Thursday, December 23, 2004


Someone somewhere is talking about santa. Good myth or bad lie? Ghosts of Christmas past drift about the conversation:

Davey McGrath has a secret to tell me. We clamber off the climbing frame, wander to a corner of the playground.

“Santa isn’t real,” he whispers into my ear, earnest and excited. “He doesn’t exist.”

“He does!” I tell him, scandalized. “I saw him last year.”

On the way home, I tell myself that my best friend has got this all wrong, terribly wrong. I’ve seen Santa’s hat – surely I did – bobbing past my window, as red as tomato ketchup. I heard the whinny of Rudolph, the scrape of the slay as it took off and soared up, up and away. I did, I did, I did!

But then doubts flood my mind: how could he get round all the houses? Why would he exist? How come that bike he got me last year - it had been stood outside the local second-hand-shop for a month before?

“What’s wrong?” mum asks when I arrive home. I tell her. Soon she is explaining: Santa’s part of the magic of Christmas for children. I’m growing up, so now it’s time for me to understand that. But I better not tell my baby sister.

Of course, I know straight away that I’m joining in with this game: it’s what grown-ups do! I’m seven years old, and the entire world makes perfect sense again.

Years later, I’m covering my chips with tomato ketchup in front of the TV. Long ago my father had given up trying to stop me drenching food in the stuff. All his warnings – that it’ll kill me, that it’s processed rubbish, that it drowns out taste, that it’s no good for you, full of E numbers probably (whatever that meant) – have been firmly ignored. The news is on: the light-hearted feature at the end. The image of a bottle of ketchup suddenly occupies the corner of the screen. “Surprising news from scientists now,” the announcer begins to say. My father looks stunned as the newly-discovered health benefits from the stuff get reeled off – including, even, protection from cancer.

Now, you might expect that I gloated, or we joked about it, or he started eating the it with everything, like I did; hell, you might be picturing a pantry with piles of the magic stuff, bought in bulk. Or maybe that he stormed off, changed the channel, dismissed the claims. But by this time, we already knew about the brain tumour – which, as it turned out, would kill him at the age of 51. There he sat, as fat as santa should be from all of the drugs, letting the cold irony pass in silence, and soon the sports news was on anyhow.

Santa: good lie or bad myth? Ghosts of the past drift around without answers, and the ghosts of the future hold unknown questions. My last day at work this year, and nothing is left to do. Except to wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.