December. That time of the year when my little daughter’s sense of magic fights with her awareness of the real world – and loses. She comes from two generations of fairly laidback, irreligious, non-ritual-practicing people on both sides of the family, and is probably hard-wired to grow into a non-believer.
But all children need some magic in their lives. And by magic I mean that basic human urge to try and explain natural phenomena. Life. Death. How people were made. How the sun and moon were born. Or why cutting onions makes you cry. This need to explain – to basically create a beginning and an end for ourselves and our experiences – is a very human one. And perhaps it is the fount of all religious thought.
Both the thinner half and I had fairly non-religious childhoods. Our irrational cravings, therefore, are those inspired by the popular culture of our youth. Thanks to Linda Goodman, I can’t begin my day without reading my horoscope in three newspapers. The man saw E.T. in his childhood (an experience he is unlikely to let me forget) and probably because of that believes firmly in life on other planets.
But religion and ritual do offer great comfort. Ursula LeGuin nailed it when she wrote, ‘In our loss and fear we crave the acts of religion, the ceremonies that allow us to admit our helplessness, our dependence on the great forces we do not understand.’ When I am calmer, when someone I love isn’t unwell, I’m all scientific and agnostic. But it doesn’t take much to bring on that helpless feeling – a minor fall or an eye infection can terrify me. And then I’ll leap frantically across to the other side, promising coconuts, Saturday temple visits and Hail Marys.
Every now and then, I worry about my daughter not having a framework of belief to reach out to in times of distress. Then I drag her off to the temple. But since I can’t sustain the momentum, it falls slightly flat. She remains curious and watchful, but I can tell there’s very little real, emotional connect.
My mother, who life has badgered into non-belief, worries about this. Don’t ask me why. ‘Your child doesn’t believe in god!’ she says frantically, ‘Do something!’ I try not to remind her that she was the one who told the girl, at 4 years of age, that god didn’t exist, that temples and churches were just full of statues and pictures. At that time, my 26-year-old brother had just met with a fatal accident, leaving us hurt and bitter. It’s hard to always watch what you’re teaching a child.
When my kid lost her first tooth, I suggested the tooth fairy. She laughed at me. So I threw away all subsequent teeth. A year later, her friend lost her first tooth and got a gift from the tooth fairy. ‘There’s no such thing as the tooth fairy,’ mine declaimed. ‘I’ve lost so many teeth and never got a gift!’ The friend replied, ‘That’s because you don’t believe in the fairy!’
And that’s how she learnt, at 6, that sometimes it just pays to suspend disbelief, and hold out your hand. So the next tooth was saved, and the tooth fairy visited us. But Doubting Thomasina re-surfaced. Our long, hair-splitting discussions always ended with me saying helplessly, ‘Well, yes, she doesn’t exist, but if you want, you can think she does. And anyway, you got a gift, na?!’ Like my friend Hansa says, finally, chances are the only deity she'll believe in will be the tooth fairy!
Now it’s Christmas again, that time of the year when she scoffs, ‘There’s no Santa! I know it’s you only giving me gifts.’ This year, she said the same thing, but added with a smile, ‘Though, I don’t mind being a baby and believing in Santa for some time!’ She holds out a list of what she wants – four Secrets of Droon books, four Tintins, and, she adds, ‘a few surprises’.
Obviously there’s a Santa Claus. It’s just that she’s called ‘Mummy’!
Just as an aside, the Santa Claus legend has its origins in Germanic and Dutch pagan lore. The pagan Sinterklaas became - via Odin (see b&w pic) and St Nicholas (see sepia-tone pic) - first the British Father Christmas (shown riding a goat) and then the American Santa Claus [thank you, wikipedia: In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving's History of New York, (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into "Santa Claus" (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
The idea taken in by - what else - advertising and given a lovely, rotund, cheery image in a series of Coke advts from 1931 to the 1950s. Click on the link for more!