Let’s start with a happy memory. I found the photograph recently, of me sitting on Santa’s knee. It was in a shop in Dundee. I’m dressed in school uniform which confirms that it was my first year at primary school. The socks were as rumpled as usual, the blazer sized to grow into about primary three. Looking at the photograph I can see a somewhat bemused look on my face. And I can remember the grin on my brother’s face as he stood out of picture, relieved that he hadn’t had to suffer the indignity of sitting on Santa’s knee – he was nearly eight after all, that’s too old for a boy to sit on a strange man’s knee isn’t it? Even if he is the purveyor of all the Christmas goodies. And he’d also escaped the indignity of the photograph.
The photograph seemed important to my mother. All important you might say. Which seemed strange to me even at the time. It was like she was trying to prove that Santa existed by getting a picture of me sitting on his knee.
I don’t remember which shop it was. But I do remember we went traipsing round all the shops in Dundee looking for ‘the best’ Santa. And that neither my mum, nor I saw the irony in that. My brother did. He was early into irony. He was going to prove to me that Santa didn’t exist. But for that year he let me be in my ignorance. He just smirked on the sidelines.
I was always a gullible child. I clearly remember going round more than four Santas before we came to the one who was going to get our picture. To be ‘the’ Santa. And I knew, all children do, that there was only ONE Santa Claus. However, I didn’t question the bizarre fact that we were doing the rounds looking for the ‘best’ one. I didn’t think they were all the same, in different locations, I didn’t question any of it. I suppose I may have still been so blinded by the power of someone to be able to deliver me my dreams ‘if I was good’ that I just bought into any old nonsense wholesale.
It’s lucky I’ve never had children. I wouldn’t have been able to do the Santa myth with them. Bah –humbug alert coming up. I’ve never been able to square the fact that we tell this lie to children and then spend the rest of the time teaching them not to tell lies. I’ve heard all the ends justify the means arguments and I’m afraid I’m still not convinced. Why would you tell a child that there’s this man with so much money and power and magic that if they write him a letter or shout up a chimney, he’s going to bring them what they want? It seems doomed to failure. And the pressure it puts on parents is immense.
Just to see the smile on their face on Christmas morning.
But why does it have to be Santa? Why can’t the parents own up to being the giver of gifts? Children, in my experience, are ungrateful about most of what their parents do for them, even at birthdays, but surely there’s nothing wrong in being honest. Why don’t they just explain: It’s a time of year when people give gifts to each other (then fill in with the appropriate religious story) and so we’ve got you this wonderful thing that you wanted to make you happy for a day.
Ah, but there’s the magic? In what way does the existence of Santa (yes, I know he’s derived from Saint Nicholas, but he was hijacked by Coca-cola long ago) coming down a chimney (even if you don’t have one) make any of this more magical?
It’s not about getting something for nothing, because you have to be good for the trade to hold good. Beyond that, it breaks all the rules about not taking things from strangers, which suggests that just because a man has a white beard, a red cape and a string of reindeer he’s not a danger stranger. That’s a pretty confusing concept for a child. There is good and bad in this world. You can trust Santa because he comes bearing gifts, eats the mince pie, drinks the sherry and feeds the carrots to his reindeer. But that nice lady in the post office who offered you sweets while you were getting bored in the queue. No. Don’t take sweets from her. There’s an army of adults out there just waiting to abduct you. All except Santa.
I suppose Santa is part of a fantasy which connects adults with their own happy childhood memories and so they want to perpetuate it. But what if you memories of childhood aren’t happy? What if you didn’t get a month off the pain for Christmas? What if Advent was one long, eternal trip towards domestic violence or feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness? What if it represents death, loss and devastation? What then? Why then as a parent you’re expected to put your own feelings aside and keep up the myth. Keep telling the kids that for this one day everything can be perfect. Prepare them for that other ‘perfect’ day – the wedding – the only day that tops Christmas for wanton, pointless extravagance. I’ve nothing against marriage – it’s the ‘big day’ wedding mentality that worries me.
A dog is not just for Christmas. A marriage is not just a wedding. Telling lies and calling them cultural myths doesn’t help make for well balanced people. It just makes life hard.
So there I am, in the photo, sitting on Santa’s knee. Asking him for something. And telling him I’ve been a good girl. Not sure whether I’m lying or not. Not really happy with the present he’s given me. Correction, with the present my mum has bought for me as part of the experience of visiting Santa in Dundee’s premier department store. A present from the pink pile because I’m a girl. A present, even though I can’t remember it now, I can be sure I didn’t even want. I didn’t do pink, even as a girl. There you go. Perhaps my inability to engage with Christmas shows some early sign of the complete renegade I later became. Or maybe it was the whole farce of Christmas and Santa that sowed the seeds within me.
It’s all a question of who to blame. Because though I still remember that the baby Jesus was born in a stable and came to save the world from sin by taking it all upon himself – thanks Jesus, that’s the best Christmas present ever, no? Yes, despite all that, I still can’t shift the feeling that the whole Christmas story is part of a guilt culture gone mad. And that’s me trying to be positive about it all!
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.