Federal Politics


Santa fable endures despite all the science

Dear Santa, As one old fogey to another, greetings and good wishes and I hope the cold isn't getting to your arthritis. No trouble down here, but bring sunscreen for the reindeer.

Everything is ready at this end. The wrapping paper was bought in January and is last year's design, but they are too young to notice that. And the parcels are locked in the whiskey cupboard - they know that the only sin in this house is any attempt to investigate grandad's whiskey stock. In your enterprise, you can count on my discretion and I am happy to act as your local representative for another year, which is probably about as long as I can keep up the deceit.

I have to tell you that there are suspicions, muffled whisperings that probably originated not from the seven-year-old and her friends but from one of the pagans at preschool. The parents are not enthusiastic about the subterfuge and when I remind their mother that she was 10 before she gave up her profitable credulity, it is met with a watery laugh. Nonetheless, this house is sound. And although nationally the birth rate is down, you will have employment for a few more years yet. But there are other heresies that threaten the continuation of your benign contribution to fellowship.

The word commercialism is often used to describe them, but it is more serious than that: It is a reduction of the pageant of which you are one of the more prominent players, to a fable of no likelier veracity than Troy or Camelot. Time was, as you know, when the world or that part of it we used to think of as Christian, was lit at this time of year by red window candles to guide a fleeing family, a time of carolling more than carousing, when we wished strangers happiness rather than merriment.

But they told us the lights were dangerous and they replaced them with blinking neon and they changed you from a benign giver into a rogue merchandiser. In older times, you were as much a part of what we celebrated as the crib and what it stood for. We invented you, Santa, and named you after a hirsute Turkish bishop. For anyone who thought about it, you were a kind of parable; you helped us to believe that prayers could be answered, that there was a bounty that was not diminished by the number of clients.

So maybe you are only a fairy story, but fairy stories have an immortality that history cannot emulate. And the essence of these tales is that for the hero, things work out well in the end. They tell us that living happily ever after can come from good deeds; and that is something we say at the end of our Sunday Creed without ever thinking too much about what we are saying. Often in the fairy story, the prince comes in disguise, unrecognised and ragged and poor. And sure, that is the story of the day that is in it when the children wake with excitement to see whether you have been good to them. Later, they will go to church with their parents, perhaps their once-a-year visit. But never mind, they have come to their religion only after meeting you. They learn their religion by starting on Santa Claus.

By rights, of course, you should have departed the scene once Columbus discovered America, Newton explained gravity, and we learnt that we share 98.4 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees. But you have hung on, you hoary old fraud, because as much as we need science and discovery, we need fable and myth and imagination too.

It would be quite easy to ban you from hoardings and greeting cards and to curtail your promotion of shopping centre trade. Indeed, as you may know, they are trying to do that in the place that Columbus discovered because they realise that you have a kind of immortality that fits as uneasily with their philosophy as with their commerce. But in our clever way, we have coupled you as part of the promise the Man made about ''being with us all days'' and that is why I am still, in spite of the cost of living, happy to be your representative and depot manager. What I will do when they find me out, I'm not sure. Maybe I will admit to a lie but excuse it on the grounds that it was a cloak for a bigger truth. They won't believe it, of course, and will probably think that what I tell them about climate change is equally fanciful. While I'm on it, Santa, you wouldn't have another Al Gore stacked away somewhere, would you?

Frank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.