By: Trevor Marshallsea
Christmas is a time of giving. And, though my mum told me not to mention this, it’s not physically possible to have “giving” without “receiving.” It’s also a time of eating and drinking. It’s a time of families getting together and, perhaps despite that, of being merry.
Most of all, though, it’s a time of pressure. When you’re a kid, having made or bought some presents for others, you essentially turn up, open your presents and stuff your face. But Christmas reflects life in that the older you get, the more pressure it involves.
When you reach maturity, you’ll feel that pressure to buy a suitably impressive gift for your special someone. Once, when I lived in London, my girlfriend had three dozen of my favorite food – oysters – specially flown in from France for me. After they arrived I duly handed over her present: precisely four bars of soap. Oh and I shouldn’t forget – a card. That was a lesson in how to suck at Christmas. But at least she also got a gift that would last forever: an anecdote about lousy boyfriends. And I’ll plead it’s not as bad as some of the other anecdotes out there, involving stepladders, an electric drill, a voucher for a camping store, etc.
When you get older still, and become a parent, the pressure peaks. Mostly, there’s pressure to get your stories straight.
We have kids, we make noble pledges that we will never, ever, lie to them. And then we tell them there’s a fat, ageless man who inhabits the uninhabitable, and that every December 24 he achieves the impossible – by flying around the whole flipping planet with his magical reindeer, giving presents to everyone.
Even if you take out all the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, voodoo-ists, etc., who don’t do Christmas, that’s still an immensely steep delivery mission. On one hand, it’s no wonder Santa does bugger-all for the rest of the year. On the other, it’s just a very hard fable to sustain for kids whose most influential mode of travel involves not flying reindeer but an information superhighway.
My scientific wife isn’t a fan of Santa. This heartens me whenever I’m in her bad books (“It’s OK. She boos Santa Claus too,” I say) but it did lead to debate about whether we should perpetuate the Santa story with our two girls. In the end we did, probably because, unlike the bloke whose birthday Christmas celebrates, Santa really is everywhere these days and impossible to escape. It is kind of like that creepy song coming true, about Him knowing when you’re sleeping or awake, and precisely how you’ve been behaving.
That decision taken – with some gifts to be credited to Santa and the rest from us – the pressure was on to build the, err, lie. Since we live in a Beijing apartment, I made “footprints” out of talcum powder for the snowy effect, all the way from the front door to our tree. I left a note, written in my left hand, thanking the girls for the cookies and beer. At least those had been genuinely scoffed.
That exercise delighted the girls, but proved two things: 1. Talcum powder can take up to a whole day to vacuum up. 2. You need a story for how Santa gets into a locked apartment. (Thankfully our girls were little, so my effort of “Umm, aah, magic!” did the trick.)
The following year I got creative, and left puddles of water, for melted snow, on the floor. With Beijing’s heating turned up to 11, these had evaporated by Christmas morning. “I’m glad Santa tried to be more tidy this year!” I said, and the girls’ suspicions also evaporated.
The next year we got tripped up. We were skiing in Canada for Christmas, and took our wrapped presents with us from Beijing. We secreted them in corners of our luggage that the girls would never find, and when they duly found them, several days before Christmas, an interrogation started – of us, by them.
“How come the presents are already here when it’s three days before Santa comes?” they said.
“Um, we knew we’d be going to Canada, so we had Santa drop them off in Beijing early,” I said, adding, for full Christmas wonder, that it necessitated a special shipping and handling fee.
Phew. They were satisfied again (they really weren’t that bright back then). But, like a criminal on the run, I knew our time was almost up. A few months later, our six and five year olds asked me, suspiciously, if Santa really did exist. Without hesitating, I assured them that he most certainly did not. Some parents might mourn a loss of innocence. I just felt relief. I’ve known some people who’ve sustained the myth until their kids were 11 and nine. Sod that. I’d consider that hard work, or what Al Gore might call “An Inconvenient Lie.”
Still, some confusion about Christmas lingered. Two years later, in our secular household, I had to explain its origin to our seven-year-old youngest.
“That’s terrible!” she cried, to my visible bafflement. “If Jesus’ birthday was on Christmas Day, he’d only get one present a year!”
At least, mixed up somewhere in that mix up, there was something of the notion of giving.