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The neutral stranger who is Father Christmas

Faith and Reason
How far should parents protect their children from reality? Paul Handley of the Church Times argues that one particular myth is benign and harmless.

Christmas is an annoying time if you're a member of the clergy. Eleventh Sunday after Trinity? Nothing. Everybody's on holiday and nobody believes a thing. But the week before Christmas and the punters will swallow anything. That love and peace will overwhelm the world. That Cousin Jane would actually like a copy of "All I have To Do Is Dream" by Cliff Richard. That a fat man in red will come down the non-existent chimney of a centrally heated flat and stuff Power Rangers into oversized socks.

To have one congregation of people like these is pretty bad. But to have five, like the Rev Dick Haigh, Rector of Brough with Stainmore, Musgrave, Warcop and Bleatarn (though Stainmore isn't having a Christmas Day service, the rector traditionally preaches in the local Methodist chapel), is enough to push you over the edge. No wonder, then, that he had a bit of a rant in his parish magazine: "This month, millions of small children will be encouraged to believe in a falsehood - the reality of Father Christmas. Also this month, millions slightly older will come to realise that belief in Father Christmas is not to be taken literally and that they have been duped . . . I do not believe it can be right to teach children something . . . they will later have to unlearn."

You can see Mr Haigh's point. It is hard enough trying to get people to take in some of the seriously held beliefs, like a virgin birth and rising from the dead, without their playing at plausibility, inventing new beliefs of their own. It might be OK ifthey were doing it for themselves; but inventing things for children to believe in is really a bit dodgy.

Mr Haigh is supported by a recent book, Finding and Following: talking with children about God, by Helen Oppenheimer (SCM, £9.95). "The new conviction that children have the right to happiness is superimposed on the old conviction that children must depend on their elders. The upshot is the belief that the elders can and should filter the facts which children are told, and even the experiences which they are allowed to have, through a mesh of suitability." Having concluded that the Earth is a nasty, damaging place, we want to shield our children from as much of it as possible, creating myths for them about a world filled with happy, loving, generous people and about ourselves as the prime examples of this. Father Christmas is a minor, supremely unimportant element in this.

But children, especially infants, are impossible to fool. In their own needs they have a precise measure of just how happy, loving and generous their parents are being. "Enough for me or not enough for me?" And when most of them realise that the answer is frequently "not enough for me", they enter the world of myth too. It is essential for a child to be able to rely on at least one parent - to keep them alive for one thing - and so it finds a way of ignoring those worrying parental lapses, just as the parent looks for a way to hide them.

The world of childhood is therefore a world of myth, a conspiracy between more-or-less consenting adults and children. It is only as the child grows up and becomes aware of its own independence, its own ability to keep itself alive, that the myths about the perfection of its parents can be laughed off. This process is probably helped by a few years of thinking that the heap of presents at the end of the bed came from a neutral stranger and not an impossibly wonderful mummy or daddy.

The point about beliefs is that they hold the key to power. If religion were based on fact and knowledge, then God help us. But beliefs cannot, ultimately, be imposed. They are the force for democracy in religion, and in the family.

Children learn to play with their beliefs early on. So I shall hide this newspaper from my children. Sometime during the summer (round about the 11th Sunday after Trinity, if I remember right), my nine-year-old son announced from the back of the car thathe didn't think Father Christmas existed.

"Oh really?" I replied. "Who do you think brings the presents then?" (This floored him, since he knows by this time that his father is a stingy sod.)

"Er, we'll talk about this later, Daddy," he answered, partly out of genuine concern for his seven-year-old sister, who was spluttering indignantly next to him, partly because the cash tills were suddenly chinking in his ear. No Father Christmas, no presents, maybe.

Respect for the simpler beliefs of others; an eye for the main chance. Father Christmas will be bringing him a dog collar next week.