On Believing In Father Christmas

Saint Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents From Death by Ilya Repin

So it’s that time of year where we celebrate Christmas with mutual hatred of other shoppers and insipid pop songs about how romantic love is the best gift to get on Christmas. (N.B.: then why are we pepper-spraying each other for video games?) One of the slightly less sappy songs in the holiday pop canon is Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas.” Here covered by U2:

What fascinates me about this song is that Lake’s title uses the word “believe” and not “believed” because at first glance it appears to be about losing belief:

“And I believed in father christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise”

The character in the song appears to realize that he’s been duped. The last line of the verse above appears to be about a child recognizing someone – likely his father – is in disguise. The fix is in, the Western Christmas celebration is in part a way to extract good behaviour out of children by offering them presents. A ha! The older children cry out, having figured out the game. But is the song just about a kid a little too old to fall for an old man traveling the world and giving out gifts? Look again:

“And I saw him and through his disguise”

Who is the singer referring to as “him” here? Grammatically it should be Father Christmas, no? So this renders the sentence, “And I saw [Father Christmas] and through [Father Christmas’] disguise.” There’s no real way to introduce the kid’s father or someone else in here as “him.”

So what does this mean? I’m not insinuating that the essence of St. Nicholas is mystically instantiated in every fat man in a red suit. And I’ll refrain from introducing Lacan’s Imaginary/Symbolic/Real triad even though I vaguely sense it may be appropriate – because it still confuses me. Who is this Father Christmas anyway? He’s something completely other than a Byzantine Saint too. In what way can a sane adult say that they believe in Father Christmas? Whoever he is, he’s still believed in somehow.

In researching this post, I came across suggestions that our current conception of Santa Claus may in part be based on pagan myths about Odin – his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir leapt through the sky and may have been a precursor to the reindeer of our current Santa Claus. If you had to pick a pantheon of pagan gods to aid in your quest for Xbox games at Walmart on Black Friday or whatever, you could do a lot worse than the violent Norse gods. Maybe the violent mobs of bargain-hunting shoppers are an appropriate tribute to Odin. But they, and the trees and the Coca Cola ads and the reindeer seem so foreign to Saint Nicholas, a greek churchman who helped the poor and the oppressed.

This is not to say that Santa Claus as experienced by a child is an anti-Christian figure or some such thing. Waking in the morning to find a living room full of gifts left by an ostensible stranger is thrilling to a child. This sort of innocent excitement, the “dream of Christmas” that was “sold” to the child in the song. The loss innocence that’s implied here is perhaps more a realization that happiness is not tearing up wrapping paper to get the newest piece of animatronic plastic junk that’s been advertised relentlessly since mid-November. Is this it? But go back to the beginning of the song, they said there’ll be snow at Christmas/they said there’ll be peace on Earth. This is part of the package deal – the snow and the presents, and yes peace on Earth. That seems like a glib juxtaposition, but carols talk about it, Handel’s Messiah talked about it, even David Bowie sang about it with Bing Crosby. Once we grow out of the notion that Christmas is about presents for ourselves, we are left with the incarnation, and how does that bring about peace on Earth? And anyway, what does Father Christmas have to do with this. Not much if all you have is slightly sanitized, slightly Christianized version of Odin. On the other, it might be worth it to look for a Father Christmas of whom someone like St. Nicholas might be a suitable icon. I don’t want to say that we should get away from gift giving or something, but the overwhelming centrality that practice has for Christmas should be unnerving. The unofficial launch of holiday shopping, Black Friday as it’s called in the US and now increasingly in Canada as well, is a sort of cult ritual all by itself:

Look, I know that any gathering of people, and especially in some kind of marketplace can be crazy and disorderly, but here we have people trampling each other. This is how we celebrate advent now? This doesn’t have to be some kind of strident anti-corporate or anti-consumerist rant, but how do we get from the Prince of Peace to knock-down drag out fights in Walmart over discount video games? Lake’s tune ends with the line, “The Christmas we get we deserve.”