There’s a line of fidgety children waiting to see Santa but when one little girl gets to the front, she plants her feet firmly and refuses to move up and take her place.
“Sit on Santa’s lap” beams one of Santa’s scantily-clad elves.
The girl’s frown turns to a pout, then her bottom lip begins to quiver as the pressure mounts.
“You’ll miss your turn and have to go back to the end of the queue,” hisses her exasperated mother.
The little girl shakes her head slowly; the mother gives an exaggerated shrug, smiles apologetically at those around her and whisks the girl away.
The next child eagerly moves up, leaps on Santa’s lap, confirms that he’s been good all year and begins to list the presents he wants.
There are two clear Christmas messages we give to children. One is the Christian story of the nativity; the other is the secular story that Christmas is about family gatherings, trees and decorations, giving and receiving gifts, and other traditions.
But there are lots of fuzzy stories too that don’t really stand up to scrutiny…
… that you should sit on the lap of a strange, fat man in a silly costume and false beard without a second thought is one of them.
… that you should give into peer pressure, ignore your own judgment and do it just because it is Christmas, is another.
… and there’s the “If you’re a good boy/girl, you’ll get lots of presents” routine. What sort of blackmail is that? Who decides whether you’ve been good or not? And why does that naughty boy next door get more presents than anyone else?
Does that mean that we should be all very literal and boring about Christmas?
Not at all.
Our culture is built on stories, and children learn that from a very early age. Gifts can be delivered by a magical Father Christmas / Santa in the middle of the night without a child being forced to go against all you teach them about being wary of strangers.
Social and family bonds are built on shared stories and a shared agreement to pretend. So when we leave out a carrot for Santa and a glass of port for Rudolph and make comments about drink flying, children can participate in that shared pretense as well.
Santa bringing the gifts also takes away some problems. He gets the blame if he gets the wrong gift, or accidentally gives one child something a little better than another. He can bring gifts for Mum and Dad too. Or maybe Santa has had a hard year and has had to spread the goodies a little thinner this year.
Santa also takes away the requirement for reciprocity. It shows that you can give something without expecting thanks or something in return… and that you can receive without obligation. That perhaps is the “spirit of Christmas”.
What messages will you be giving your children this year?