The other day, my husband and I were walking through town when the local fire brigade/ambulance contingent blasted down the main street, deafening sirens blaring in staccato bursts and a dishevelled Santa Claus waving vaguely on the back of the fire engine. I cringed. While other more friendly, less Santa-phobic members of our community tooted their car horns and waved in response, I walked quickly in the opposite direction and generally tried to avoid having to make eye contact with the parade. They passed swiftly, thank God, but it brought back some very uncomfortable memories of my hate/hate relationship with Father Christmas.
I am not sure if this is just an introvert thing, but I have always disliked anyone using grotesque costumes to hide their true identity, even in a good cause. Admittedly, Father Christmas would hardly seem grotesque to most, but in fact there are very few genuine looking Santas around the place, most looking like they got dressed in a locker with their eyes shut, sporting nylon beards and faces which frankly resemble anything but a jolly old man.
As a very small child, I was once accosted by a Santa Claus whilst sitting in the car-park of our local shopping mall. I was in the back seat of the family car, my little brother beside me, my older sister in the front seat. I watched him weave around the car park poking his heads into car windows with growing dread. Eventually, he came up to us and tried to hand us some lollipops. I panicked. Then I dropped behind the front seat of the car, pretending to look for something under the seat, and trying desperately to avoid eye contact with the guy. My brother seemed less concerned, and my sister tried to explain my ‘behaviour’ to the Claus pretender. I stayed on the floor of the car until the clone got the message and decided to move on. My sister chastised me afterwards for being so shy, but in my mind, this person was an intruder.
As I grew so did my litany of characters to avoid. It wasn’t just Santa Claus, it was the Easter Bunny, clowns, mime artists, people pretending to be statues in the park, or anyone getting in my face and attempting to sell me something in shopping malls. As a child, as a teen, as an adult, these people have been the bane of my life. Frankly I don’t find Christmas characters or even Christmas stuff generally to be that enjoyable. I avoid choirs of small children in shopping malls, people dressed as christmas fairies in shopping malls, huge crowds of people in shopping malls, shopping malls. All of these things are hell at any time, but at Christmas they become hell with muzac.
It’s not that I don’t like music, or celebrating, I just have a great deal of appreciation for subtlety, and authenticity, and I have a pathological fear of pretenders of any stripe. Put it down to having grown up with a mother who took great delight in behaving like Martha Stewart in front of company, but became the Wicked Witch of the East when there were no witnesses, and perhaps it will explain the way I detest pretense. I guess I just don’t enjoy over-the-top performers and that includes circus acts or anything strange and surrealistic.
I discovered some years ago that, pre-Rome, Christmas was originally about some other semi-religious pagan festival, and not about Jesus at all. I think it was Ceasar Augustus who morphed the two celebrations together more for reasons of political convenience than any similarities between the two. Most pagan festivals have some sort of mythological icons which represent the festival itself. Spring festivals focus on gods and goddesses of fertility, winter festivals focus on spirits of death and life and so forth. For us though, the whole Christmas thing has focused on Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus, the man with the sack of presents, giving to children and the poor and unfortunate. The idea of the cold and stark mid-winter being blessed with a spirit of wealth and generosity is entirely satisfying. For those of us in Australia, its the barbeque and surf angel who is celebrated moreso than the guy with the sack of toys. Santa Claus is merely a token of our Victorian past, as he has become with most western nations. His ubiquitous nature at this time of year is taken for granted. Most people just nod and laugh when they see Santa Claus’ helpers sweating in their synthetic garments and stumping around the shopping malls and streets of our major cities. A lot of children think he is wonderful, a lot don’t I have noticed. You still get the children who cry instinctively when confronted with a man hidden behind a bushy mound of rayon barbie doll hair. They look grotesque, and to a small child who doesn’t know the difference between surreal and real, they are frightening. I was one of those children, and the surreality has not diminished with age. I don’t care who thinks I am weird for not liking Santa Claus.
But Santa Claus represents to me all of the repellent aspects of Christmas. It’s not just the consumer-driven obsession with making everything ‘perfect’ for Christmas day. For me the spirit of this season is the spirit of excess not genuine love of our fellow men. That spirit,, benevolence and generosity, is far more visible at other times of the year, despite the loud protestations of tree-hugging politically correct do-gooders who insist that we should all adopt an ‘orphan’ so they will ‘know that it’s Christmas’. A genuine do-gooder will be led by their better angels to reach out to others in need at times when it is less popular but far more necessary.
Charity does not only begin at home, it begins in the heart, and the heart is changed more completely by still small voices, not frightening or shaming ones. Not angels, not spirits of Christmas past or Christmas present (was Dickens making a play on words here?) or Christmas future, not choirs of cherubic children, not big bearded men, not the expectations of others will truly change our lives or the lives of others. Maybe we are too invested in the idea that Christmas is the only truly ‘magical’ time of the year, a time of miracles and changes of heart. Maybe Scrooge is a far more appropriate icon of the yule tide than the fat red man. Scrooge was a skinny old man who came face to face with the supernatural (albeit in a dream), his own past, and his possible future demise. The threat of hellfire, a common Victorian peril, caused a miserable old man to change his behaviour. I would love to know how old Scrooge was on boxing day and how long his ‘change’ would have lasted. In my experience, real Scrooges don’t turn on a dime and become sweet-natured disabled-children-loving old men overnight and for no other reason than they were visited by the angel of death. Cranky old bastards tend to stay that way, Christmas or no Christmas.
I guess the main reason I hate Santa Claus is that my own childhood Christmases were fairly dismal. My mother, as I said, was more into what things looked like than what they were. As a child, I longed for genuine love and generosity, moreso than gifts and food, but a gift well given is a symbol of love to me. By that I mean a gift which has been given in consideration of the person you are giving it to, symbolising an intimate knowledge and appreciation for that person. A Christmas which is filled with symbols of the power of adults over children is hardly a christmas to be remembered, unless you, like Dickens, have a morbid love of tales of hardship and deprivation.
I understand that Christmas and Santa Claus go hand in hand. I understand that consumerism and advertising use Christmas as their flagship, and that poverty becomes both the antithesis and the focus of everything Christmas represents and is therefore spoken of in tones of harsh judgement against those who don’t consider the poor, and grandstanding on behalf of those who do. I also understand that it is in the invisible realm of the human spirit and heart that the true nature of character and action is seated, and no amount of ‘christmas cheer’ is going to make a difference if you are a genuine Ebeneezer Scrooge, rather than a literary one.