Monday, 3 November 2008

I believe in Father Christmas - Nick Green

Snow in October, and already it’s time to make the Christmas cake (the recipe I like requires months to mature). My son is now just old enough to be aware of Christmas approaching, and like all parents I face a decision: as he grows older, do I continue to pretend that Father Christmas is real? Do I go through the ritual of the mince pie and sherry near the hearth? Do I, in short, lie to him?

Some parents are quite adamant about this. Lying, especially to children, is wrong, no matter what the reason. Believers in Santa Claus face inevitable disappointment, possible ridicule at school. It’s a breach of trust, however well intended. Is it really?

My own parents lied to me on this matter. I don’t remember being traumatised when I found out. In fact I don’t think there was one moment when I found out. It was more of a dawning realisation, a gradual letting go. And I’m sure there was a long period of overlap where I had a foot in both camps: where I knew it was Mum and Dad who brought the presents, but continued to leave the empty pillow case at the foot of the bed, because it was so good to reach down with a foot at 6am and feel it heavy with chemistry sets and whatnot (yes, I was that sort of child). There’s a term for this, which I found out a few years later. It’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Father Christmas isn’t a lie. He’s a fiction. There’s a crucial difference. Parents who tell their children he exists aren’t deceiving them. There are simply telling them a story, a long, interactive story – one which will end someday, certainly, but then all stories do. And I believe stories are worth the sadness of the ending for the joy they bring while they last.

Terry Pratchett speaks to this in his Christmas-themed Discworld novel ‘Hogfather’. In the story, Death explains why belief in the Hogfather (a Claus analogue) is so important. ‘Human beings have to start out believing in the little lies, so you can learn to believe the big ones. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.’

Fiction flows in our veins. Without it, Pratchett suggests, we’d barely be human. We’re not computers; we don’t have to function according to the binary code of true/not true. We’re quite capable of seeing beauty in something that is manifestly not real, or of creating our own worlds when the real one lets us down. Fiction isn’t a false reality, nor is it reality’s poor relation. It’s a fundamental part of it – part of who we are. That’s why, this Christmas, my son will run to his bulging Christmas stocking wide-eyed in delight, and wonder who could possibly have drunk that sherry.

10 comments:

asakiyume said...

Father Christmas isn’t a lie. He’s a fiction. There’s a crucial difference. Parents who tell their children he exists aren’t deceiving them. There are simply telling them a story, a long, interactive story

This is the best way of putting this that I've ever seen--a long, interactive story. I love this explanation!

How people handle the transition from the story to the reality is really personal, I suspect, and varies with families and maybe even within families, depending on the child. In our family, we never really stressed that this was true, this was just a fun thing we did--laying out a snack, writing a letter... and then gradually, as the kids got older, the content of the letter was more joking, making it more clear that it was a parental creation. We never had to say there was no Santa Claus/Father Christmas, it just gradually became clear. And in my birth family, my parents continued to fill stockings for us into adulthood--but we also started filling stockings for our parents.

Good luck with your Christmas cake. I have a recipe from my English mother-in-law, and it takes months, too... I have all the ingredients, but it also takes all day to boil, so it needs a free day just to make!

bookwitch said...

In Sweden we know from the start that he isn't real, and we have just as much fun without being lied to, or having to agonise over lying to our children.

My children had to be gagged in order not to upset other people's children. Or maybe their parents.

Lucy Coats said...

As a child Father Christmas was part of the magic for me--and like you, Nick, I found out by a sort of osmosis that he wasn't real. I didn't blame my parents or feel angry--it was just a part of growing up. My kids are now teenagers and no longer believe either--they both asked whether he was real at varying ages, at which point I told them the truth. I have always reckoned that if they are old enough to ask, then they are old enough to deserve the respect of a truthful answer. We still have stockings now, though, and they will pass the legend on to their own children, I think. It is a story, a conspiracy--all those things--but for me, seeing the excitement and wide-eyed wonder of my own children's faces at the heavy, bumpy weight on the end of the bed was worth every minute of what some (like Prof Dawkins, my bete noir of the fairytale) may call deceit.

Lee said...

Not all big lies are wholesome, and some fictions can be called 'mass delusions'. We need to be careful, very careful, of over-romanticising storytelling.

Jon M said...

Never did me any harm...my kids 'believed' and I don't know when they stopped because they're in their teens.

I still get a sock full of goodies at the end of the bed...and I'm 45!

bookwitch said...

I still get a stocking, but I know where it comes from. And the presents are from Oxfam, and will most likely return there, too.

Nick Green said...

Lee said:
Not all big lies are wholesome, and some fictions can be called 'mass delusions'.

True... but I think the crucial thing is to know that fiction is fiction. If you really believe something when you are an adult, with power, then it is not a fiction. I was merely suggesting that children can occupy the privileged position of being allowed to believe in fictions wholeheartedly... for a short while.

Lee said...

'I was merely suggesting that children can occupy the privileged position of being allowed to believe in fictions wholeheartedly... for a short while.'

And I'd argue that it depends on which fictions.

Little Old Me said...

I am 48 and know father Christmas is real.

Suzy said...

My daughter just discovered the truth this weekend along with the fact that the tooth fairy is fiction as well! She is "gagged" as far as her younger brother is concerned ;0)

There were a few tears and then she chirped up with "well, can I eat the cookie and drink the milk instead of grandad this year mum........"?

Problem solved - my daughter is playing at being "santa" this year ;0)