Osanta bin Claus, by DBC Pierre

For weeks we've been exhorting you to spend, spend, spend, but now that the presents have (with any luck) been bought and the preparations are complete, it's time to ponder the deeper meaning of Christmas. We asked our favourite writers to rant, reflect or reminisce on a festive theme. As Ronald Hutton explains, the last thing you should feel at this time of year is guilty, so sit down with a mince pie and enjoy
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The Independent Culture

Time to prepare for another dark page in the catalogue of British security failures one against which there aren't armoured vehicles enough in the world to send to Gatwick.

An elderly and obese Caucasian (IC1) male remains at large, credited with going equipped to enter, and actually entering, domestic premises in hours of darkness for the purpose of influencing minors. Such is the man's hold over his vulnerable prey that none break their silence. The suspect is a non-resident foreign national of ambiguous provenance who ignores Britain's legal ports of entry; one who, given his age and body mass, could easily fall ill in this country, placing an overwhelming burden on our beleaguered health services. If this weren't perilous enough, the suspect is known to have had contact with undocumented livestock prior to entering Britain; indeed, he is an importer into Britain of alien livestock, in flagrant breach of quarantine laws, a patent threat to an already decimated farming industry.

This ostensibly self-employed manufacturer exploits an unpaid special needs workforce. He imports vast numbers of children's durables with small parts potentially hazardous to infants, if not subject to recall due to improper manufacture, as well as controversial entertainment devices now widely associated with aggressive pathologies, rampant obesity, sloth and attention deficit among an entire generation of young Britons.

Behavioural profiling points to a substance abuser, as theft and disposal of foodstuffs frequently feature at the scenes of his crimes. His bodyweight seems to bear this out. And he is further in commission of numerous and grave breaches under ICAO aviation rules, as well as repeated acts of cruelty to animals, most notably in forcing numbers of Eurasian reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, to circumnavigate the globe by air in a single night, without lights, safety or navigation equipment, or accepted aeronautical registration, and with scant regard for members of the public beneath his flight path.

The profile is frightening. Yet despite many sightings over the years not much is really known about this serial offender; facial hair forms part of the profile, though any defensive psychologies or religious attachments behind this remain obscure. He is rumoured to have a partner by marriage, though no confirmation has ever graced the public domain, neither any suggestion the union has born progenital fruits.

However, although in a very real sense 2.5 billion people can't be wrong, I really wonder about this Nordic Serial Trespasser. The world has a circumference of over 21,000 nautical miles. This suggests to me that claims he offends against every victim on the same night are exaggerated. And while, consistent with others of his type, his abuse masquerades as generosity, still a majority of his target victims supposedly numbering every child in the world are without a toy, his primary tool and chilling calling card.

Such are the discrepancies that I wonder if the Nordic Serial Delinquent is a cynical myth issued to cause dismay and, thereby, shopping, in its relief. The signs that this is true are compelling: his character is defined, but not well defined. He is given a stereotype so we can recognise him. He doesn't age, and seems to reproduce himself in greater multitudes each year. His occurrence is widely foretold in the media; he gives occasional addresses from an implausible location, and never fails to occur when predicted. A majority of the population undergoes significant inconvenience preparing for his arrival.

The country's airports cease to function.

He laughs at us, and is never caught.

He has a beard.

And I ask: has al-Qa'ida been designed to replace him?

The novel I'm currently working on has made me rethink the role of mythology in our culture; and by mythology I refer not only to the traditional, and to spin, but to our daily filling of the gap between existential chaos and conceptual order. It is well accepted that humans could not deal with a purely existential world; the utter lack of actual rights, virtues, and predictability would drive us insane. So above this chaos we build a buffer of consistencies, which are foresights, plans, goals, aspirations, and codes a pathway above the brink, which sees us over the spikes and brutalities of existential disorder. Where Santa comes into this, is that I wondered if he really did originate as a hopeful embodiment of human kindness; or if he was our first taste of realpolitik, of institutionalised deceit, our handling of which would define future comfort and success in the social crucible.

Because, essentially, the Santa story is an introduction to the idea that fabrications are acceptable under certain circumstances.

When I was a child, the question of Santa's credibility ranked as the greatest background issue of Christmas. Many questions arose from it. If our parents abetted the myth, could we ever trust them, or anyone else, again? Was every transaction to be examined in light of its effect, and not its stated form? Was this first lesson a gift for the unfolding self, a down-payment on things to come?

The transaction is: we will tell you lies, but give you gifts. Much as: there are weapons of mass destruction, but house prices are up.

I remember well that, depending how traditionally brought up you were, the Santa thing was a subconscious plague from the earliest age. The three common positions you could take on Santa were: you believe it, but then endure stages of suspicion and dismay, with attendant derision from schoolmates until the penny drops. Or you come from enlightened parents who tell you early that they are agents of an ancient and kindly ritual. Or you simply keep your mouth shut as long as the gifts happen.

Parents themselves may have gone through conceptual twists and turns over the myth and its telling, may have remembered or foreseen the time when whispers escaped at school. Children suddenly shocked, disheartened, defiant, embarrassed, or smug, in watching the curtains open on a myth.

Thus the Nordic Serial Offender just sits in our manor, magical in a way, even if every detail of his operation is now not only fanciful, but unlawful according to the 46,000 laws, rules, covenants, and statutes imposed on we dumb animals since his debut. And in another sense, he sits darkened in both human camps of operation; the ordered ideal, and the harsh existential. In the world of ideals, it would be splendid if a fat Laplander had the resources and felt disposed to bring everyone a present; or, at least, that such presents arose from a spontaneous eruption of goodwill, instead of the stress-alloy of guilt and debt enforced by culture. On an existential level, at its worst, Santa is just broken trust. A baroque conceptual humiliation perpetrated on the young.

Personally, I take the position that Santa is a perfect construct; whether an agent of the consumer markets, or an ambassador of virtue, he imparts a sense to children that they had better get used to the mythology of human order. Magic, we call it somewhere to escape to, a place to collect the unexplained and contradictory until a pattern appears that will make it conform.

And beneath this, the real message is delivered: all our bargaining in life is done above the reality of existence, in imagination alone.

And that being as it is, we have choices.

So I'll keep Santa.

But al-Qa'ida's all yours.

DBC Pierre won the 2003 Man Booker prize with his novel 'Vernon God Little' (Faber)

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