Why I Believe in Santa Claus
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way. As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…..What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then, I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void. Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers; now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous gift of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
They say that all people of a certain age can remember where they were when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. I certainly can. I was standing at the top of a staircase in a college hall of residence, and I can still remember the mingled feelings of disbelief, sadness, and a rather guilty excitement that the news provoked in me. I can also recall where I was when I heard about Marilyn Monroe’s death, and Bobby Kennedy’s, and John Lennon’s, and a whole host of other significant moments, some of which have helped to define our history and our culture, and others of a more personal nature which are best kept to myself.
I can even remember where I was when I was told there was no Santa Claus. I was walking home from school with two girls – both called Joan, as it happens – who were two or three years older than I and so, to me, were fountains of worldly wisdom and experience. (The gulf that separates a seven-year old from a ten-year old is unimaginable at this remove.) ‘There’s no Father Christmas,’ one of the Joans said. ‘It’s just your mum and dad who buy the presents.’ I’d probably heard this before, but never from people so mature and so credible as these two, and it is quite possible that this particular declaration confirmed what I was beginning to suspect anyway, and corresponded with my own growing doubt about Santa’s ability to squeeze his ample frame down narrow chimney pots and to visit every child on earth in one night. I ran the rest of the way home and confronted my mother with my anxieties, but her brave attempt to restore my childish faith was to no avail. Innocence was over. I had entered the adult world. Precisely on cue, at the age of seven, I had reached what Catholics call ‘the age of reason’.
And I was to remain in this apparently reasonable frame of mind for well over twenty years, and when my nephews and nieces were born I was very uncomfortable being part of the whole Santa Claus hoax. This may have been the result of a growing disenchantment with Christmas itself which led me at times, to say (with some degree of affectation) along with that old curmudgeon George Bernard Shaw, ‘Like all intelligent people, I greatly dislike Christmas.’
What helped to change my point-of-view was the essay, Why I Believe in Santa Claus, by Shaw’s arch intellectual rival and close personal friend G.K. Chesterton. This made me realise that the Christmas madness, so deplored by the puritanical Shaw, was a psychologically necessary season of the human soul, and that Santa Claus, far from being a creation of Victorian sentimentality, as modern cynics would have us believe, is really a personification of a gracious and grateful attitude to life, which is as old as the human race, and which now, as much as ever, we need to celebrate and to promote.
Evidence of the necessity of Christmas can be found in its ubiquity. All cultures seem to celebrate it, and they celebrate it in similar ways, generally by reversing the customary routines and presuppositions of life. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest time of the year. The sun has barely risen before it sets again, and it spends the best part of the few daylight hours poised just above the horizon, causing maximum inconvenience to motorists. It is not difficult to imagine our ancestors, fearful lest it should disappear altogether, devising ceremonies of sympathetic magic to encourage the declining sun to reverse its direction: if we want the sun to break free from its routine, they reasoned, we must break free from our own. In the Roman Saturnalia, celebrated between 17th and 23rd December, this inversion of custom and routine was almost total: all the normal affairs of state and business were suspended, and the people gave themselves up to the mad pursuit of feasting and revelry. According to Sir James Frazer, this break from normal routine was nowhere more marked than in the relationship between slaves and masters: ‘The distinction between the free and the servile classes was temporarily abolished,’ he writes in The Golden Bough. ‘The slave might rail at his master, intoxicate himself like his betters, sit down at table with them, and not even a word of reproof would be administered to him for conduct which, at any other season, might have been punished with stripes, imprisonment, or death. Nay, more, masters actually changed places with their slaves and waited on them at table; and not till the serf had done eating and drinking was the board cleared and dinner set for his master’.
Turning everything on its head was a call to the sun to turn round. It was also a nostalgic glance backwards to a supposed Golden Age, the age of the god Saturn, where there were no wars, when the earth brought forth abundantly, when slavery and private property were unknown and all things were held in common.
The human race has always felt that things were better in the remote, mythical past – hence the story of the Garden of Eden in the Jewish scriptures – but what is experienced and celebrated as a memory is really an aspiration: this is how it could be, and for just a few days in the year we’ll live as if it were so.
Santa Claus is part of that aspiration. He represents an attitude to life that is the complete opposite of the one that we encounter in our customary dealings with the world. When we cease to believe in his ‘peculiarly fantastic goodwill’ (as Chesterton expressed it) we open ourselves up to far more insidious influences.
We enter the dreadful world of the quid pro quo. We learn that the normal human operating principle is: you buy me this and I’ll buy you that; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. And, what is even worse, we are soon introduced to the basic rules of commerce: there are no free lunches; nobody does anything for nothing; everyone has his price; trust is for fools; we are defined by what we own. When we dethrone the demigod Santa Claus, we elevate the oldest deity of all, Mammon, the omnipresent, omnipotent god of the market-place, whose priest is Scrooge, and who exhorts us all to take what we can where we can, and sees to it that a footballer can earn in one week what an average worker will earn in ten years, and what half the world’s population will never earn in a lifetime. Instead of receiving our talents and everything else that we have as unmerited gifts that we can share with our brothers and sisters, we treat them as commodities that we can exploit for our own personal advantage.
How different is Santa Claus, who gives us everything for nothing; all we have to do is to go to sleep or to pretend that we are asleep. Some years ago, the English comedian Eddie Izzard said that Christmas was great when he was a child. He got lots of fantastic stuff and all he had to do in return was to stick a few bits of tinsel of a piece of coloured paper and give it to his granny. There were no thoughts of getting what we deserved then, no preposterous claim like Cheryl Cole’s in the L’Oréal adverts that ‘I’m worth it!’
We really do have an unmerited belief in our own worth. We may not have as much as others, and we certainly would like more than we have, but we’ve worked for these things and so we deserve them. Willingness to work hard and to postpone gratification are, in middle-class circles, not only demonstrations of our prudence and common-sense, they are virtues. And we are virtuous! How God must love us! Our wealth is a reward for our virtue. We deserve what we have. We’ve even invented a category for those who don’t have so much but are virtuous too – ‘the deserving poor’ we call them, to distinguish them from the undeserving poor, the troublesome, noisy, uncooperative, non-virtuous poor.
But with God, we are told in the Gospels, there are no such distinctions. God makes his sun shine and his rain fall on all alike, without recourse to our hierarchical categories. This is what St. Paul was saying when he told us that we are saved by grace; ‘grace’ is just the theological term for ‘peculiarly fantastic goodwill’. Christianity teaches us that God creates and sustains us, not because of anything we’ve done or will do, but simply out of ‘peculiarly fantastic goodwill’. All we can ever do in return is the moral equivalent of sticking tinsel on bits of coloured paper.
Santa Claus is a wonderful symbol of the universe’s continuing benevolence towards us, a benevolence that we can neither exhaust nor deserve. Reacquainting ourselves with Santa Claus, and the topsy-turvy world he stands for is the only hope we have of reversing our current insanity and of establishing a just and equitable society with peace and peculiarly fantastic goodwill to all.
The two Joans don’t realise what they robbed me of on that fateful journey home from school: it took nearly half a century for me to realise it myself.