A Box of Delights?

This post is about many things. It’s about Christmas and presents and magic. It’s also about lies and emptiness and despair.

I remember when I first really grasped that I would die one day. I was around five years old and I was in the bath. I was chatting to my father. He was the sort of man who never tired of answering my questions. We had been discussing the birth of Jesus. I wanted to know the rest of the story, so dad gave me a brief account. He included Jesus dying on the cross. This side-tracked me. I was happy to learn that Jesus came back three days later, but I thought the mechanics of dying were important. The school guinea pig had died at Christmas time. This had made me sad. I was intrigued by death more than birth: the apparent finality that the story of Jesus appeared to subvert. I asked dad about Heaven. He asked me where I had been before I was born. I said I didn’t know. He said it was the same with death. We didn’t need to worry about it. Jesus and God made sure it was all ok. That comforted me, at the time.

As a child, I loved my religion. I also loved magic and fantasy. I wanted them to be real. Years later, when I was eight, I loved the kids’ TV series “The Box of Delights”. The magic in it was like nothing else, better even than Narnia. I remember my fury when the series came to an end and it was all a dream. The hero, Kay, wakes up on a train and none of the miraculous events really happened. He seems happy about it! He says it was a wonderful dream. I didn’t think much of that. If it wasn’t real, it was no good.

Christmas was magic. There was the magic of the Nativity, with the star, the angels and the baby with the halo. That was real magic. Grown ups said it was true, so it had to be true. Then there was the more tenuous magic of Father Christmas. I always knew that it had a theatricality to it, though. We didn’t have a chimney, for a start. Also, every Santa that I met was different. Most of them were wearing fake beards. I thought that there was probably some truth in it somewhere, there was a real Father Christmas that the others worked for. Lots of children believed it and grown ups insisted it was true. Some of it was a game, I could tell, but there was surely some hidden truth.

I used to have very vivid dreams as a child. Sometimes I still do. My nightmares were awful, but they were balanced by wonderful adventures. I often felt cheated when I woke up. It was no good having all that excitement in a dream. I wondered if the dreams might be real in some way. Maybe my soul went for adventures at night. I clung to that idea.

Once I dreamt that Father Christmas took me for a ride in his sleigh. It was not cartoonish, it was powerfully real. I can still remember the furs that covered the leather seats, the smooth, dark curves of the wooden sleigh and the solid bulk of Father Christmas as he steered the reindeer. He was as solid and as real as my father. When I woke up, I cried because it was over. I told myself that it had been real in its own way.

At primary school, we used to decorate the hall and the classrooms. I loved decorating for Christmas, I still do. It’s easier to believe in magic when there are trees growing indoors and there are twinkling lights at every window. I remember the ‘presents’ that went under the tree at primary school. They fascinated me. They were wrapped in gold paper and shining red paper that was as bright as tin foil. I wanted to know what was inside, what lucky child would be picked to be given these presents. I imagined that they were the best presents in the world. They had to be special: the wrapping sparkled. I remember my disappointment when I helped Miss Davies to put them out one year. They were just empty boxes. They were only for decoration.

Getting presents was exciting. I began to realize, though, that I was more excited by the potential than by the actual gifts. A pillowcase full of bundles and packages could be a pillowcase full of anything. I always hoped that one year I would get the magic book or the magic key that would let my adventure begin. I was a lucky kid in some ways and I had great presents, but the imaginary ones were always out of reach. My chemistry set couldn’t turn me into a super hero, my “Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were” was a book of fiction and my LEGO spaceships couldn’t really fly. Christmas magic faded into Christmas fun. The magician at the Sunday School Christmas party ceased to be doing magic, he was doing clever tricks. I still liked the presents and the tricks, but I learnt that the magic was hiding from me.

I was in my early twenties when dad got cancer. I still believed in God, just about, but that was the extent of magic in my life. I could buy the “Fortean Times” as much as I liked, but I was never going to be abducted by aliens or have an encounter with a ghost. No amount of prayer made dad’s cancer go away. He was pissed off, but he never seemed scared. He maintained that he did not fear what happened before he was born, so there was no point fearing what happened after he died.

He died in the run up to Christmas 2000. The process had taken months. It had not been pleasant.

There was nothing magical about the practical business of planning a funeral. There was nothing magical about burying his ashes. Life went on.

I try to recreate the magic for my kids. My six year old has just got into “The Box of Delights”. She isn’t bothered that it’s all a dream, she still loves it. She’s good at believing in magic. A trip to a National Trust Property is a fairytale adventure for her. Elsie the Elf is really getting into mischief at night. When we met Father Christmas at Calke Abbey, she accepted that he was the ‘proper’ one.

I don’t take my kids to Church. It would be hypocrisy. Most days I don’t believe it myself. I do tell them the stories, though. It’s their cultural heritage: we’re WASPS. I also tell them that some people say they’re true and some people say they’re just stories. I admit that I don’t know. My six year old believes them. She also believes in fairies, Father Christmas and the Greek Gods. She’s an eclectic theologian.

I want to believe that life is made up of stories. Stories are better than chaos. The facts suggest ordered chaos, though. Everything is part of a complex physical process. The weather seems chaotic to us, but it’s ordered. There’s no magic. When you look back, you can track how this hurricane started or how that blizzard began. We indulge ourselves in the idea that our lives have stories. We don’t like to think that our free will is dictated by physical processes. We tell ourselves that we made this decision or that for excellent reasons. We tell ourselves that we are good people because we choose to be and that THEY are bad because they choose to be bad. We don’t want to think that it might be determined by factors outside of our control. We don’t like the idea that we aren’t free from the chaos, we as much part of it as the roaring winds or the falling snow.

I try to analyse myself, try to find the soul. I’m like one of those fake presents at primary school, no matter how I shine, I’m empty. There’s no soul hiding away, no free will. I’m a set of processes. The chemistry set that I got for Christmas one year couldn’t make magic potions. It taught me about chemical reactions. It taught me about science. It was wonderful, in a way, but it wasn’t magic. The world was scientific, not magical. That was interesting, but it wasn’t what I had hoped for. The processes of life and death are interesting, but they’re not magical. We tell ourselves stories to bring the magic back, to create meaning where there is none.

Sometimes I can maintain my belief in stories and in meaning. I’ve been struggling today. I’ve read about Aleppo, about the bombs, the executions and the torture. I’m whining about my existential angst while families like mine contemplate suicide rather than death at the hands of brutes.

I read, too, about a little boy that was terminally ill in the USA. He was five. He was sad that he was going to miss Christmas. A man dressed as Santa went to visit him. The man looked excellent in the photographs. He had a good costume, nothing tacky. His beard was real. He gave the little boy a present and the little boy asked what it would be like when he died. The man assured him that he would go to Heaven. The little boy asked, “Santa, can you help me?” It was the last thing that he said.

It hurts because I have children and I can begin to glimpse that vast pain the boy’s parents must feel. Then I imagine the pain of those parents in Aleppo, trying to think of a way to kill their children gently before the soldiers come. Pain like that should not exist. At least the family in the USA know that the little boy died believing in heaven, hoping for magic. Where is the comfort for the families in Aleppo? What stories do those parents tell the children before the end?

How can we still tell ourselves that there is magic when we look at our world? What narrative explains the suffering and the hate? Is religion any comfort? Not to me, not today. If God is there, watching this suffering, I don’t understand God. Is science any better? It’s nobody’s fault. They’re all just following the rigid laws of biology, chemistry and physics. The good people don’t choose good any more than the evil choose evil. Physical processes follow physical laws. The suffering is all in the mind. It ends. I don’t find that very comforting either.

What do I do for other people? I send what I can to charity. I comfort myself knowing a refugee somewhere has a jumper that belonged to me. Small comfort for either of us.

What do I do for my loved ones? I help them to be happy. If the box is empty, let’s make sure the outside is especially shiny. If it’s all a dream at the end, let’s make it a wonderful dream. I can’t help people who are suffering. Refusing to be happy won’t make their plight any less tragic. I shall accept that I am powerless to help the wider world. Instead, I shall hold my wife and be glad that the soldiers aren’t coming for us. I shall tell stories to my children and create magic for them while I still can.

It’s dark outside, but the lights are twinkling in here. I can’t get rid of the dark outside, but I can make sure that I don’t let it in. Even if I can’t make myself happy, I can damn well make sure that my family are. If the shine and the sparkle are all that we have against the darkness, let’s enjoy them. If the story comes to an end and it was all a dream, let’s make it a wonderful dream. It’s all we have.



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