Praying to Santa


Saint NicholasDear Santa,

As one old fogey to another, greetings and good wishes and I hope the cold isn't getting to your arthritis.

Everything is ready at this end. The wrapping paper was bought in January and is last year's design, but they are too young to notice that. And the parcels are locked in the whiskey cupboard — they know that the only sin in this house is any attempt to investigate grandad's whiskey stock.

At any rate, you can count on my discretion and I am happy to act as your local representative for another year which is probably about as long as I can keep up the deceit.

I have to tell you that there are suspicions, muffled whisperings that probably originated, not from the seven-year-old and her friends but from one of the pagans at kindergarten. The parents are not enthusiastic about the subterfuge and when I remind their mother that she was ten before she gave up her profitable credulity, it is met with a watery laugh.

Nonetheless, this house is sound and although nationally the birth rate is down to 1.8, you are safe for a few more years yet.

But there are other heresies that threaten the continuation of your benign contribution to fellowship. The word commercialism is often used to describe them, but it is more serious than that: it is a reduction of the pageant of which you are one of the more prominent players, to a fable of no likelier veracity than Troy or Camelot.

Time was, as you know, when the world or that part of it we used to think of as Christian, was lit at this time of year by red window candles to guide a fleeing family, a time of carolling more than carousing, when we wished strangers happiness rather than merriment.

But they told us the lights were dangerous and they replaced them with blinking neon and they changed you from a benign giver into a rogue merchandiser.

In older times, you were as much part of what we celebrated as the crib and what it stood for. We invented you, Santa, and named you after a hirsute Russian bishop. For anyone who thought about it, you were a kind of parable; you helped us to believe that prayers could be answered, that there was a bounty that was not diminished by the number of clients.

So maybe you are only a fairy story, but fairy stories have an immortality that history cannot emulate. And the essence of these tales is that for the hero things work out well in the end. They tell us that living happily ever after can come from good deeds; and that is something we say at the end of our Sunday Creed without ever thinking too much about what we are saying.

Often in the fairy story, the prince comes in disguise, unrecognised and ragged and poor. And, indeed, that is the story of Christmas, the day when children wake with excitement to see whether you have been good to them. Later, they will go to church with their parents, perhaps their once-a-year visit. But never mind, they have come to their religion only after meeting you. They learn their religion by starting on Santa Claus.

By right of course, you should have departed the scene once Newton explained gravity and Columbus discovered America and we learned that we share 98.4 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. But you have hung on, you hoary old fraud, because as much as we need science and discovery, we need fable and myth and imagination too.

It would be quite easy to ban you from hoardings and greeting cards and to curtail your promotion of shopping centre trade. Indeed, as you may know, they are trying to do that in the place Columbus discovered because they realise that you have a kind of immortality that fits as uneasily with their philosophy as with their commerce.

But in our clever way, we have coupled you as part of the promise the Man made about 'being with us all days' and that is why I am still, in spite of the cost of living, happy to be your representative and depot manager. What I will do when they find me out, I'm not sure. Maybe I will admit to a lie but excuse it on the grounds that it was a cloak for a bigger truth.

They won't believe it, of course and will probably think that what I tell them about Gough Whitlam is equally fanciful.

While I'm on it, Santa, you wouldn't have another Gough stacked away somewhere, would you? 

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, Santa Claus, parable, commercialism



submit a comment

Existing comments

Frank - from someone whose DNA is 98.4% chimpanzee (and he knows it!) - thank you for sage words at this annual crazy-time :) We are so in need of myth & imagination - may your whiskey stocks remain forever uninvestigated.
Richard | 15 December 2010

A Christmas sermon?
Richard and Lew | 15 December 2010

this is brilliant love it
irena Mangone | 15 December 2010

Please let me make a correction. Saint Nicholas of Myra is not a Russian saint, though he is listed in the Russian Church Calendar and is Russia's Patron. Russia did not exist when Bishop Nicholas trod around Lycia in modern day Turkey, in the 4th century. Russia came later. The miracles and legends attributed to Nicholas are the source of our understanding of this loving father figure. He would have spoken Greek and thought of himself as a Roman, as they all did in the Eastern Empire. His cult got completely out of control, in fact some people would say his is about the most successful cult ever if you consider modern day Santa Claus as a cult. At the Reformation, when feast days were discouraged by the Reformers, the Protestant Dutch were so keen to hold onto Nicholas that they turned him into Sinterklass, where he still dresses precisely as your artist presents him. Red mitre, red vestments, just as he appears in much Orthodox iconography. The mitre went floppy and the cope turned into a red trenchcoat when the Dutch took him to America. Nicholas is found in all Church Calendars today (6th of December) and also enjoys place of pre-eminence on the main feast day of every secular, commercial and other Western non-church enterprise. You don’t need to know this to know that Santa Claus exists. He shows us how to give. He is about us giving to one another. Everyone knows that.
PHILIP HARVEY | 15 December 2010

It amazes me that so few register that, yes, Santa Claus grew out of the endeavours of the good Nicholaus so many years ago as a convenient symbol of the gratuitous gifting to others the christian world experiences as the 'gift' of Christmas. The symbol encourages giving to others without expectation of return. So where is a 'lie' in explaining to children who have reached the age of questioning that humans use symbols as a normal part of language.
Michelle Sydney | 15 December 2010

Santa Claus is the spirit of giving without any expectation of reward or return. My children looked forward to the reading of the "santa Claus' story just as they listened to a superb rendering of Dickens "a Christmas Carol" It was part of what we did. Now several ask that some or all of our Christmas gift money go to Oxfam or similar.
Elizabeth | 15 December 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up