THE Revd Simon Tatton-Brown will not be the first or the last
cleric to be accused of ruining Christmas by questioning the
existence of Father Christmas. His misdemeanour, reported in the
papers, took place at a school assembly in Chippenham. Apparently
he horrified staff and parents, although any sympathy I might have
had for them vanished when I learnt that the worst outcome of the
vicar's address is that children might also now question the
reality of the tooth-fairy.
The row is an expression of a genuine unease, as the Christian
festival becomes more global, more diverse, more materialistic, and
less the exclusive possession of Christians. The roots of this are
in the way that Christmas built on earlier Roman festivals such as
Saturnalia. Christmas has never been purely Christian, which is why
the Puritans tried to banish it. There is always a streak of chaos
waiting to break out.
Today, Christmas symbols are interpreted in astonishingly novel
ways. In Japan, the Christmas crib on display in department stores
is often occupied by Father Christmas. To Christians, this seems
gross, but we should not miss the resonances that even these
bizarre interpretations can strike with the Christmas story. After
all, the baby in the manger is also "the ancient of days - an hour
or two old", as H. R. Bramley's Christmas hymn puts it.
Father Christmas is a universal version of a real Christian
saint, as his name Santa Claus still testifies. Borne from the
North Pole on his reindeer sleigh, he comes down the chimney.
Christmas, pagan or Christian, looks to a gift-giver who comes from
beyond this world, and has no truck with conventional entry points
such as doors.
For children, the whole point of Father Christmas is that he is
not a parent, and when they finally discover that he is Daddy or
Mummy creeping in with a full stocking, the disguise helps preserve
the hope that there is more than Mum and Dad caring for us in the
universe; that on this one night, generosity spills over from
The whole process of enchantment and disillusion which goes with
Christmas is an inevitable part of growing up. That there is some
tension with the Church in all this is not surprising. But
Christmas is not only for Christians. The subversive, semi-pagan,
and materialistic elements of the festival should not simply be
dismissed. They are a bridge into the wider world. God's gift of
himself at Christmas is for everyone.
The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ
Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser
for the diocese of Oxford.