Toby Clements

Who’s afraid of Santa Claus?

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

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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-year-old son to get his hair cut in one of those strange hybrid toy-cum-barber 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.

In any number of modern retellings of the story, the Red Man’s arrival comes as the conclusion to the story, but is not the story itself. In this year’s wonderful Tumtum and Nutmeg’s Christmas Adventure, for example, in which Emily Bearn’s eponymous mice have to do battle with the fearsome Baron Toymouse, Father Christmas’s arrival is the reward for a battle well fought. You may say that his arrival is reward for a year’s worth of good behaviour, but in a child’s mind, those two things remain separate.

Additional ambiguity has arisen because the Red Man’s story has undergone so many tweaks since his conception. He is now a hybrid mash-up between the Dutch Sinterklaas and the English Lord Christmas, with the result being given a makeover by the Americans. Instead of leaving him with a richness and complexity that might ordinarily come from this cultural percolation, it has left him with a muddled narrative. He represents the possibility of reward for good behaviour, yes, but in the absence of anything to threaten punishment for bad behaviour, his position is doubly vague.

His fundamental problem is that he is missing a partner. He is Bodie without Doyle, Garfunkel without Simon, Laurel without Hardy. He needs someone to work with and against, someone to be bad so that he can be good, someone to threaten a child so that he can bring peace. It comes as no surprise to find that he retains cultural relevance in those countries where they have kept alive his alter ego. In Germany, for example, where specialists in cruel morality tales have always prospered, the Red Man — St Nicholas in Christian years — came with an opposite number: the properly terrifying Krampus. This chap had a leather face and horns and used to enjoy birching young women when he was not otherwise scaring children with rusty chains and bells. With this sort of character around to punish bad boys, St Nicholas’s arrival would be greeted with relief. It would be the conclusion to a struggle with the Krampus, which makes narrative sense. In Holland Sinterklaas used to have a counterpart, Black Peter, whose role has been downplayed and altered on account of quite proper ethnic sensibilities.

But before we start promulgating the idea of the Krampus in this country we ought to think a moment about what we might lose. After all, it is quite a good thing to have a vaguely menacing figure — rather than a howling psychopath — about the place whom we can control. We all know that if a child goes through his or her life without experiencing a flicker of stress — by which I mean a slight interruption in their homeostasis rather then the screaming heebie-jeebies — they never develop any resilience to the slings and arrows that at some point outrageous fortune is bound to send their way. They’ll crumple under the impact of a call from the Inland Revenue. They’ll weep as England exit the World Cup. Part of our role as parents is to expose children to mild, predictable stress every now and then.

So this year the stockings might come in off the washing line. They might go on the chimney and next year they might be outside Max’s room. Little by little the Red Man will come closer and closer and with each year my son will become a little less terrified of strange men in beards. Whether that is a good thing is another question.