MANY PEOPLE IN BRITAIN consider the real start of Christmas to be the first sighting of the seasonal Coca-Cola advert. The one where a commercial freighter lorry pulls through a small town, and instead of complaining about unnecessary traffic, the local residents crowd around in slack-jawed wonder, as though they’ve never seen an automotive vehicle before. It has very little to do with Christmas, except it looks quite cold. Which means a warm drink is probably more appropriate. But then who am I to question advertising executives? They’ve sold millions of cans of the stuff, whilst I’ve only ever sold one—to my friend George—flagrantly contravening the explicit ‘multi-pack not for resale’ warning.
My mother considers the Famous Grouse whisky adverts to herald the arrival of Christmas, which certainly fits the spirit of the season better. Of course you could mix the two together, but in our house we prefer to celebrate Christmas with champagne. Or sparkling grape juice with a dash of vodka, if times are tough.
I believe in the magic of Christmas, even though I hate almost everything about it. I’m not a big fan of the mass, crass consumerism. I abhor the hordes of jostling elbows in every store, and every radio blasting out the same four saccharine Christmas classics over and over. By December 17th I’ve heard ”Fairytale of New York” so many times I want to punch Shane McGowan’s remaining three teeth out. From about November 3rd to late afternoon of December 24th Christmas is a constant jabbing pain that can only be dulled with a constant intake of mince pies, mulled wine, and whatever single malt is on special offer at the supermarket—the very same scotch Father Christmas himself will drink in the early hours of Christmas morning.
Much like Greg Lake, I believe in Father Christmas. In fact, I once saw him. Father Christmas, not Greg Lake. I was about eight years old and I happened to wake up at about 5am. I slowly opened my eyes, and there he was… sort of… I was just in time, because he was fading away in red blurry spots that were not dissimilar to the red blurry spots you seen when you open your eyes and adjust to the light. I thought maybe it was some sort of optical illusion, but the mince pies had been eaten and there were presents so it must have been him. He’d even written a thank you note, and there were footsteps up the garden path even though traditionally he comes down the chimney. Maybe he fell off the roof? He had been drinking, after all.
He didn’t use the chimney next year either. I woke up at about midnight needing to go to the toilet. I opened my bedroom door and saw my dad coming out of the attic with a sack of presents. I knew what was going on immediately—we’d had a skylight installed earlier in the year, and obviously to save time he was passing the presents through to my dad to save time. Santa is smart like that. I’m not sure what the point was though, because he still came down the chimney to eat his mince pies. Maybe he was just pissed again.
The next year the illusion was shattered completely. I woke up in the middle of the night, and dad was climbing down from the attic with a load of presents. But we’d moved house since the last year, and we didn’t have a skylight. It turned out Saint Nick was just my dad, who is also called Nick, but has not, at the time of publication, been officially canonized by the Catholic Church.
Most of Christmas is a myth—all of it, really, if you don’t believe the Bible. Christmas is rarely the way it is on TV. Like my old Christmas presents, suicides go through the roof. Even when people aren’t that miserable, they’re not as happy as they’re pretending to be. Fake smiles shine out from under plastic mistletoe, in wait of an emotionless kiss, insincere thank yous ring out from confused and disappointed grandchildren, and lingering resentment and latent alcoholism bubble uneasily under a thin veneer of forced bonhomie, whilst Paul McCartney unconvincingly assures us we’re all having a simply wonderful Christmastime.
It’s all hollow and fake and make-believe. We buy an idea that is sold to us, even though we know it doesn’t exist. Santa Claus only exists because children want him to exist. The actual Saint Nicholas and Coca-Cola marketing executives played their part, but mostly it’s the unwavering belief children have in the fantastical.
But there’s magic in the make-believe. I know now that Father Christmas doesn’t exist and never has. He wasn’t passing presents through the skylight, the attic was just the only place my brother and I couldn’t get without adult supervision. The fake footprints and the forged letter were attempts to uphold my faith in the impossible. My parents’ cruel and hollow lies were deception, but deception of the best kind. They didn’t lie to me because they get a sick thrill out of deceiving children, but so that I would stumble about on Christmas morning in my new pajamas wide-eyed with wonderment and imagination.
We need the subterfuge and illusions of a supernatural gift-giver aided by flying reindeer because the true magic of Christmas lies in that it is the one day we let ourselves pretend it exists. We allow ourselves, just for a few hours, to remember how it felt to be young and innocent and full of wonder. We perpetuate the myth, because it’s an important one. Magic might not be real, but that sensation is—and if it isn’t magic, it’s damn close.
I’m an adult now, but I still can’t help but wake up early on Christmas morning, a good five hours before I usually roll out of bed. I can’t explain that. And when I open my eyes I see blurs of colour I remember that year I thought saw Father Christmas, and just for a few seconds a small part of me thinks but maybe I did…
Maybe we don’t pretend magic exists at Christmas; maybe we spend the rest of the year pretending it doesn’t.