Magazine article The Spectator

Who's Afraid of Santa Claus?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who's Afraid of Santa Claus?

Article excerpt

Toby Clements says that there's a good reason many children find Father Christmas an alarming figure - he's an unresolved hotch-potch of different myths

Last year in the run-up to Christmas I took my two-yearold son to get his hair cut in one of those strange hybrid toy-cumbarber shops that proliferate in north London. It was going as well as one could hope until they announced a surprise guest as a special treat, Father Christmas. In he came, roaring his ho ho hos and waggling his curly white beard. It didn't matter to my son that it was just a local fatty wearing a lot of cotton wool and a velour hoodie. All that mattered was that he was strange. The boy shot out of the chair, ripped off his tabard and ran behind my legs screaming, 'Don't let the Red Man get me!'

Christmas was spent in a fever. Every time there was a sighting of the Red Man in a shop window or on the telly, the wailing would start again. On Christmas Eve we assured him the Red Man wouldn't be allowed in his room.

In fact, we said, look, we'll put your stocking in the garden, hanging from the laundry line.

That way the Red Man won't even need to come into the house, will he? Even as I said it I knew this sounded odd. The Red Man in his own home? The boy almost fainted with fright.

That night he slept in our bed, heavily sedated with Medised (a junior chemical cosh available over the counter without prescription, I add by way of a public service announcement) and thereafter Christmas was cancelled.

On the one hand, you have to sympathise with my son because when you meet the Red Man on the street he is scary. He is scary in the same way a clown is scary, scary in the same way those men who paint themselves silver and stand very still in public places are scary. In fact, anyone wearing an eccentric disguise and acting unconventionally is scary.

They have about them a particular atmosphere that makes one's hair stand on end, the vestige no doubt of some primal fear once vital for the survival of our cavemen ancestors, though what that might have been one can now only guess.

Leaving aside for a moment the resting actor lurking grotto-bound in his moth-eaten Santa suit, what about the myth of Father Christmas himself? Isn't that also ever so slightly scary?

As he stands today, we all know roughly what he is supposed to do: park his sleigh on the roof, come down the chimney, eat a mince pie, take a nip of sherry, pocket some carrots for his reindeer, fill stockings with presents and vamoose. The details are frankly bizarre, of course, but they are not the least believable aspect to this story. What really unsettles a young child is its shapelessness.

Even by the age of two they know there must be a beginning, middle and an end.

A boy must be naughty, be sent away to be roared at by Wild Things, overcome that threat and then come home to where people love him best. It must start well, things must go wrong and then, after a bit of a kerfuffle, be put right again. This doesn't happen in the Father Christmas myth and so any child hearing it remains convinced that something still remains to go wrong that will need to be put right. When they think of the Red Man entering their room, they do not necessarily think of him as a soothing presence, but as one carrying an unresolved, vaguely threatening narrative charge. …

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