Dilemma underpinning the magic of Christmas
Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country
FATHER Christmas. The biggest fib you will ever tell your children.
We justify it in the name of everything that is festive but it’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Especially when we insist our little cherubs are always truthful and promise to be honest with them in return.
Like most parents I perpetuate the myth that is Santa Claus. And like most parents I do it without thinking.
We are all in it together – all telling the same giant whopper which we whisper about away from little ears to keep the fantasy alive for as long as possible.
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At least I thought we were.
Last week, we saw a friend whose daughter does not believe. And she doesn’t believe because her mother decided to tell her the truth.
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“I don’t think it’s healthy to tell an unnecessary lie,” she said. “She would be heartbroken to find out I had fibbed, so I decided against it.”
Each to their own, I thought, until I overheard her child telling mine that daddy delivered her presents.
I intervened, of course.
“In this house Father Christmas brings the gifts,” I said curtly.
Later that evening my daughter, who was writing yet another letter to the jolly old fellow in red, pulled me to one side.
“I think that little girl’s daddy has to deliver her presents because Santa has put her on the naughty list,” she said.
“I’m sure Father Christmas doesn’t leave anyone out,” I replied smoothly. “She is probably just getting confused.”
So how do I justify continuing with the great charade?
Well, for a start, I remember it being one of the most exciting elements of Christmas when I was a child.
And my parents went to extraordinary lengths to keep the story going.
When I was eight, my father covered the living room carpet with sooty footprints, much to my mother’s horror.
The next year he dug huge chunks of turf in the garden to make sleigh tracks on the grass and knocked the climbing frame over.
I uncovered the truth only by forcing myself to stay awake until my giggling parents stumbled into my room at 2am to fill the stockings.
Was I disappointed? Not really. Were they? Yes, horribly. To the point where – even as young adults – we still had to go through the pantomime of leaving brandy and a mince pie out for Santa.
Look, put it this way: I’ve never heard of someone seeing a psychoanalyst because they were damaged by learning they were lied to about Mr Claus.
Secondly, I don’t really see it as a lie – a word which comes with a barrage of nasty connotations; rather a living fairy tale which stirs the imagination and creates a world of excitement for children on Christmas Eve.
And as for the mum with enviable morals, I am utterly convinced that even the most virtuous among us tell their child the occasional porky pie.
To say you don’t is probably, well, stretching the truth a little bit.
In my experience the judiciously-deployed lie is as much a part of a mother’s arsenal as wet-wipes and sippy cups.
There are the untruths you tell to avoid a scene: the playground is closed today; your teacher has just called to check you have done your homework; don’t pull faces or the wind will change and you will stay like that; when the ice cream van plays music it means he doesn’t have any ice cream left.
Then there are the things that fly out of your mouth at mealtimes: carrots help you see in the dark; eat your crusts and your hair will grow curly; eating spinach makes you strong; eating sweets gives you spots.
And if you manage to avoid all of those, surely honesty isn’t always the best policy when it comes to being polite?
You wouldn’t tell your child the raisin cookies they made at school tasted like fly-encrusted cardboard, would you?
Massaging the truth is also the responsible thing to do when explaining big adult issues to little people.
Don’t get me wrong; being totally honest with your kids is a noble thought but, really, the world is too complex and dangerous to expect the primary school crowd to grasp the whole truth on an ugly reality.
Just because a child whose father is in the Army asks if dad could die on the front line doesn’t mean he should carry the daily burden of worry that this will happen, does it?
A book I read recently, Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit, explains that lying is an essential component in making us more-balanced individuals.
Author Ian Leslie makes the rather irreverent suggestion that even God is not above being a little economical with the truth. In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve that they will die if they eat the forbidden fruit. They go ahead – and they don’t die. Well, not immediately, anyway.
The point is that lying, far from being bad for us, is often designed to keep us safe, protect us from misery and prevent us being weighed down by the terrible burden of too much truth.
I’m not sure this exactly substantiates my continuing dedication to the fiction of Saint Nick but I certainly don’t think my dishonesty will do them any harm.
And when they finally learn the truth, I hope they will be old enough to grasp the sense of tradition it brings.
So come Christmas Eve we will be leaving out a sausage roll and bottle of locally-brewed beer (our Santa doesn’t do mince pies and brandy), and hanging up our stockings with a thank-you note (must remember our manners).
Who knows if it will be a white Christmas, but in my house it will certainly be a white-lie Christmas.
Please email me EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.