The Night Before Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and we’ve just put our almost-three-year-old boys to bed, with stockings duly hung and promises of a supernatural visitor in the night. This is the first year the boys have been old enough to benefit from the fraud and so I, like millions of parents before me, have happily contributed to one of the most successful and benign conspiracies in human history.

I say benign knowing full well not everybody sees it that way (coca cola, consumerism, cholesterol, choose your objection) and indeed I’ve even heard parents wondering whether it’s okay to deceive their children. For me, as for most people, it was no difficult decision. Young children naturally inhabit the twilight world between fact and imagination. They are too busy decoding the crude rules of existence to yet bother with the sharper details of which patterns pertain to the real and which to the invented. In the world of my boys, a couch morphs effortlessly into a fire engine, a stick into a microphone, a fly swat into a guitar and a cardboard box into, well pretty much anything. And for exactly the same reason that I’m not about to say ‘don’t be silly, you’re singing into a toothbrush’, I’m not about to object to the Santa construction.

Nevertheless, it does make me think about the interesting journey ahead of them, as they in time must confront the various tricks involved in making sense of their confusing existence.

In time they will learn that yes, sometimes people will lie to them, for the widest variety of reasons they might imagine, and yet, in order to get anywhere, they will also need to learn to trust most people, most of the time.

They will learn that often their instincts are useful guides, but occasionally the things that feel most true are nonsense: already, I watch the way they recoil with fear at the sight of a spider web, while they will sit blithely in the back seat of a car and watch the landscape melt past at a hundred kilometres per hour. (Are they crazy? A ton and a half of metal moving at a hundred kilometres and hour? Do they have no sense of kinetic energy involved? Well actually, no.)

They will learn that the people who have been their guides through the early years of questioning and wonder will become increasingly useless fountains of knowledge as their questions becomes more sophisticated. Indeed, they will find that most of the time the honest answer to their most interesting questions will be, ‘we simply don’t know.’

They will discover that even the things that seem most rock solid are best thought of as only probably true, or in many cases, as crude approximations of the thing we currently consider to be probably true. If they listen carefully they will hear that many things that were once considered self-evident are now thought to be loopy, and will infer that some of our own precious foundations are likely to go the same way.

Some people will probably try to tell them that there is no reality, and in the end all we have is what is inside our head, but if I have anything to do with it, whenever they hear this they will think of what would happen if a child ran out in front of a bus, and dismiss this line of thought as dangerous nonsense.

They will observe, I imagine, that the most certain people are most generally the least well informed, and that anybody who uses the line ‘you can’t prove it’ in an argument is a fool (unless it’s a mathematical argument, and how it would please me to see them have some of them).

They will come to accept that hoping something is true has no impact upon it’s ultimate reality, that the notion of hopeful belief is itself unduly hopeful.

They will be embarrassed to find, at various times, that even the beliefs that seem most stupid to them are supported by thoughtful, careful thinkers who are far smarter than they will ever be.

They will puzzle over the passion with which people attach themselves to pictures of the world, in some cases even being prepared to die for narratives that appear impossible to justify. And if they’re anything like me, they’ll be torn by their conflicting responses of horror and admiration.

Maybe, one day, they will have their own children, and wonder if fiction alone is a steady enough platform to support their most cherished values (and if they’re anything like me, they’ll conclude that it is).

And finally, they will find, when they ask, that on the biggest questions of all, their father is a resolute agnostic, that he is most comfortable with profound uncertainty.

* In the new year, I intend to write a series of posts entitled ‘an agnostic talks to his children about God’, that there may be some record of my metaphysical tastes and preferences. Until then, my challenge is to make my children’s Christmas as much about kindness as it is about consumption.

5 thoughts on “The Night Before Christmas

  1. Cris says:

    That was beauty to read, Bernard. I’m 21, childless, so reading this felt like reading parentmind, a kind of conversation or record your kids can read when life says they’re old enough (i.e. when they stumble upon it) and reflect upon your reflections.

    I’ve thought about truth and untruth a while, but have come to a sort of comfort (dangerous perhaps) with uncertainty, as I deduce maybe you have. You called the uncertainty you are comfortable with as profound, so perhaps I haven’t yet gone deep enough in the unknowable to know it’s unknowable but then I can’t know how far I’ve gone. Haha. So I laugh. There’s arguments to say that what is true and what is untrue/ real and unreal, are just binaries made up by our language, and the language necessitates that we think this way (in binaries) because of its make-up. Perhaps. Somehow, learning that the truth/untruth divide is blurry (the division itself, or the duality, that is) makes things seem less serious. That’s comforting.

    Santa is Santa. When the ‘glass shatters’, the wholehearted belief into something can be channeled into something else. Perhaps it’s easier with Santa and The Easter Bunny because there’s a collective agreement to believe in them, for innocence, for consumerism, whatever. But the mind can make up its own Santa if it wants. Perhaps your boys one day will find partners and enter into some sort of gossamer reality of a relationship that the outside world may well agree with from the outside, leaving the inner sacred creation to be shared between the two. Or more.

    Merry Christmas 🙂

  2. T E Stazyk says:

    Merry Christmas.

    I was thinking of this issue last week when someone was writing about parents needing to deal with kids’ fears around the end of the world hoopla. It put parents in a difficult position of having to explain that not everything you read in the news is the truth and that can be a challenge to learn, even for many adults. It makes me wonder about whether the end result will be a generation of overly credulous or overly skeptical people. And I’m most worried that it creates an environment where conspiracy theories tailored to individual taste become the driver of public ideology.

    But I’m not going to worry about that today!

  3. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Thanks for this. It brings back nice memories of the time not so far gone but also strangely remote when my son was about that age.

    You know, I think we can’t help building some image of what our child will become and, in my case, it was a great wonder and joy to see him grow up into someone completely different and, to my endless delight, much better than I could have imagined.

    Happy holidays to you and your family,


  4. Hi Cris

    I agree, it’s easy to get trapped in unhelpful binaries. I find the habit of deliberately substituting continuums for dichotomies (moving, say, from real versus not real, and thinking instead in terms of ‘how tightly is this model constrained by reality?’) often opens up helpful perspectives.


  5. Rosie says:

    It seems u fully understand quite a lot with regards to this specific topic and it all demonstrates by means of this unique post, given the name “The Night Before Christmas
    | Bernard Beckett” natoma08 . Regards -Juli

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