Why Christ­mas isn’t just for the kids

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints - John Roughan

Afew weeks ago my grand­son aged 4 ex­cit­edly told his sis­ter, 7, when she came home from school, “Guess what? I saw Santa Claus to­day at Al­bany, the real one.”

“No, it can’t have been the real one,” she told him, “be­cause it’s not De­cem­ber yet.”

Well it’s De­cem­ber now and pretty soon a 7-year-old is go­ing to be hear­ing talk at school that causes her to ask the ques­tion. I just hope I’m not the one she asks. This is turn­ing out to be quite a dif­fi­cult Christ­mas for the merry old fel­low.

First he was nearly sacked from Auck­land’s Christ­mas pa­rade for say­ing his was not a job for women. Then his im­age was so se­verely in­di­genised in the Nel­son pa­rade that the chil­dren didn’t recog­nise him. How silly was that?

Chil­dren un­der­stand the con­cept of mythol­ogy much bet­ter than adults do. My mother reck­oned I was very young when we came home from the In­ver­cargill shops one day and I asked her why the Santa in H and J Smith was dif­fer­ent from the one in McKen­zie’s. At that point she de­cided the game was up, though I don’t re­mem­ber. I do dimly re­mem­ber wrestling with the prac­ti­cal im­prob­a­bil­ity of Santa’s one night world tour. But once I knew the truth it didn’t ruin the story, it never does.

I love early De­cem­ber when the Christ­mas spirit is fresh, the car­ols and the bunting are in the shops and ev­ery­one holds their Christ­mas party early be­cause they think ev­ery­one else is hav­ing their party closer to Christ­mas. The silli­ness around Santa this sea­son is just a symp­tom of the fact that adults take him more se­ri­ously than chil­dren do.

Neville Baker, hap­pily anony­mous as Santa in Auck­land’s pa­rade for the past five years, has a busi­ness sup­ply­ing San­tas for all oc­ca­sions and he was go­ing to be fired be­cause he an­swered a re­porter’s ques­tion a lit­tle too crudely for the com­fort of the chair­man of the Chil­dren’s Christ­mas Pa­rade Trust, Michael Bar­nett.

It was not so much that he would not hire women for the role as the way he said it, Bar­nett ex­plained. “We found his com­ments [in­ap­pro­pri­ate] and un­nec­es­sary,” he said. Santa, like ev­ery­one else, is sup­posed to talk in the opaque lan­guage of crafted “com­mu­ni­ca­tions” these days, us­ing words like in­ap­pro­pri­ate, not be­cause chil­dren may be lis­ten­ing but be­cause adults might be of­fended.

As for the farce in Nel­son, that was purely for adult con­sump­tion. They must have known kids would be dis­ap­pointed but it was more clearly im­por­tant to the or­gan­is­ers to im­press adults with their cre­ative, con­tem­po­rary cul­tural di­ver­sity.

The ac­tual adult re­sponse to both is­sues has been re­fresh­ing. Even the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion sided with Auck­land’s Santa, sug­gest­ing this is one role that can be im­mune to equal em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. And I have heard of no se­ri­ous de­fence of the ap­pari­tion in the Nel­son pa­rade apart from on Ra­dio NZ. The whole thing looked like the sort of wet Pakeha so­lic­i­tude that must of­ten make Ma¯ori cringe.

But we are all guilty of us­ing Santa for adult grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Why else do we per­pe­trate this de­cep­tion of chil­dren? We tell them plenty of other sto­ries that are not true and we don’t pre­tend they are. The sto­ries we read to them at bed­time or that they en­joy on screens. They love them, think about them and want to hear or watch those sto­ries again and again. They would en­joy Santa Claus — and in­deed the Chris­tian story of Christ­mas — just as much if we did not pre­tend it was true. So why do we do it?

Is it that we en­joy the il­lu­sion more than chil­dren do? We love telling each other what the kids say about Santa. We find their in­no­cent credulity de­light­ful and our con­spir­a­cies to de­ceive them a lit­tle naughty.

Is it that we need lit­tle ones to be­lieve in Santa more than they need to be­lieve it? All the beauty of the sea­son, the San­tas in the stores, the mu­sic, tin­sel, rein­deer, red bon­nets, holly and ivy are in­vested with their magic by the fact that lit­tle chil­dren be­lieve in it.

That en­ables us to see it through their eyes. Then at some point they re­alise they are not al­ways go­ing to be told the truth, and maybe they also re­alise de­cep­tions can be wellinten­tioned. I sup­pose those are truths ev­ery­one needs to learn. But myths have a power truth can­not man­age. They pro­mote qual­i­ties like good­ness, kind­ness, brav­ery and com­mit­ment with­out his­tory’s con­tention.

Mean­while, my grand­daugh­ter has writ­ten a let­ter to Santa telling him what she wants for Christ­mas and she won’t tell her mother what it is. She knows some­thing’s up.

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