Santa’s bum rap

 Santa Claus mostly gets a bum rap in the 21st Century where parents, riddled with fears and anxieties about the modern world, view him more with suspicion than magic and wonder.

Taking your five-year-old daughter or son to some shopping mall so she or he can sit on the lap of an unshaven, fat dude dressed in a costume in the summer heat just doesn’t feel right.

Of course people like James McNeil only add to the paranoia. In 2007, the 77-year-old McNeil was dubbed the "Santa Claus paedophile” by the Cape media after one of his victims spotted him dressed as Father Christmas and posing with patients from the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. Being Santa Claus, we must agree, is a job that seems to fulfill all the requirements of your common suburban child molester the world over.

But there is a way to celebrate this magical children’s figure away from the tawdry tarnishing of modern life. In Eastern Europe children are raised on the story of St Nicholas, the patron saint not only of children but also of parenthood and human fertility.

Having children has forced me to engage with issues I’d generally have assigned to the periphery of my once-childless life. Until my daughters, Layla (5), and Kenya (3) arrived, Santa Claus, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Hanukah, Eid and any number of secular, pagan or religious holidays were just events that occurred out there in another world.

But last year on Christmas Eve we put carrots, cookies and a glass of milk for Santa and his reindeer out on the stoep. I had to set the alarm to wake up and make sure the glass and plates (I left one carrot) were empty when Layla and Kenya went out to look the next morning. The look on their faces is a sight I shall always treasure.

My lodestar as a parent has been a wonderful book, “A Good Enough Parent”, written by the brilliant Viennese psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim. It is Bettelheim who has guided me through many unsure parenting moments and our decision to encourage our daughters to believe in Santa is because of him.

Bettelheim writes that on an unconscious level Santa is important to children because “he speaks to some of our most important emotions and it is through this figure that we can best gain access to the full meaning which Christmas has for children.”

While the birth of Christ has deep religious meaning to all believers in Christianity, writes Bettelheim, it is Santa Claus alone who caters to children in a way no amorphous “spirit of giving” can possibly do.

“To exchange presents as a token and symbol of love and goodwill can take place at any time and occasion. But no child believes that Santa brings gifts to his parents and most would think their parents foolish were they to hang up stockings on the mantel for Santa,” he explains.

He continues: “fat and jolly Santa, who brings presents for children down the chimney and puts them under the tree, is only for children.”

It makes sense when Bettelheim says that some children might feel that presents received from parents or relatives would somehow make them beholden to these people.

“But children know they have harboured no negative thoughts towards Santa, and that he expects no gratitude, thus they can accept gifts from him without ambivalence.”

I have come to understand that magical thinking is only possible when you are little, for too soon the world with its pain and darkness will intrude. And then it is too late.  Happy Christmas.

Do you tell your children that there's a Santa Claus?
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