"LAST YEAR, Santa Claus, patron saint of children during the holiday season, was pictured loaded down with beer bottles, drinking cocktails, serving as bartender and in similar roles."

The speaker was Ethel Huber, a popular radio talk show host and head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the year was 1936.

Seventy-one years later, they're still arguing over Santa and beer.

This time, it's up in Maine, where the state police have banned the jolly elf's image on bottles of Santa's Butt Winter Porter, calling it an "undignified or improper illustration" that might appeal to children. The beer's importer, Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts, has filed a federal lawsuit charging the ban is a First Amendment violation.

(The Sheltons have been in this fight before. Last year, Connecticut authorities tried to block the sale of its Seriously Bad Elf ale because it depicted a sneering elf firing a slingshot at Santa.)

Much as I sympathize with parents who object to the commercial use of this symbol of childhood innocence, the fact is Santa has always been a shill - for Coca-Cola, Macy's, Jell-O, you name it. Almost immediately after cartoonist Thomas Nast inked the first popular illustration of Kris Kringle in 1863, advertisers used the image to sell products, and nothing was off-limits. Forget about those quaint visions of sugar plums dancing in your head - by 1901 St. Nick was already showing up in newspaper ads with a stogie stuck in his mouth, proudly commending the merits of New Brunswick 10-cent cigars. A few years later, a full-color Life magazine ad portrayed a soused Santa reading kiddies' letters while sucking down a bottle of whiskey.

The Prohibition was a mere sabbatical for America's bearded beer man. As soon as the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, he was back, caging for breweries. "Join Mr. Claus (who has a fond regard for the best things in life) in drinking tangy, foamy and delicious Point Special," one ad urged. Another, for Goebel Beer, advised customers to "drink deep of the brew that restores one's faith in Santa Claus."

The waning temperance movement was not amused and, still hoping for a return to Prohibition, successfully lobbied for laws in at least 30 states to ban Santa from beer ads.

Fun-loving New York was one of the few that declined. Time magazine reported that state authorities "declared that the patron of Christmas is 'not actually a saint, but a character of fiction, not a Biblical character, but merely the symbol of happiness and good cheer.' "

Most beer companies backed off, switching to wreaths and holly and wholesome images of cheerful adults sharing sixpacks 'neath the mistletoe. The notable exception was Anheuser-Busch. For half a century, Santa appeared prominently in its ads, declaring that Budweiser was as much a part of Christmas as jingle bells and eggnog. Look closely at one ad from the 1940s, and you'll see the red-suited elf riding a sleigh full of kegs and cases, pulled by a team of Clydesdales.

It wouldn't be till 1987 that the beer giant got its wrists slapped. That year, Anheuser-Busch decorated cases of Bud Light with its famous spokesdog, Spuds Mac-Kenzie, dressed in a red Santa suit. Officials in Utah and Ohio barked that the merchandising violated bans on depicting Santa in liquor ads and ordered the cases removed.

Using Santa in advertising is a violation of the Beer Institute's voluntary marketing code, but the lobby group hasn't gotten into the fray, and, besides, Shelton isn't a member.

So the question remains: Should Santa really be shilling for suds?

In a letter to the Shelton Brothers' Web site last year, one Methodist minister typified the position of Santa fundamentalists: "This is a positive image of our culture and an image that children love. To put Santa on a beer can is just disgusting. If your beer cannot sell itself without exploiting the Santa Claus image, then it must not be very good beer. . . . Please reconsider your use of Santa. Think of the children!"

Daniel Shelton replied, "Giving Santa Claus the boot obviously won't do anything to curb underage drinking. As we all know, there's a ton of advertising out in the market playing on themes like partying and sex that's infinitely more appealing to minors - and adults - than Santa will ever be. . . . It's hard to avoid the suspicion that picking on Santa is just an easy way to appear to be doing something about the problem without actually doing something about it."*

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send email to joesixpack@phillynews.com.