Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Lie of Father Christmas

There’s a rash at this time of year of people lamenting the terrible lie we tell to children. You know, the one about the fat man who comes down your chimney on Christmas Eve and leaves presents for good girls and boys. How can we keep perpetuating this terrible fantasy? they ask. Wouldn’t it be better to instruct our children in science than have them believe in some kind of overgrown fairy?

Floodllama, Santa Claus is coming to town, on Flickr.
Not hugely relevant but an awesome picture.
I have to say that of all the lies parents tell their children, this one is a long way from being the worst. ‘Honest, it won’t hurt.’ ‘You’ll enjoy it when you get there.’ ‘You look so beautiful.’ ‘Of course you’ll get a boyfriend/girlfriend.’ ‘Wow, you did that so well.’ These are the kind of lies that seem kind at the time but can leave you let down, betrayed, feeling misunderstood.

Father Christmas is the best of lies, and I’m not so sure that it really is a lie. (I’ll come to that.) Father Christmas is a lie that lets you get so excited on Christmas Eve that you can’t sleep. It’s a lie that makes magic sparkle in children’s eyes. It’s a lie that allows you to drop off at night and then wake up in the morning with that curious weight on your feet, to open one eye and see something lumpy and indistinct lying across the bottom of the bed, to sit up and open presents without any preamble, any manners or holding back.

Bill McChesney 5176 Guess Whooo's coming to town, on Flickr.
This is not Father Christmas. This is a man in a suit.
As you get older you think, ‘I’m sure I saw that in mum’s shopping,’ or ‘Isn’t it odd that Father Christmas shops in Tesco too?’ But it’s not like the moment after you’ve had the immunisation and realise, eyes wide with shock, that it did hurt and mummy didn’t tell the truth. It’s not like the moment when you objectively look at the outfit you put together and realise you looked an idiot. It’s a moment when you realise that for all these years your parents have loved you enough to help you believe in something wonderful.

And that’s where we come to the other thing, the fact that Father Christmas isn’t a lie. Father Christmas is someone who loves you, who brings light and kindness into your life. Father Christmas is the person you never see. Never mind men who dress up in synthetic red suits and plastic beards and call themselves ‘Santa’ and sit in grottos in garden centres and shopping centres. They’re not Father Christmas. Everyone knows that he comes when your eyes are closed, and that you must, must, never be awake when he’s there. He’s invisible, incorporeal. He is a manifestation of love.

I have always remembered how Laura Ingalls Wilder summed it up in On The Banks of Plum Creek. I couldn’t do it better.

Ma!” Laura cried. “There IS a Santa Claus, isn’t there?”

Of course there’s a Santa Claus,” said Ma. She set the iron on the stove to heat again.

The older you are, the more you know about Santa Claus,” she said. “You are so big now, you know he can’t be just one man, don’t you? You know he is everywhere on Christmas Eve. He is in the Big Woods, and in Indian Territory, and far away in York State, and here. He comes down all the chimneys at the same time. You know that, don’t you?”

Yes, Ma,” said Mary and Laura.

Well,” said Ma. “Then you see–“

I guess he is like angels,” Mary said, slowly. And Laura could see that, just as well as Mary could.

Then Ma told them something else about Santa Claus. He was everywhere, and besides that, he was all the time.

Whenever anyone was unselfish, that was Santa Claus.

Christmas Eve was the one time when everybody was unselfish. On that one night, Santa Claus was everywhere, because everybody, all together, stopped being selfish and wanted other people to be happy. And in the morning you saw what that had done.

If everybody wanted everybody else to be happy, all the time, then would it be Christmas all the time?” Laura asked, and Ma said, “Yes, Laura.”

- Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

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