It’s the season to be jolly, to banish our internal Scrooge and put on hold, just for now, the negative of a dark year in world affairs. It’s a season above all, for children, for the magic they both bring and treasure. It’s hot-chocolate heartening to hear of a 10 year old girl who still believes in Father Christmas, and whose older siblings, 15 and 13, keep up the fantasy for her delight.
Yet two academics writing in The Lancet Psychiatry have just condemned the Santa myth as ’a collective lie on a global scale.’ Christopher Boyle from the University of Exeter, and Kathy McKay from the University of New England, Australia contend that a child discovering the Grand Master of Reindeer never existed is a child in emotional trouble. How will this child recover from this abject let-down, and how will he or she ever trust what parents say again?
Surely though, this Santa critique ignores the likelihood that children are more sophisticated thinkers than we credit. They can balance belief and disbelief just as adults do on many a matter. They may well conclude that there’s a better chance of a full fireside stocking if they profess to be down-the-chimney disciples, than if they out their doubt. They may, for a while, conduct a double hoodwink, pretending to believe what they know we have fabricated. Call this a youthful gesture of goodwill to all grownups. It can be healing and playful to believe – or pretend to believe – in the impossible, as author Neil Gaiman observes: ‘I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true’ he writes ‘and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. ..I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass.’
It’s worth observing that we lie to children about far more serious matters than a man with a sack and sleigh bells. Counsellors constantly encounter the fall out for kids who’ve been promised that their non-resident parent will visit, send an IPhone or take then to Disneyland (one day). The image of a small face pressed up against the window, waiting in vain for that precious non-arrival is all too real. Couples will too often conceal the truth about their faltering relationship or tell a youngster he or she is too young to understand. And then they wonder why their son or daughter grows anxious or drops grades at school. The truth is that young people are acutely sensitive to atmosphere and can pick up the best-concealed domestic tension. In these most significant matters they need our openness and honesty – of course not by hearing the florid details, say, of one parent’s affair or a relative’s hospital ordeal. But even unpleasant truths, clearly expressed, are more reassuring than the fearful uncertainties that proliferate in young imaginations.
Summoning resilience in the face of reality is one great task of childhood. Hoping and believing that all may yet be well is another, most apt at this festive time. It might be worth recalling the happy-ending story of the original Father Christmas – St Nicholas, 4th century Bishop of Myra who slipped dowry money to three impoverished sisters without them ever knowing its source. Or reflecting on the touching wisdom of seven year old Henrietta whose message for Children in Need could surely melt snow and ice: ‘I will be kind. You will be happy. I will keep you safe. I want to be nice. I will keep you warm. You will eat toast. No more crying. Everything is alright.’