Hang Santa

Wendy Doniger

  • Unwrapping Christmas edited by Daniel Miller
    Oxford, 239 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 19 827903 5

The authors of this collection of essays are social anthropologists who follow the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, literally – an essay by him comes first, after Daniel Miller’s introduction – and, in varying degrees, intellectually. What they discover when they unwrap Christmas present – Christmas now, throughout the world – are the human structures of the cover-up, disguising, beneath a number of hilarious cultural transformations, a tragic opposition between the glittery surface and the dark heart of Christmas. They unwrap the big lie of Christmas.

Lévi-Strauss sets the simultaneously satirical and sombre tone with his essay, ‘Father Christmas Executed’: on 24 December 1951, Father Christmas was hanged in Dijon Cathedral and, in the presence of several hundred Sunday School children, publicly burnt (they set fire to his beard) in the precinct. The clergy had condemned him as a usurper and heretic who had ‘paganised’ the Christmas festival, installing himself at its centre ‘like a cuckoo in the nest’. Lévi-Strauss (to whom paradoxes are what whales were to Captain Ahab) regards as highly paradoxical the fact that the Church seems to adopt ‘an avidly critical attitude on honesty and truth, while the rationalists act as guardians of superstition. This apparent role reversal is enough to suggest that the whole naive business is about something much more profound.’

That more profound something has to do with death and lying. Lévi-Strauss argues, rather unconvincingly, that children represent the dead: ‘Who can personify the dead in a society of the living if not those who ... are incompletely incorporated into the group, who, that is, share the otherness which symbolises the supreme dualism: that of the dead and the living? Therefore it should come as no surprise that foreigners, slaves and children become the main beneficiaries of the festival.’ The counter-intuitive association of children (or Christmas) with death does, however, fit with some of the submerged themes of the British Christmas canon that the French anthropologist doesn’t mention, such as the Christmas party in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and the imagined deaths of both the protagonist (Scrooge) and a child (Tiny Tim) in A Christmas Carol.

Lévi-Strauss is more convincing in his discussion of lying: ‘The only difference between Father Christmas and a true deity is that adults do not believe in him, although they encourage their children to do so and maintain this belief with a great number of tricks.’ Thus Father Christmas marks the difference between little children who can be fooled and adults who cannot. The secret of his non-existence is the secret of the initiation rite. This lie, however, is the key to the relationship between our children and the dead: children must ‘consent, by believing in Father Christmas, to help us believe in life’. Indeed, ‘the belief that we help to perpetuate in our children that their toys come from “out there” gives us an alibi for our own secret desire to offer them to those “out there” under the pretext of giving them to the children. In this way, Christmas presents remain a true sacrifice to the sweetness of life, which consists first and foremost of not dying.’ This hardly astonishing structuralist insight (life = not dying) seems a little less banal when one recalls that, although the Christian Christmas is about birth (ostensibly, about the birth of the Christ), the pagan Christmas is about death and rebirth (of the sun, at the midwinter solstice).

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