That strange fellow in your chimney: He's an old-fashioned fantasy, but we keep inviting him back. Margaret Visser reflects on a benevolent symbol . . . of what?

THE MODERN version of him first took shape in New York City in 1822. He was very small indeed at that date, an elf in fact, who fitted with ease into the narrowest chimney stack. He flew through the air in a sleigh full of toys, drawn by reindeer who could land on rooftops. His clothes, which covered him from head to foot in fur, were understandably begrimed with soot. He was a heavy smoker.

The elf grew into a giant as the years passed; he gave up his pipe and became cleaner and cleaner. He started to dress in gnomes' red outfits, gnomes' caps, and a broad leather belt and boots. He had been bearded from the start, and the

fur of his coat - now a lining merely - became snow-white to match his hair. In his earlier days he used to chuckle quietly, gripping his pipe between his teeth, shaking his round belly, and presumably wheezing a bit; but later on he took to roaring with laughter - rather mirthlessly, but very loud.

There is no story at all. Just a workshop for making toys in the North Pole, a few anecdotes about one of his reindeer, and that's about it. We once heard his wife mentioned occasionally, but she has been forgotten, swallowed up (metaphorically, of course) by him; several writers for psychiatric journals say he now has markedly androgynous features.

He is not a myth (myths require stories); he is a symbol, an image, a personification. He has become a totally benevolent figure, symbolising aspects of the season: gift-giving, lots of fun and food, and children above all. Christmas is an old feast, and vigorous, like him.

In him Christmas is opposed to New Year. That is to say, he is for family, domesticity and children; New Year is for singles and raucous parties away from home. He rewards past good behaviour (he knows if you've been bad, but he never takes it out on you), whereas New Year brings sober resolutions for the future.

There is no doubt that he is a fertility figure - abundance, fatness, generosity, babies. (In his bad old days that partiality for babies often meant that he enjoyed eating them.) He is obviously phallic: dressed in red, coming down the chimney, and leaving a present in the stocking. Some analysts have suspected that he is, at the same time, pregnant.

His presents are for all children, but only for children. Gift-giving can often be construed as requiring some sort of return: a thing or a service of equal value to the original gift, if not something in kind. But here is an occasion for giving on one side and simple receiving on the other. Children are not bound by obligation to return anything: the giant gnome takes off too fast for any recompense. Adults simply watch and enjoy the pleasure given.

The Christmas crib has contributed other details: the old man bringing gifts to a child, coming down from heaven at night, arriving complete with animals, and so on. But the old man is also a superb business proposition, obligingly embodying everything about Christmas that is useful in a big store. Not being religious, he can cheerfully shoulder the task of encouraging and glorifying consumerism, and so allow people who are busy shopping to bypass the crib, the birth narrative, the poor, salvation, and God.

He operates, of course, hand-in-glove with parents; in fact, he would not be around without their help. It really is a lot of work keeping it all up: the children informed, their expectations built up, then gratified. Why do we do it?

Well, for one thing our parents did it to us, and we remember. Other parents are doing it for their children, and our child must not be left out. And parents love it: the excitement, opening the presents, the whole atmosphere - it enables them not only to be generous but to relive, through their children, the days long ago, before they themselves found out.

One of the things we all remember, don't we, is the day we found out. Someone told us - we overheard - we suddenly realised. We did our best not to show disappointment, of course - we might even have pretended for a while we didn't know, for the sake of younger siblings, or even to keep our parents happy. This was growing up; we had to take it 'like a man', show that we were not really surprised, that we didn't especially care.

And this is, of course, why he's there: set up for children to see through, when they are ready. He is an ingenious initiation device, whose vanishing means that the line between innocence and 'the age of reason' has been crossed. In this rite of passage there is no revelation, only demystification.

No guide is provided for the initiate either: she is left to find out the truth, for herself. All of a sudden she learns many things: that parents are not always what they seem, that she should greet information with caution at all times, and never again expect kindness just because she exists.

This is an extract from Margaret Visser's new book, 'The Way We Are', which will be published by HarperCollins next year.

(Photograph omitted)