Museum Park. It stood in this spot for three years before it was, again, moved to a different location within the Museum Park.

Finally, on November 28, 2008, the sculpture found a permanent home on the Eendrachtsplein. Accompanied by a parade of sorts, a marching band played a merry tune as children wearing Christmas garb and dunce caps danced alongside the Butt Plug Gnome as it was transported to its new home, where it has rested both unmolested and adored ever since. 

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The gnome is freely accessible.

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