Kids, if you’re reading your Mum and Dad’s newspaper, Father Christmas is definitely real. Nothing to worry about there. Now put the paper down! Go and play outside. Build a snowman or something.
Now, parents. Lock the door: we may have a bit of a problem. Simon Tatton-Brown, a vicar in Wiltshire, seems to have blown our cover. He was talking to an assembly of primary school children, and due to a “technical glitch” – presumably his printer wasn’t plugged in – he found he had no notes.
So he ad-libbed, to disastrous effect. Instead of saying something nice and cuddly about how not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, he explained that the Santa Claus myth appears to be based on a Turkish legend of St Nicholas.
Apparently, the group of five to 11-year-olds were a little startled to learn that in the oldest version of the story – first told around 1150 AD – three young boys were killed, dismembered and stored in a barrel by an evil innkeeper who planned to sell them for meat.
St Nick resurrects them, so it’s a happy ending. But, still, a generation used to Pixar animations might not expect a second-act ordeal quite as dark as that. “Loads of children went home crying,” said one mother. “It has ruined Christmas for them.” (She added, reassuringly: “We wouldn’t just walk into the church during one of his services and tell everyone Jesus isn’t real.”)
On the one hand, maybe we should give thanks for the return of the good old-fashioned horrible bloodsoaked-yet-baffling morality tale for children. After all, in Victorian times children thrilled to such wholesome stories as Hilaire Belloc’s Jim, the eponymous hero of which let go of his nurse’s hand in a crowd at the zoo and was promptly eaten by a lion, starting with his feet (“first your toes and then your heels, and then by gradual degrees, your shins and ankles, calves and knees…”).
Or Struwwelpeter, a German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman, which includes the tale of Little Suck-a-Thumb, who sucks his thumb, and as punishment has them both cut off by a maniac with a giant pair of scissors.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales may have been frequently adapted for sweet Disney films, but in their original they are startlingly brutal – in Cinderella, the ugly sisters chop their toes and heels off to fit into the glass slipper; in Snow White, the wicked queen is killed at the end by being forced to dance in red-hot metal shoes. Bambi’s mother getting shot has nothing on this stuff.
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This isn’t the real problem, though. A few of the children might have nightmares, but that’s probably character-building. The real problem is: how can we keep the little ones believing in Father Christmas, if they’ve been told by a vicar that he’s a 12th-century myth?
It’s a concern. If children are to lose faith in the Dasher-Dancer-Donner-Blitzen business, it’ll be a devastating blow to our sherry and mince pie industries. With the economic recovery as fragile as it is, I don’t think we can take that risk.
Luckily, I have a solution. It hinges on the following simple fact: children aren’t all that bright. Oh, of course, they’re wonderful, and they’re the future and so on. But let’s not overestimate their intelligence; this is a demographic that can’t be relied upon to tell the time, or tie its own shoelaces. Many of them think Transformers jumpers are the height of fashion.
So here’s my suggestion: if you’re worried that your child might be on the verge of working out that Santa’s not real, try denying everything. After all, this is a story about a very fat man who visits 700 million children in the space of 32 hours, carrying a million or so tons of presents while travelling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, pulled by a small herd of flying reindeer. (I worked out the numbers a few years ago; I had a lot of spare time.)
If the child in question hasn’t spotted the inherent implausibility in that tale, I don’t think they’re going to catch on because a vicar told them a strange story about a man in medieval Turkey. Simply keep on lying. We’ve been doing it for centuries.
Or, if you’re not comfortable with that, don’t worry. Just tell them that he’s not real, then hand them their presents yourself and let them eat Chocolate Oranges until they’re happy again. After all, kids aren’t only daft, they’re also resilient and easily bribed. Anyway, you can let them back in the room now.
More by Tom Chivers