A few week ago my grandson aged 4 excitedly told his sister, 7, when she came home from school, "Guess what? I saw Santa Claus today at Albany, the real one."
"No, it can't have been the real one," she told him, "because it's not December yet."
Well it's December now and pretty soon a seven year-old is going to be hearing talk at school that causes her to ask the question. I just hope I'm not the one she asks. This is turning out to be quite a difficult Christmas for the merry old fellow.
First he was nearly sacked from Auckland's Christmas parade for saying his was not a job for women. Then his image was so severely indigenised in the Nelson parade that the children didn't recognise him. How silly was that?
Children understand the concept of mythology much better than adults do. My mother reckoned I was very young when we came home from the Invercargill shops one day and I asked her why the Santa in H and J Smith was different from the one in McKenzie's. At that point she decided the game was up, though I don't remember any of that. I do dimly remember wrestling with the practical improbability of the Santa's one night world tour. But once I knew the truth it didn't ruin the story, it never does.
I love early December when the Christmas spirit is fresh, the carols and the bunting are in the shops and everyone holds their Christmas party early because they think everyone else is having their party closer to Christmas. The silliness around Santa this season is just a symptom of the fact that adults take him more seriously than children do.
Neville Baker, happily anonymous as Santa in Auckland's parade for the past five years, has a business supplying Santas for all occasions and he was going to be fired because he answered a reporter's question a little too crudely for the comfort of the chairman of the Children's Christmas Parade Trust, Michael Barnett.
It was not so much that he would not hire women for the role as the way he said, Barnett explained. "We found his comments to be inappropriate and unnecessary," he said. Santa, like everyone else, is supposed to talk in the opaque language of crafted "communications" these days, using words like inappropriate, not because children may be listening but because adults might be offended.
As for the farce in Nelson, that was purely for adult consumption. They must have known kids would be disappointed but it was more clearly important to the organisers to impress adults with their creative, contemporary cultural diversity.
The actual adult response to both issues has been refreshing. Even the Human Rights Commission sided with Auckland's Santa, suggesting this is one role that can be immune to equal employment opportunities. And I have heard of no serious defence of the apparition in the Nelson parade apart from on Radio NZ. The whole thing looked like the sort of wet Pakeha solicitude that must often make Māori cringe.
But we all guilty of using Santa for adult gratification. Why else do we perpetrate this deception of children? We tell them plenty of other stories that are not true and we don't pretend they are. The stories we read to them at bedtime or that they enjoy on screens. They love them, think about them and want to hear or watch those stories again and again. They would enjoy Santa Claus — and indeed the Christian story of Christmas — just as much if we did not pretend it was true. So why do we do it?
Is it that we enjoy the illusion more than children do? We love telling each other what the kids say about Santa Claus. We find their innocent credulity delightful and our conspiracies to deceive them a little naughty.
Is that we need little ones to believe in Santa more than they need to believe it? All the beauty of the season, all the Santas in the stores, the music and tinsel and reindeer and red bonnets and holly and ivy and loveliness are invested with their magic by the fact that little children believe in it.
That enable us to see it through their eyes. Then at some point they realise they are not always going to be told the truth, and maybe they also realise deceptions can be well intentioned. I suppose those are truths everyone needs to learn. But myths have a power truth cannot manage. They promote qualities like goodness, kindness, bravery and commitment without history's contention.
Meanwhile, my granddaughter has written a letter to Santa telling him what she wants for Christmas and she won't tell her mother what it is. She knows something's up.