3. So, I’ve explained that painful family experiences left me wholly unconnected to the supposed joys of the holiday season or the stories told as part of it.
However that doesn’t necessarily mean that those stories serve no beneficial function for those fortunate enough to be able to participate in them. To the contrary.
Collective fiction-making is an ubiquitous phenomenon, particularly because we often think that all we’re engaging in is small-talk, or gossip, or social commentary, or politics. But most of the stories we tell about ‘common knowledge’ is really a patchwork of assumptions, presumptions, guess-work, intuition, unrecognized prejudice, ‘common sense,’ and faith in the sources of information deemed trustworthy in a given culture. And it is usually, if not entirely not entirely false, then certainly not entirely true. (The cult of celebrity – whether celebrity actor or celebrity gangster – is really the fascination for stories concerning what cannot be fully be known, and people who cannot really exist, even should the cult object still be living.)
So it is actually a good thing – and a necessary and inevitable part of social discourse – that there are stories we collectively collaborate on, either for our children or for ourselves, that are open and notorious fictions.
It is said that there are people who still believe that Sherlock Holmes was an existent individual – but I have my doubts. Just because writes a letter to Holmes, and mails it to ‘221B Baker Street, London,’ does not mean that they actually believe Holmes exists; rather, it suggests that they are passionate (or highly amused) in their desire to contribute to the continuing construction of the Holmes fictional narrative.
It is hard to say when a collective narrative passes outside of the realm of myth (which are never myth in their own cultures, since they are sincerely believed), and enters into the realm of conscious collective fiction-making. Having cause occasionally to read up on the Coyote stories of Native Americans over the past few decades, I have always been struck by the fact that, while Coyote is used for a great many stories, he doesn’t actually fulfill much of a truly religious function. Parents use Coyote to prepare children for the difficulties they may face in life, but when those difficulties actually appear, they refer to other spirits and rituals unrelated to Coyote, in order to deal with them.
The Santa Claus story, as we have had it develop over the past two hundred years, has its problems – not in constricting critical think (on the contrary, I agree that it overs a moment of right-of-passage to critical thought when children realize its fictionality), but in its crass commercialization and indoctrination into consumerism. But American capitalism being what it is, its hard to find anything in this culture that doesn’t indoctrinate, or at least support, consumerism.
But beyond ongoing social benefits, it should be remembered that the modern Santa story developed in the early 19th century, when the lives of the majority of children in urban settings was truly horrific. Among the working class, they worked 16 hour days (beaten when they were tired), or ended up living in streets with open sewers, begging, whoring, or stealing to live. Their life expectancy was 25 years. Among the middle class, life was materially easier, but children were still considered property, and (often vicious) corporal punishment an expected norm.
The Santa Claus story helped normalize the sense that children were precious, that they were to be cherished and cared for, that a special time of the year could be set aside for them; that their hopes and aspirations could be endorsed and encouraged.
I personally hate Christmas – I hate Santa Claus; he can be used as a signifier for parental oppression.
But that was not always, and is not generally, his story.
Santa – I forgive you.