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SECRET SANTA: A CHRISTMAS ANALYSIS

‘Suppose someone unthinkable for us, one of those gentlemen who, we are told – if indeed any have ever existed, don’t believe I attribute any importance to such hearsay – was ever capable of such self-discipline that he no longer believed in Father Christmas’. – Lacan, Seminar III

In the market town of Chippenham in Wiltshire Santa Claus’s secret has been revealed…! by a vicar of the Church of England…! to an assembly of primary school children…! The local news story has now made the nationals: Reverend Simon Tatton-Brown’s apology for apparently denying the existence of Father Christmas to pupils of the Charter Primary School is filling the town’s paper’s front-page headlines, and the country’s papers’ stocking-filler columns; his parabolic derivation of Santa’s origins in the St Nick story having caused uproar and furore with angered parents everywhere.

A comment from kimcrawley at the bottom of the story on the Gazette & Herald website asks: ‘Exactly when do they [the parents] think their children become aware that it’s all about money and not giving – when they are teenagers?’ The point of course is that there may be something like this at stake: we all remember the rumours going around the playground that ‘he doesn’t exist’ – filtering down from the higher years to the lower between games of bulldog – but the fact is that to receive this word from an authority figure creates a quite different symbolic dimension. In the symbolic framework in which the position of authority maintains the tradition of Santa Claus, the kids – even if they know better – defer to this sustained belief, so as both to let the adults have their fantasy (sustaining Santa Claus through fulfilling the role of ‘subjects-supposed-to-believe’), and to keep the coordinates of the symbolic order unperturbed. It is perhaps the very presence of the secret of Santa (a presence which keeps his non-existence as strictly only a possibility) – which always goes unspoken in official moments – that sustains this system of belief. As Žižek asks in this dinner party scene in Less Than Nothing:

What is presence? Imagine a group conversation in which all the participants know that one of them has cancer and also know that everyone in the group knows it; they talk about everything, the new books they have read, movies they have seen, their professional disappointments, politics… just to avoid the topic of cancer. In such a situation, one can say that cancer is fully present, a heavy presence that casts its shadow over everything.

Perhaps similarly, in the rituals of the child’s Christmas, the question of Santa Claus’s existence is kept precisely at bay through its full and heavy presence; that is, through all the talk of red-nosed reindeers, elves, and naughty and nice lists that commences whilst the rumour, or secret, circulates ever more encroachingly under the surface; no one speaking it, despite all knowing that everyone else knows it.

It is this structure, however, that avoids the disruption that an authoritative and definitive pronouncement on the subject – such as the vicar’s – would create (that which might force the kids to really ‘traverse the fantasy’ of Santa; that is, the opposite to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ in play in the maintained tradition). Žižek sums these belief systems up by suggesting that ‘this is the paradox of public space: even if everyone knows an unpleasant fact, saying it in public changes everything.’ Although he may have been making this point in relation to WikiLeaks – through which change can only be revolutionary – it can yet be applied here: the unpleasant facts of the St Nicholas story, the secret of the truth of Santa’s existence; these change everything if said, disrupting the symbolic edifice of belief as if an intervention at the level of the divine might really have come about. Indeed, as Lacan put it: ‘you are all, myself included, inserted into this major signifier called Father Christmas. With Father Christmas things always work out and, I would add, they work out well.’

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