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.