Tuesday, 29 November 2011


A Guest post by Dr. John Kremer, Queens University, Belfast

While psychologists continue to jostle with each other in their eagerness to catch a ride on the latest passing band wagon, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that one character with considerable potential in the gravy train stakes still remains a mystery - Father Christmas. We are urged and cajoled to wrestle with applied problems and socially relevant issues ad nauseam yet Santa Claus continues on his jolly way without so much as a cost-benefit analysis. The major impact he has on the lives of many is without dispute - including small children, parents, toy manufacturers, advertising executives, bank managers and Santa not-so-lookalikes tucked away in dark corners of department stores - characters who have struck terror into the hearts of more toddlers  than the original has had glasses of Emva Cream.  Why are we so reluctant to pull back the cape in the best tradition of psychological enquiry? Could it be that the Ghosts of Christmasses Past still haunt the corridors of psychology departments, leaving us happily bewitched, bewildered but not really bothered about delving into the wide eyed amazement of our childhood. Whatever is the case we are left with the massive popularity of the story of Father Christmas, and the perplexing question as to why we should encourage those in our care to believe, often despite our own whispered misgivings. 

The roots of the story do not seem to offer much help here. The character of St Nicholas was apparently based on two people, the Bishops of Sion and Myra, who lived in the 4th century A.D., one of whom reputedly paid a ransom of three bags of gold to save a kidnapped girl (and in the process unwittingly invented the pawnbrokers sign).  A more fruitful line of enquiry begins with the version of Father Christmas or Sante Klass made popular among Dutch settlers in the United States during the early nineteenth century. The story in its blandest terms is of a mysterious figure who arrives at a particular time of year bearing gifts for those who believe. To receive this largesse requires nothing more than faith, although to be honest it is considered helpful to negotiate a realistic expectation through a third party.  To the likes of Levi-Strauss or Roland Barthes surely this tale would have borne all the hallmarks of a classic modern myth, and by scraping away the surface structure, the universal logic will be revealed - perhaps concerning the fundamental nature of giving and receiving, or the structure of social relationships in general. 

More of this later. In the meanwhile it may be interesting to speculate as to how the heavyweights from psychology's history may have discussed the phenomenon of Father Christmas. To Freud, "a large part of the mythological view of the world is nothing but psychology projected into the external world." The symbolism inherent in the tale of a red and white figure squeezing down a chimney flue before jubilantly emptying a sack speaks for itself, to psychoanalysts and non-believers alike. Moving rapidly on from Freud and his stocking hang-ups we next encounter the neo-Freudian, Carl Jung. To Jung, an archetype nestling in our collective unconscious would seem to describe Father Christmas very well, that of the Wise Old Man. Although not discussed in detail by Jung, this archetype could be described as the masculine counterpoint to the Earth Mother - the all seeing, all knowledgeable, helpful guru. There remains a paradox as regards Father Christmas's colour scheme however, for many Jungians, including Maud Bodkin, would see the colour red as having "a soul of terror that has come to it through the history of the race". At least that may help explain red-nosed Rudolph's unhappy peer relations.

Turning our attention from Father Christmas himself to characteristics of his young devotees, behaviorists of all persuasions would find little difficulty in explaining why children continue to believe given the very tangible rewards which are assumed to hinge on that behaviour. In contrast Erving Goffman may argue that the children are consciously and deliberately acting out a role in a well rehearsed drama, for their own benefit as well as that of their adult audience. Jean Piaget, and perhaps George Herbert Mead, may have had rather more to say about why those of particular ages seem to be more ardent and unchallenging in their belief. An egocentric outlook on life must surely help children come to terms with the logistics of distributing parcels over the entire globe in under six hours, not excepting those whose parents work for the Post Office. A further contribution could be added from outside the discipline by Karl Marx, who perhaps would have argued that the religious concepts of heaven and hell and eternity are rather too abstract and distant for small children to appreciate. Instead a more palatable opiate to begin the religious training and addiction of the tiny masses could be based on immediate reward for belief in the form of presents.

Finally there is the analysis which has its grounding in social exchange theory. George Homans proposed that all social relationships are based on the balancing of rewards and costs.  At Christmas this process of exchange is starkly revealed in all its glory. Present must be carefully matched in value by present, card must be reciprocated with card. Those who break these conventions risk becoming at best embarrassed, at worst the butt of family jokes for years to come. Young children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participators. For older children, thank-you letters provide some recompense for distant (sic) relatives but for the illiterate under fives even this option is ruled out. This effectively leaves two alternatives. Either small children can be told that they cannot take part and therefore will not receive presents, or they can be involved as keen observers, learning the ropes without being acknowledged as fully fledged members of the system. They receive presents but as they have nothing to give in return, the individual they receive from has to be far removed from the normal exchange process.

This is where Father Christmas makes his appearance, all the way from the North Pole. He bears gifts but expects nothing in return from the child. (As fully paid up subscribers to the exchange system, parents do not escape quite so easily - they are expected to reciprocate the kindness with a token mince pie and glass of sherry.) So, when the red cloak is pulled aside what is revealed is a bearded philanthrope playing out a crucial role within the minefield of social exchange we call Christmas.

In the future perhaps more psychologists can come forward to help to advance our understanding and interpretation of Father Christmas, but let's face it, if you believe even half of these interpretations then presumably you would believe anything, including flying reindeer. At the end of the day I am left wondering if this isn't one stone that is better left unturned. Or as the blues singer Memphis Slim so deftly put it, "After all is said and done,  Only fools have fun.”  

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