Even in England, where religious believers make up a much smaller percentage of the population and (unlike the USA) evolution and other scientific theories are widely accepted and understood – and probably accepted because they are understood, this very smart and funny song by Tim Minchin was cut from a TV show at the last minute for fear of offending anyone.
He also did this wonderful piece in The New Statesman about his feelings regarding lying to his daughter about Santa:
In the lead-up to last Christmas, when my daughter Violet had just turned four, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Is Father Christmas real?”
This was a problem for me. I had, up until this point, convinced myself that telling my kid a lie about the origins of her scooter was part and parcel of parenting – that denying a child the idea of Santa would be Scroogian in the extreme. The trouble is, I have no memory of believing in the physics-defying fattie myself.
One of our classic Minchin family tales is of Christmas Eve 1978, when I was three and my mum asked me in an excited voice, “Who’s coming down the chimney tonight?!” To which I replied, after a brow-creased pause, “Gran?” (It is also part of Minchin lore that I was a very boring and quite dim kid.)
Regardless, our Violet had seemed quite excited the previous year when we had left a mince pie and a beer by the blocked-up chimney – (Violet: “But there’s no hole. How will he get down?” Me: “That’s the least of his worries . . .”) – and I’d felt great when she’d squealed with glee at five in the (fucking) morning upon discovering the comestibles had been consumed and that a reindeer had left hoof-prints in the icing sugar by the piano.
But now something in the assertion of the existence of this bearded philanthropist had given her pause, so she had come to me for clarification.
I wasn’t surprised – earlier in the year I’d overheard a conversation she’d had with her friend Alice as they sat by a lake:
Violet If you fell in there, you’d drown.
Alice Someone would come and pull you out.
Violet Yeah, but if the grown-ups weren’t around, you’d die.
Alice [Pause] When you die, you go somewhere lovely.
Violet But then how would you know it’s lovely? You wouldn’t have your eyes and ears.
. . . an incomplete but still pretty damning dismantling of the infantile idea that we (to quote my editor) survive our own deaths.
Violet has always been obsessed by what is “real”. Figuring out what truly exists seems to be the way she deals with her fears. Most of the time when she asks if something is real, she’s hoping it’s not: trolls, dragons and witches have all been happily relegated to the fiction bin and she sleeps well in the knowledge that they’re not going to crawl back out and attack her in her bed.
And so I face a dilemma: I had sold her the myth of Father Christmas in the spirit of allowing a child a sense of wonderment, but I felt that lying to her face when she’d asked me point blank about the veracity of my claims was a step too far.
I fumbled around a bit before opting for: “Father Christmas is real . . . in the imaginary world.”
This didn’t really satisfy her, nor should it have. Like so much language in theology, philosophy and parenting, that sentence has the odour of wisdom, but is a load of old bollocks. Quite nice as a phrase, but pure sophistry, like a lot of the stuff I say on stage and like nearly everything your preacher has ever said. It is the stuff of obfuscation – words to divert, like the passive hand of the magician – not the clarification Vi was seeking.
But I suppose my answer served a function. She subsequently went along with the story and I reckon she will again this year.
By offering her the paradoxical notion of a non-real real, I allowed her the opportunity to just “go with it” and hopefully she’ll happily do so until her friends find out it’s a myth, at which point she can quietly slip back into knowing what she suspected all along.
There’ll be no crushing blow of revelation aged seven.
I have, on the other hand, felt no compulsion to obscure answers to the more serious questions. Vi was very young when she asked what happens when you die, and I told her, “You just stop.” I see no problem at all with that answer. Not only is it demonstrably true, but it also has thewondrous quality of not eliciting a whole lot of further annoying questions.
I was asked recently how I reconcile my reputation for championing a naturalistic world-view with the fact that I have co-written Matilda – a musical based on a Roald Dahl novel about a girl who is preternaturally gifted and, eventually, telekinetic.
What an odd question. Do people really think that living a life unencumbered by superstition necessitates the rejection of fiction?
I adore stories. Our version of Matilda, even more so than the original Dahl, is a story about stories. About the importance of imagination, and of fiction’s ability not only to educate and enlighten us, but to free us, to set our minds soaring beyond reality.
My daughter will grow up reading stories and I hope she will have a rich and lifelong relationship with the imaginary. But I will not try to train her out of the natural instinct to look for truth.
I adore Christmas. The fact that I know that Christianity’s origins lie more in Paul of Tarsus’s mental illness and the emperor Constantine’s political savvy than in the existence of the divine has no bearing on my ability to embrace this age-old festival of giving, family and feasting.
Our lives would be empty without stories, and the story of Jesus is quite a nice one. One that, in theory and sometimes even in practice, promotes compassion and humility and wisdom and peace.
Jesus is real . . . in the imaginary world. A five-year-old could tell you that.
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