Wednesday, 30 December 2009

In defence of Father Christmas

According to Joanna Moorhead, writing in the Guardian (Wednesday December 20, 2000), "more young people associate Santa Claus with Christmas than they do Christ." She comments that: "We love the idea that they believe in this godlike figure who sweeps through the whole world bringing good fortune to all because, in our hearts, we mourn the fact that we don't believe in him any more: we love the simplicity of the tale because, in an unfair and complex world, the story of Father Christmas is a powerful parable about equality, justice, and putting children first."

But there is a hazard, which is mentioned in the article "The Teaching of Christianity by Parents", that "If Father Christmas is not true, how can I know that Jesus Christmas is true?" was the rather agonised question of a child of five who discovered that no flesh and blood old Father Christmas came down the chimney.

Following this line of argument, the Reverend John Eich suggests that teaching a child about Santa can backfire. "When a parent says "Yes, there really is a Santa Claus and his reindeer can fly,' he is no longer playing a game. The parent is lending his personal authority as a parent to the myth, giving it the ring of truth. When the child later finds out that there is no Santa, she may doubt other parental teachings, including the parent's religious beliefs. "

This was phrased succinctly on the Usenet newsgroups by a writer who said: "I don't believe there is any place in Christmas for Santa Claus, think about it, you are LYING to your children, what kind of example is that? Certainly not a Christian one. Can you only have "fun" on Christmas when you introduce worldly things?"

I think that these arguments fail and several counts, and I would like to argue that there is a positive benefit to belief in Father Christmas, and even to the idea of Father Christmas when we know it to be untrue.

With regard to the matter of "lying to your children", this assumes that all that a parent tells his children is the truth, and I would suggest that it is exceedingly unlikely that no parent is so honest that they do not tell a lie at any time to their children. The portrayal of the parent is as a perfect purveyor of truth is fictitious, and sooner or later the child will grow up and find that the parents are deceitful, but in more subtle ways; it could be argued that when that happens, the image of the parent will collapse, just as surely as if the child had learned an earlier, and much less painful lesson that the parent is not always right, is not the ultimate arbiter of truth.

On the matter of fact and falsehood, it has been noted that the discerning the falsehood of Father Christmas is part of the formation of the child, passing (in William Blake's terminology) between innocence and experience.

As children learn and understand more about the world, they gradually work out that a real Santa could not deliver all those presents or know what every child wants. Yet they are rarely upset or disappointed; it has been found that they are actually pleased to have learned this for themselves, to learn that not everything is to be taken at face value.

To return to the question ""If Father Christmas is not true, how can I know that Jesus Christmas is true?", to avoid Father Christmas is to remove a means of deeper awareness and experience of truth. The part of the question "how can I know that Jesus Christmas is true?", will not go away because the parent's tell the child they tell the truth. The time will come when it must be faced, and the loss of Father Christmas actually provides an opening for exploring truth and falsity in belief at a deeper level than was possible.

But I also would argue that to call "Father Christmas" a lie also betrays an extremely literal and materialistic idea of truth. It is noteworthy that it tends to be the more fundamentalist ends of the spectrum of Christianity that argue that belief in Father Christmas is bad, because that (as James Barr pointed out in "Fundamentalism") takes its arguments from a materialistic reading of the Bible, in which historical facticity is given priority, and the only truth is truth in fact.

It is surely no coincidence that materialistic atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, boasted that he tried to tell a six-year-old child that Father Christmas didn't exist. His argument was that Father Christmas would not be able to climb down all those chimneys and tiptoe noiselessly to the bedsides of hundreds of millions of children, all in one night. There simply wouldn't be enough time. This is to ignore the mythical element of Father Christmas, and how that functions, and whether from a Christian or atheistic perspective, is a form of reductionism.

The idea of Father Christmas as mythical truth is most succinctly stated by G.K. Chesterton, in his book "The Everlasting Man", when he writes about the imagination of the child, and the importance of this element in experience:

"Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens, so that the snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test -therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up."

I would note especially the idea of "transcendental truths", the idea that truth can be conveyed by fiction, and that even when the fiction is known to be fiction, the truth conveyed can still remain, and be in many ways as potent as ever. This can be seen in responses to fictional tales, particularly with a strong mythical element.

"Father Christmas" is in many respects a weak mythical character. There is an overlay of commercialisation that we have to scrape away before we can see the true meaning of Father Christmas. There can be a tendency to mindless greed, to seeing Father Christmas as a means to the child to get all manner of toys. And yet even at the commercial end, there are lessons that can be learnt, that Father Christmas cannot always give what is asked for, and he has his own agenda with presents which also can surprise and delight the child with the unexpected.

But it is in fiction, that Father Christmas can recover his mythic strength, and the commercialised tinsel subverted. Let me give just a few examples.

In "Miracle on 34th Street", a drunken shop Santa is ousted by an elderly man with a beard, who calls himself Kris Kringle, and who claims to be the real Father Christmas. It is a film full of apparent coincidence, and leaves it ambiguous as to whether Kringle really is Father Christmas or just believes himself to be so; nonetheless he embodies and brings the "spirit of Christmas", of warmth, and caring and generosity, and calls forth those qualities from others.

In "Mickey's good deed.", a very early cartoon, Mickey is seen playing Christmas carols on his cello with a cup on the ground for money. People pass by and drop stuff in it. Mickey later empties it and sees they're nuts, bolts, and screws. Mickey is poor and he sells Pluto (even though he doesn't want to) so that he can buy gifts for a poor mother's children, who life in the barest single room. Mickey dresses up as Father Christmas, and brings sackloads gifts (food and toys) for the children. Mickey may not have had anything better happen to him at the end (except getting Pluto back who brings him a turkey), but the clear message comes over that Father Christmas is a bringer of gifts and joy to the poor, and we, like Mickey, may "play" that part.

In this respect, Christmas is an ideal opportunity for children to learn about giving (as well as receiving) and they can be encouraged to give presents of their own to others (for instance parents, or siblings). Cost is not important; what matters is that each child is asked to think about other people. As well as developing caring attitudes, giving presents helps children appreciate their own gifts even more.

In "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", the land of Narnia is described as "a land bewitched so it is always winter but never Christmas", and so when the White Witch's hold on Narnia weakens with the coming of Aslan, it is notable also for the arrival - as a visible sign of this - of a real Father Christmas, like and unlike the fictitious version of our world, who bears special gifts for the children.

Finally, mention must be made of a "Christmas Carol", with its invention of "the spirits of Christmas". It calls forth a response, awakens the imagination, and also demands a moral response. Nowhere does it display an overtly Christian message, and yet the implicit background is clearly that of the gospels - it considers the plight of the poor and needy, but without being patronising, and it demands of the reader, as of Scrooge, a moral revaluation of life away from those characteristics which so deaden Scrooge's existence, and towards the true richness in life of the Crachetts, or Scrooge's nephew. The spirit of Christmas, embodied so well in the almost pagan "Father Christmas" like figure of Christmas present, is one of warmth, generosity, of life, of giving both in material terms, but equally importantly, of one's own self.

1 comment:

Hampers said...

Nice blog on Christmas. May peace and joy always reside in your heart. It was nice going through your blog. Have a great New Year.