OF ALL the Santas that you've come across in the weeks leading up to Christmas, which one was the real deal?
Was it the one who arrived on the fire truck, the one in the glare of the cameras in the department store, the one who gave out bags of sweets as he strolled through the shopping mall muttering ''Ho, ho, ho'', or the one sitting on a big red throne patiently listening to the wishes of a child who hoped that this Christmas Day they might come true?
Which was the real Santa Claus?
It is a simple enough question but one few of us would care to be asked by an inquisitive six year-old. How would we reply? Where would we find the words to begin? What fibs would we feel we had to tell?
To a greater or lesser extent, most of us are guilty of colluding in a great conspiracy at Christmas: to keep alive a fantasy no matter how ridiculous it might seem. We don't do it out of a sense of mischievous delight and we don't do it only to prolong the naive innocence of children. Our motives go much deeper than that.
For a start, Christmas is bigger than any of us. The pull of its ancient origins and the push and shove of its popular appeal are good reasons to show it a little respect, to walk lightly in its garden. But that's not all - or even the most compelling part.
We don't have to be reminded that all the stories compacted into Christmas are products of fertile imaginations and we can see each year how their celebration drifts beyond the bounds of all propriety and threatens to obscure their original intention.
Yet we hesitate to admit too much of this too openly. We pull back knowing that to sully the reputation of Christmas or to dampen the excitement it generates risks destroying something that is nonetheless sublime.
That something can be hard to find, especially for those who expect too much or look too hard. Like the gift box that gets more use than the toy inside, Christmas is not the stuff of usual assumptions and it has a way of turning everyday priorities on their head.
You can't draw what's special about Christmas on a greeting card or hang it on a tree. You can't summarise it in a carol, or pick it up and hold it like a present. You can't eat it, no matter how many turkeys or puddings you buy - or find it in a bottle, no matter how much of it you drink.
With all these things we try to take hold of something ineffable, to label it, wrap it up and make it serve our purposes. But with every attempt to capture what is sublime about Christmas, it seems to slip our grasp.
It can't be tied down or packaged up, measured with a ruler or weighed on a scale. If any of these qualities of typical things applied to Christmas, how could it fill the night with wonder and spark joy in the tiny world of a snow globe?
Christmas draws us back each year because it is so extraordinary. There is no collective experience quite like it; no social event that can ever match it.
But we shouldn't confuse the tinsel or trappings for what is most important about the occasion. The qualities of Christmas that are spectacular exist only to turn the mind from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. When that is done, Christmas opens up a dialogue with the heart.
It was ever thus. The account of the first Christmas in Luke's Gospel opens with a group of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields at night. This tranquil, rustic scene is described precisely so it can then be dramatically overturned and the reader's imagination seized: "And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people'." (Luke 2: 9-10)
All the fuss eventually comes down to the birth of a child. Can that be it, the real essence of Christmas, and after such a promising start to the story?
The point is that sometimes the things that are most vital to our wellbeing are also the things we habitually overlook or take for granted. Think about your breath or your pulse and then think about how much of the time you don't think about these things at all.
Now think about the miracle of birth and the nurture of the family. Around the nativity scene in Bethlehem we see the care and warmth and gentleness without which none of us can grow and thrive. We realise that we are all members of one human family, that none of us is alone, and that all of us are here to love and to be loved in return.
Something else we learn from Christmas is that when we act in a spirit of peace and goodwill we can create realities that exceed expectations and defy rational calculation. Just like all the Santas we have come across. Which was real? Each and every one, of course.