Tim Lott: Santa Claus - the new superhero of the dysfunctional family Christmas

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The Independent Online

Little, it often strikes me, is known about the real Santa. No one has ever confirmed a sighting; no interviews have been secured and no authentic photographs exist.

However, circumstantial evidence leads me to believe that Santa is almost certainly a single father. No one has ever seen Mrs Claus, or their children, the little Santas. (They must exist - no one would give the job of Santa to a bachelor, or someone with sterility problems.) Furthermore he works until dawn on Christmas Eve, meaning that he must hardly be able to function on Christmas Day. Surely, then, like a huge number of people living in extended families, he celebrates on Boxing Day - if Mrs S gives him the chance to celebrate at all.

This, no doubt, is what is behind the march of the single faux Santas who protested last week against the law on contact arrangements between them and their children. Santa is a hero because he is one of them: a single parent struggling to maintain contact with the little Santas in the face of vengeful exclusion by the ex-wife.

That's what Fathers for Justice, the single-parent pressure group behind the march, would doubtless have us believe, anyway - that, given family law as it stands, many mothers deny paternal access to children over Christmas. Statistics are unreliable, if not unavailable in this instance, but the proposition rings true. Visit any stepfamilies website, for instance, and read the tales of woe concerning paternal exclusion therein. The law makes it possible (kids are, in 90 per cent of divorce cases involving children, given over to the primary care of the mother), and, since it is possible, it makes it a tempting time for old scores to be settled. I don't doubt that men would be just as bad, given the chance. But as it is, women hold the reins in so-called extended families, and some will inevitably, when the occasion demands, convert them into scourges.

This, I should hasten to say, has never happened to me. Although I am divorced, with three daughters (two of them from my marriage), I have always had fairly trouble-free Christmases as far as the relationship with my ex-wife is concerned. One year she has our daughters; the next I have them. It's a simple solution, and thus far has worked passably well.

But it's one solution among many. I am in awe, for instance - either of the stupidity or the courage or the maturity - of separated and/or divorced spouses who manage to still celebrate Christmas together, sometimes with all the step-parents and stepchildren as well. Tom Cruise, who is spending Christmas with Nicole Kidman and their kids, is one of this breed. (Last I read, Penélope Cruz had pulled out of the happy gathering.) It's not a solution I would favour - partly because it might give children false hope of a reconciliation, but mainly because I doubt that I would come out of it without some sort of a criminal record - but full marks to those that can pull it off.

Others - like no doubt, Santa himself - do a second Christmas on Boxing Day. Still others - as the faux Santas complain - get written out of the equation altogether. Whichever way you look at it, it's a bloody business, and the potential for hurt is immense.

All the same, for many it works - at least as well as for a "nuclear family" Christmas. Let's not forget that all Christmases are strewn with pitfalls. Many nuclear family Christmases actually lead to separation. (There is a 40 per cent increase in applications for divorce after Christmas.) The season of mistletoe and holly is no rose garden for anyone in any situation.

Furthermore there are a considerable number of benefits for the children of extended families themselves, who, obviously, get twice as many presents, double the quantity of Polish chocolate tree decorations and an enormous amount of indulgence born of guilt.

If Santa is a single parent, then he must be under a great deal of stress. (That white hair and beard didn't come out of nowhere - the most recent estimates from department stores suggest he's only in his mid-30s.) Yet it cannot be denied there are compensations for adults and children alike in the extended family Christmas. With only one parent in the house, for instance - and this applies to the married as well as the divorced - the possibility of argument is halved (if my algebra serves me correctly).

Certainly, if Mrs Santa excludes him, then I could forgive St Nick for arranging for the elves to slip something noxious and embarrassing in her cracker just out of good old spite. However, in most cases, Christmas has not died for the extended family. It's simply a different shape, and with new rules. And the outcome is the same: too much food, arguments, ill-conceived presents and a superfluity of sentiment and goo. Single Santa or no, there's no escape. Not until 27 December, anyway.