How to spot the real Father Christmas

Father Christmas original historicalOther children had other questions: how does he get around everyone in just one night? how can he carry all those presents? Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The question I posed as a six year old was a simple one and was perhaps more pertinent: how could he get into our house when we didn’t have a chimney? The answer provided by my Dad was just as simple: he has a magic key. I was satisfied.

But more interestingly than that, I remain satisfied. That answer is more profound that at first glance. Firstly it completely and utterly answers the question. Secondly, although it appears to raise further questions (how does the key work? where did he get it? does it work for all houses?) it renders those questions redundant because their answers are located in the first answer: it is magic. The nature of magic is that it is magic and is therefore indivisible. It is a closed loop that logic cannot break into.

But here’s another question. Pondered by many, but whispered oh so quietly, as perhaps the undesired answer is already known. But let’s ask it openly and attempt to answer it.

Is Father Christmas real?

Real, unreal; these are modern words that polarise a greater truth that exists somewhere in between. But even truth is contextual. In our ever increasing literal world where things must be concrete, they must be pinpointed and we must be certain, do we throw out a closer more relevant truth of unknowing; they grey area of multiple truths all being correct at once? Like Heisenberg, who showed we can’t know both position and momentum, the more we are certain of one, the more the other slips away, so is it with myth.

Myth does not mean ‘untrue’ as dull literalist dogmatics would have you believe. It means ‘very true’ as if there is another dimension to truth, at right angles to all the facts, that makes a myth more true than fact.

In mathematics we use the square root of minus one, called the number i, as the imaginary impossible number. It can’t exist unless you imagine it. (Try it on any literal dogmatic unimaginative calculator if you need proof). And yet, if we include this imaginary number in various equations, it can help solve them. You can’t solve certain quantum mechanics problems without it. These problems are real world ones too, found in electrical engineering and computing. Without the imaginary number you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer.

So is the number i real or unreal? Real or unreal is the wrong question as i exists, even if it is imaginary and it has a real impact on the world. So even though it’s a dumb question, we have to say i is real.

So let’s return to the original question. Is Father Christmas real or unreal? Bear in mind that he is of similar substance to i. He has the same characteristics: he has a real impact on the world; he explains certain phenomena; he is needed to complete certain functions; he is the square root of minus one.

He is by the literal terminology, real.

So where can we find him?

Father Christmas original historicalAny old fat man in a red suit and fake beard is unlikely to be the real thing. A simple test that drawn upon history is this: is he wearing a hooded cloak? If not, and bears a bobble cap instead, he’s a Coke drinking imposter who’s probably in the payola of the neo-capitalist branding conspiracy to brainwash children. It was Haddon Sundblom, who drew the red-suited fat elf for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 to 1964. Sundblom said he was inspired by Swedish tomte, mythical little creatures with red caps and long white beards but his images owe a lot more to Thomas Nast’s 1863 drawing.

The real Father Christmas may not always be dressed in red (sometimes blue, sometimes green) and may have a holly wreath on his head if his hood is not up.

It was the New York Gazette which, in 1773, gave him to joke moniker of St. A Claus (based on the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ which became ‘Santa Claus’) a name which even Clement Moore rejected in his 1821 poem, sticking with St. Nicholas, the name of the 3rd century bishop who gave presents to the destitute. It was Moore who popularised reindeer as the preferred mode of transport. Prior to that, Father Christmas would more likely arrive on horseback.

But his origins are more mysterious and ancient. Originally he was the god Saturn, whose festival, Saturania was celebrated on December 23rd in the Greco-Roman world from pre-history to the arrival of Christmas in the fourth century AD. Saturn, now a fallen god, bowed to the greater authority of Jesus and swore to no longer demand child sacrifice. It is an irony that it was originally the children who were gifts for him rather than him bringing gifts to them.

In his new fallen role and new allegiance, Saturn even turned up at the nativity as one of the ‘wise men’ from the East, bearing gifts for the infant Saviour. Thus the pagan festival and the Christian one unite.

So be careful if you stay up late on the night of the 24th, you may just catch a glimpse of an anthropomorphism of one of the few ancient primal forces still left in the world.

Oh, and the answers to those other questions? If you really don’t want to know, look away now.

How can he carry all those presents? He carries only what is needed for each home with each trip.

Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The North Pole is a literal version of the farthest place we can think of. Nobody ever said what it was the North Pole of…

How does he get around everyone in just one night? He does them all simultaneously. Since the number i can be all it needs to be at once, so can he. It’s also easy that he only needs to be where an imaginator resides and can easily be personified by them, they become him and do his work for him, as him.

Well, you did ask.

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The truth is not out there

I’ve always loved paradoxes and alternative realities.

They are very useful things to be able to embrace if you’re a parent or work with young children. Children operate in a constantly changing, often incoherent and sometimes contradictory reality. As adults we often see our job as to ‘straighten them out’ by getting them to understand ‘the real world’ and to ‘get’ the ‘truth’.

I’ve put all those worlds in inverted commas because I don’t believe in any of them.

(But that’s just me. It is of course possible to prove or disprove a belief in anything you like.)

So what is this ‘truth’ that we are supposed to be weaning them onto?

Here’s an example. Do you believe in Father Christmas? Most dull adults will say ‘no of course not’. Most of the people I hang around with will say, ‘yes’ because they’re a facetious bunch. But the more we think about it, the more that opinion is correct.

Let’s look at the facts: children have a strong image of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus being. There are pictures, films and songs of him. He turns up at school and/or in shops. They write letters to him. There is a mythos surrounding his story, paraphernalia and methods. But most of all: on Christmas morning, presents turn up, just as they have been promised.

This all means that Father Christmas is real. He exists. You can argue with me if you want to and say that it’s daddy who get’s dressed up and/or waits until their asleep. But that just proves my point. The problem with truth is that so many people want to be so blumin’ literal with it. If you want to take it further there are other strands to the mythology of the concept of Father Christmas that are ‘true’ and ‘real’, some positive, some perhaps not so: wishful thinking, positive thinking, hope, greed, consumerism, trust, joy. Those feelings are real.

So to those people who say that encouraging a believe in Father Christmas is ‘lying’ – you’re not only miserable joy snatchers you’re also categorically wrong, according go my evidence and my beliefs.

I’ve heard is said that some people think it’s bad form to let children believe in things that they think ‘aren’t true’. (The list usually includes Father Christmas, faeries and God amongst other things). They think we should tell our children ‘the truth’.

So where do I begin in this quest? And where do I end? Do I tell them about violent pornography and pedophilia? Do I give them the full truth and details of mass murder, torture and cruelty? Do I tell them the details of the Holocaust? Do I explain the pain of dying from cancer? That’s the truth isn’t it? Of course I don’t, and in the moment that I censor any of that ‘truth’, I’m presenting a modified and incomplete vision of the world and  its reality to my children. (And in my opinion, quite rightly so.)

Our children recently watched the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. They loved it and began acting out the stories and characters in imaginative play. As a Beatle fan, I have the Beatles records and their other films in the house. Over the past few weeks we’ve also watched A Hard Days Night and Help!

Mabel said, “I wish the Beatles lived in Oxford so that they could come to our house and sing for us”. I wish that too, but I know it’s not possible. I know that the events depicted in those films took place 46 to 48 years ago. I know that Paul is nearly 70 and Ringo is 71. I know that George died of cancer ten years ago and that John was murdered outside his home thirty-one years ago. So do I tell this ‘truth’ to my children, running around the house singing A Ticket to Ride and putting on Liverpool accents and saying “I’ve got a hole in my pocket”?

The answer is of course no. In the same was that I won’t be saying that Mickey Mouse or Scooby Doo is dead. The Beatles aren’t real, not in the sense that our family and friends are real. But in a sense that Thomas the Tank Engine or Tinkerbel is real, then yes they are very much alive. It’s only us boring literal adults, locked into linear time that say they no longer exist.

By the time they realise that Paul McCartney doesn’t now look the same as he did when he was 21 and is as old as their granddad it won’t matter because their understanding of the world will by default have ungraded their own mythologies as their reality changes as they grow.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know I’m a big fan of the television programme Doctor Who. My son is 6 but he’s not watching it because I’m withholding it from him. Why? because he’s what they patronisingly call a ‘sensitive child’. He has no concept of death, and frankly he doesn’t need to have one. Not yet. He will. That will come. But there’s no rush, why should there be? Doctor Who deals with death. It deals with nightmarish monsters that currently have no place in his straightforward problem solving world of Thomas the Tank Engine. So there I am again, creating and maintaining a deliberate different reality to yours (and mine).

My children believe in faeries. I didn’t encourage that belief, but neither have a dissuaded it. The reason is that just like Father Christmas, faeries are real.

My daughter may visualise them as flittering winged creatures, akin to angels, and princesses (and cats, in some surreal way. She’s 4). That’s her reality and who am I to stomp all over it with my Gortex boots.

After all, she’s probably right. Faeries are nature sprites. The small fluttery ones help the flowers bloom. The gnome-like ones work on decomposition and help fungus breakdown rotting matter. What if faeries are our anthropomorphism of these natural processes? That makes them real. I’d go further and suggest that faeries are live, actual beings that do indeed work with flora and vegetation, blossom and decay. Today we tend to call them the more uninspiring names such as butterflies, bees and woodlice. Perhaps faeries are the anthropomorphism of insects? When some people look at them they may see just an insect. Their boring lack of imagination sees a creepy-crawly. I see the miraculous circle of life. If I ingested enough ergot alkaloids I’d probably see pixie faces too, just like our ancestors did.

I’ve got grown up friends who have seen ghosts, spoken to them (and got replies). The fact that I haven’t doesn’t make them wrong either. It doesn’t make their experience less valid. I haven’t seen one and I know nothing about such things. My experience proves nothing about the subject.

The esteemed professor Dawkins and his cohort would have us not believe in God. His non-belief is his own rightly held opinion although he can’t have any evidence for it, only lack of it as you can’t prove a negative. But his assertion that such a belief is like believing in an invisible unicorn or a chocolate teapot in orbit around Mars or a spaghetti monster is not the same thing and his weakest argument. No-one believe in those things because there’s no point in believing in those things. There’s a great point to believing in a creator God or a Father God and many people derive great joy and meaning from their beliefs which is why they have them and keep them. (If someone has a belief that is a threat to others then we may well have to step in to challenge their reality but they’re not the people Dawkins et al go after, preferring instead softer targets, which is a shame.)

If you ever watched the 1990s television series about the unknown, The X Files, then you will be familiar with the phrase ‘the truth is out there’. I think that the truth is NOT out there at all. It’s in here, that is I have my version and you have your version.

Another more useful phrase from that programme was on a poster behind Agent Mulder’s desk. It said, ‘I want to believe’. I like it because it has a positive flexibility within it. I may not be able to believe, but I’ll seek out the evidence accordingly, rather than a default setting of disbelief which is as inflexible as any other dogma.

To those who still maintain that so-called supernatural beings aren’t real and don’t exist: our society has some fashionable concepts that are, by all modern definitions, ‘not real’ and yet we all believe unquestioningly in them. Money being a good example. We all believe in things that very few of us really understand (such as Electromagnetism).

In mathematics there are calculations that cannot be done unless you invoke what it called the ‘imaginary number’, i. It’s determined as the square root of -1, which is impossible (and therefore imaginary). And yet we need it to solve the equations that make our modern world possible as it’s needed for signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, quantum mechanics, cartography and vibration analysis. Some mathematicians describe i as not ‘imaginary’ but ‘pure real’.

We need the imaginary in our lives which it is just as relevant and therefore just as real as anything we can actually see and touch, which, when you come to think of it, is such a tiny proportion of our so-called reality don’t you think?

Perhaps we live mainly in a ‘pure real’ world…

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