Let’s play spot the villain.
On Monday, a group of children from Stalham Academy in Norfolk, UK, received an unexpected message in their Christmas sermon.
The Reverend Margaret McPhee, a trainee vicar, shared with them the simple truth that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
The real meaning of Christmas, she said, wasn’t Santa, Barbie and Xboxes. It was about the birth of the baby Jesus and the light that he brought to the world.
Parents were hyperbolically outraged. One posted on Facebook that McPhee had “put me off taking my children to church just in case something else gets said.”
This was the second such incident this month. A few weeks ago, when Father Dennis Higgins, a devoted, octogenarian Catholic priest, dared to — shock horror — tell children the truth at church, a local headmaster by the name of Brendan Hickey intervened.
“I want to reassure all Year Three pupils at St. Anne’s, and their parents, that I have personally spoken to Father Christmas and told him about what has happened,” he lied.
“He was sorry to hear about the confusion and has promised me that he will arrange for his elves to write to each of the children and reassure them that he will definitely be coming to visit them this Christmas.”
So who are the real villains here? Father Dennis, Rev. McPhee and their inconvenient truth-telling? Or Hickey and the disgruntled parents?
In my view, anybody in their right mind will side with the clergy.
Over recent decades, Santa worship has got out of hand. Rather than a light-hearted part of festive make-believe, it has become an elaborate con that many parents insinuate into their children’s lives.
A British mother, Laura Cole, made the headlines when she filmed her children crying after writing them a note — ostensibly from Santa — saying that they would not receive any “lovely presents” this year because they were on the big bully’s “naughty list.”
One of the children was eight years old. And he still fell for it.
This may be an extreme example, but it reflects the extent to which most children have been conned.
It has become standard practice for parents to pretend to be in contact with Santa by letter and telephone before Christmas.
These days, almost every parent in Britain puts out a glass of sherry “for Santa” and mince pies “for the reindeer” on Christmas eve, before consuming them as the children sleep, to create the illusion that Santa “has visited.”
A similar tradition flourishes in the United States and elsewhere.
A mother I know even told her son that a shooting star was Santa coming to deliver presents on his sleigh.
Another example of the depth of the deception came earlier this month, when a small girl called Natalie asked a Pentagon spokesman at a news conference if he was “tracking Santa.”
The answer, believe it or not, was yes: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) has a website claiming to monitor Santa’s progress using their advanced detection systems over Christmas.
That’s just a bit of fun, of course, and harmless in its way. But in the context of the Great Santa Deception, it takes on a different hue. Is it really right that children should believe that this stuff is, so to speak, gospel?
Somehow, parents have gone beyond the light-hearted Santa of decades past, and are intent on manipulating their children into actually believing that he exists. The energy and forethought that some people expend on Santa propaganda is astonishing.
And who is Santa, anyway? A blend of Turkish, Scandinavian, English and north European folklore — some of it Pagan and some of it Christian — popularized in the 1930s by a Coca-Cola advertising executive (with the unlikely name of Haddon Sundblom).
Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with the Santa ritual as a sort of game, allowing children to believe or disbelieve as they like. But messing with your kid’s reality — that stinks.
What’s wrong with it, I hear you ask? What possible harm could it do? Isn’t it all a bit of festive fun, that makes children’s Christmas more special?
Well, there are several problems with the cult of Santa.
Firstly, the man is a lie. Quite literally, a big, fat lie. And selling lies to your children isn’t a good thing, unless in exceptional circumstances. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it an abuse of trust, especially if you use it to frighten your kids into “being good.”
Secondly, propagating the Santa myth is profoundly cynical. At the heart of the con is the tacit belief that the world is not magical enough on its own, that it has to be sexed up with a Santa.
From this point of view, explaining the truth about how shooting stars are formed would be boring, and revealing that the presents come from mummy and daddy would be a downer; kids need to believe in a fantasy figure if they’re going to have a magical Christmas.
How jaded! Surely it is far more awe-inspiring, not to mention instructive, to explain that a shooting star is a speck of spacedust bursting into flame up as it plummets through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Surely it is more meaningful to understand that your parents have bought you presents with love, rather than outsourced the job to an elderly man with a team of elves and reindeer behind him.
Lastly, Santa has become the icon of materialism. Presents are a significant part of Christmas, but we can all agree that they should have more to do with togetherness and goodwill than with imaginary old men and booty.
Now, I’m not religious myself, but it doesn’t take a genius to make the correlation between the decline of organized religion in recent decades, and the rise of the Santa movement.
It seems like if you remove formalized faith from children’s lives, it must be replaced by an equally powerful belief in something else. God may be dead — but Santa lives.
If my kids were going to believe in anything, however, I’d much rather it was God than Santa.
At least there is a long, rich tradition behind God. At least He is synonymous with a complex moral and ethical code. At least He can offer some kind of genuine spiritual solace to those that believe in Him.
Unlike that villainous old red-belly.