Sunday, 13 December 2015

The execution of Father Christmas

In the run up to Christmas, Christian clergy traditionally beg anybody who might be listening to remember the real meaning of Christmas (according to a definition of "real" that includes stories about a baby whose dad was definitely the supernatural being who, among other things, created the entire Universe and whose mum was totally a virgin).

The Anglican Church tends to make this plea in an earnestly apologetic sort of tone, as though terribly sorry to interrupt busy people already preoccupied with the time-consuming business of Christmas shopping, sending cards, organising seasonal relative-visiting and catering logistics and so on.

In other places and times, the tone is rather different. According to national stereotypes, the French have no time for this sort of self-effacing diffidence, preferring excitable direct action.

The stereotype seemed to ring true in 1951, when the clergy of Dijon wanted to remind the faithful about the true reason for the season and their reminder came in an altogether more demonstrative fashion. They denounced Father Christmas as a heretic, who had no business intruding on a festival that was supposed to be all about baby Jesus and arranged with their flock to have an effigy of the jolly old soul hung from the railings of Dijon Cathedral, then burnt. According to France-soir:

Dijon, 24 December

Father Christmas was hanged yesterday afternoon from the railings of Dijon Cathedral and burnt publicly in the precinct. This spectacular execution took place in the presence of several hundred Sunday school children. It was a decision made with the agreement of the clergy who had condemned Father Christmas as a usurper and heretic. He was accused of `paganizing' the Christmas festival and installing himself like a cuckoo in the nest, claiming more and more space for himself. Above all he was blamed for infiltrating all the state schools from which the crib has been scrupulously banished.

On Sunday, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the unfortunate fellow with the white beard, scapegoated like so many innocents before him, was executed by his accusers. They set fire to his beard and he vanished into smoke. At the time of the execution a communiqué was issued to the following effect:

`Representing all Christian homes of the parish keen to struggle against lies , 250 children assembled in front of the main door of Dijon Cathedral and burned Father Christmas.

`It wasn't intended as an attraction, but as a symbolic gesture. Father Christmas has been sacrificed. In truth, the lies about him cannot arouse religious feeling in a child and are in no way a means of education. Others may say and write what they want about Father Christmas, but the fact is he is only the counterweight of a modern-day Mr Bogeyman.
`For Christians the festivity of Christmas must remain the annual celebration of the birth of the Saviour.'
Father Christmas's execution in the Cathedral precinct got a mixed response from the public and provoked lively commentaries even from Catholics.

The affair has divided the town into two camps. Dijon awaits the resurrection of Father Christmas, assassinated yesterday in the cathedral precinct. He will arise this evening at six o'clock in the Town Hall. An official communiqué announced that, as every year, the children of Dijon are invited to Liberation Square where Father Christmas will speak to them from the floodlit roof of the Town Hall.

Very strange. Although the War Against Christmas may be a paranoid conservative fantasy (most secular liberals are, at worst, merely indifferent), it seems that the civil war within Christmas (between the pious, who claim ownership of the season for religious reasons and businesses which value it as a profitable celebration of consumerist indulgence) is a real thing.