Catherine Masterman considers true myths and the value of stories at Christmas time.
“Do we go to Father Christmas’ church – it says St Nicholas!”, says my excited six year old.
What a paradox we give to children at Christmas: Santa – the myth of an old man you grow out of, versus Jesus – the truth of a baby the church says to believe in. What can they trust once they find out who eats the mince pie by the fire?
I love the myth of Father Christmas – who can forget the thrill of the bulging stocking at the end of the bed, followed by the sinking feeling on Boxing Day when you know you really have a year to wait? My children – I think (hope), unwittingly, use their requests to Father Christmas to test the mettle of the most resourceful. I’ve sewn scraps on Christmas Eve to make clothes for a doll for one of their toys, wracked my brains on how to give a ‘real-life cuddle tank’, blessed forever the charity shop with the only soft toy hamster in town, and persuaded a Greek stall holder to write my daughter’s name on a dolphin to balance on a soapdish. Taking to heart that Santa’s workshop is ‘magic’, my children see no reason to constrain their asks, nor appreciate that magic elves creating toys for reindeer flight generate real carbon emissions. Unfortunately, their ‘elves’ are given no exemption from normal household rules.
Why do I go to such lengths? I’ve heard other church-goers say that their children stop believing in Santa very early because they don’t want to confuse them. In my house, Father Christmas is not real, he is ‘magic’. When asked if he believes in Jesus, I say they are friends. In my adherence to the myth, I take my reasoning from the giants of the literary and faith world – C. S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. They argued that neither pure rationality, nor pure sensation can by themselves give truth and meaning. Something is needed to bring them together. Myths and stories resonate when they illustrate something that is applicable to all, but makes it personal. For example, Tolkien’s recurring theme of elves forsaking their immortality to marry a mortal brings home the weight of anyone’s decision to spend their life with another.
Beyond Lewis and Tolkien, the Bible teaches the importance of parables, in both Old and New Testaments. The idea of faith and love and the nature and presence of God would be almost impossible to grasp without illustrations from real-life experiences or stories that project principles into people. Rather than eschew the stories that have a powerful resonance because they detract from the ‘real’ meaning, I would rather look into those stories for the truths that they reflect and echo – whether found in Father Christmas, Harry Potter, Disney or so many others. Their recurrent themes are more than just the work of their authors, but the projection of (what Jung would argue) deep-seated universal ideas about the human condition.
At Christmas, the myth of a universal delivery of gifts to all children through flying reindeer (whilst clearly preposterous), captures amazing ideas – the magic of the overnight transformation creates the same kind of wonder and excitement we are bidden to emulate in thinking about the wonder of creation and our approach to God. Amidst the twaddle in the industry of sub-myths around Father Christmas there are beautiful illustrations of the power of selfless love, the the desire to give children joy regardless of their family, race, or creed, and the need for of a moment when things are made right. My favourite has to be Miracle on 34th Street, although Klaus had me sobbing like a baby recently. And Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas are a delight. Of course that’s not to say that everything to do with Father Christmas is worth celebrating – but when is that not the case?
I don’t have a problem with the fact that children discover it to be a fiction – in their world story and reality are more interchangeable. My children feel the need to explain “it’s not really such and such toy talking”, but they always do so in whispers – presumably not to offend the toy. Indeed, much of growing up is a process of reevaluating for themselves what they believe to be true. Belief in Father Christmas probably falls at the same point as the infallibility of parents. A story of a man who brings good things, in some traditions only to those who have been ‘good’, whose magic only works one night of the year, is ultimately found to be just that – a story.
Alongside Santa at Christmas time is what Lewis called the ‘true’ myth. This is the myth that looks at all that is good in the world – love, truth, beauty, joy, justice, compassion, creativity – and makes preposterous claims – that we can not only understand the source of these abstract concepts in a Divine being. We can also interact with that being dynamically and personally through the life, death and resurrection of the Christmas baby, whether or not all the ‘sub-myths’ of stables, innkeepers and animals were exactly as the Nativity stories would have it.
We all choose a story that makes sense to us. We probably range from those making granular investigations of the flight of the reindeer to those who are all too willing to shut their eyes to save them from seeing something that would cause questions. For me, the ‘true myth’ is a story for humanity that has the depth to acknowledge and hold the wretchedness and the sorrow of the world alongside the joy of the festivities – a man whose gifts are for all, whether naughty or nice, whose abilities do not come from magic but through universal sovereignty; whose ability to engage with everyone simultaneously is not limited to a night, but constant and unchanging; and whose story offers not a wonder that falls away at the age of double figures, but a life-long, daily renewed ability to say despite everything, ‘yet I will trust’.
Happy Christmas to all! and to all a Good Night!