Thomas Nast added the North Pole and the elves’ workshop to Father Christmas lore
Boxing Day 2015, Blairgowrie.
This morning we were in Grandad’s bathroom doing nappy change. ‘Mummy,’ says Leo, ‘Why did you pack a stocking?’ ‘So you could put it out and Father Christmas could put presents in.’ ‘I don’t want presents! I don’t want Father Christmas to give me presents!’ The tears rolled over the bright red cheeks. He had been okay about it yesterday, but now he was blotchy and shaking.
It’s true that his bah-humbug mum had filled his stocking entirely with oddments purchased at closing time on Christmas Eve in the charity shops of Blairgowrie (Raspberry Capital of Scotland). But I don’t think it was just about the quality of the gifts. Leo had been interested enough in the plastic fish holding an anchor in its fins and the miniature elephant asleep in a box. Knowing my son, I think it was about self-determination: I hadn’t properly asked him if he wanted to hang up a stocking, we had just done it, and he’d gone along with it without knowing what it was about. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said now. ‘You don’t want presents from Father Christmas, I’m sorry.’
And I know the feeling. There’s a heck of a lot of Christmas that I don’t want and did anybody ask me? Did anyone ask me if I wanted my head buzzing with Frank Sinatra’s tinkety-tonk from end Nov to 24th Dec everywhere I go? Did anyone ask me if I wanted to intone ‘While shepherds watched…’ or eat brussels sprouts? Did anyone ask me if I wanted that egg cup, that biography, that scarf? Did anyone ask me? And there’s my honourable Scrooge Within who doesn’t enjoy blowing a month’s child tax credit in a week…
I miss my Dad. He brought a rich, velvety gloom to every part of Christmas, sombre tones between the tinsel. The Christmas cards would start to arrive: ‘Oh God! They had us to dinner five years ago and we still haven’t had them back. It’s awful!’ As the card season wore on, ‘We haven’t sent them one.’ Sigh. ‘Too late now!’
He would fry his nerves doing all his shopping on Christmas Eve and then deliberately exhaust himself by not starting present wrapping till gone ten o’clock. By that time we would have had the family row, the only part of Christmas he joined in with a passion. On Christmas Day, if he could find no other excuse for misery, Dad would develop toothache, at its worst the year we stayed with a friend in the country and there were no painkillers for miles.
Sometimes when you lose someone you love you would be willing to have any piece of them back. If the only Dad I got was the toothache spectre in the corner, I would opt for that. But it’s not just that I want him back, I also need that uninhibited party-pooper. By the time the 27th came, and we were preparing for yet another set of family friends or lonely hearts to eat turkey risotto or cold ham, my Dad would burst out: ‘I would like some peace!’
In this time when foreign policy is not going my way I find myself wondering if there could be some link between my Dad’s ‘peace’ and the pipe dream of world peace. What if we just did less? What if we gave up that positive idea that ‘there is always a solution’. What if we chose to endure adversity with the same bitter gloom that my Dad used for Christmas? What if that turned out to be the less harmful option?
Here in Blairgowrie, like everywhere, we’ve had the Strictly Christmas Special, the World at War, an Andre Rieu concert and a black and white Christmas Carol. Today, St Stephen’s Day, when we could be meditating on the poor saint getting smashed to death by stoning, we have done the Perth panto, with puns, dames and local lyrics to well-known numbers. It’s like we’re trying desperately to distract ourselves from some unpleasant truth. What is it? Winter? The sure knowledge that we will have flu in February (with and without the jab)? Or war? – that as we sit at our family tables our taxes are paying to blow other similar families to bits, physically and psychologically? But the chin-up grinning goes back a lot further even than this ‘War on Terror’ that we’ve been befuddled into staying in for fifteen years.
My theory is that the Christmas story is even scarier than the Crucifixion. Maybe we can just about get our head around someone, finding himself in a hairy situation, threatened with death, deciding to Tell the Truth, let go of control and take what comes. Sometimes people do have these moments of courage. But to be a god, who could stay up on a cloud twiddling a harp, and deliberately choose to get down here – knowing how it’s likely to end – that is too scary. And not believing in God doesn’t really protect from the story. The point is that, if there were a god, we think he might do that.
We think he might do that – suggests there’s a part of us that’s choosing to be here – not just the one in Denial, and the Lizard Brain with its survival reflexes, some other bit that actually chooses this.
Why on earth?