It's been a while since the last pure entertainment post. In this festive season, where Jeremy Clarkson has offended the unions and the strikers, the unions have offended everyone who didn't strike, and a man dressed as Santa offended someone by telling her child she was on the naughty list, I offer something that should have every child on the damn planet screaming awake in terror on Christmas Eve and every parent, every church, and pretty much most of those seven billion delicate little souls out there well and truly huffed and upset. I will not be outdone by a pompous car show presenter and a bunch of humourless union yobbos.
Read on, and discover what your child's notes to Santa really mean. I'm just going to sit in the corner and cackle for a while.
A Christmas Contract
Father Jacob Monteith stopped in the snow outside the toyshop and stared through the window. He passed this shop every evening on his way home from church. Most of the year he ignored it but in the weeks before Christmas he allowed himself a curl of the lip. He had always walked past, sneering, but this evening he stopped and stared.
It was never meant to be this way. The birth of Christ was the only reason for Christmas. A message of peace and an end to mankind’s strife, but this window showed him console games of war and death, of cars racing through city streets, of criminal activities undertaken for fun, of torment and of the demons of Hell. Toy robots bristled with weaponry. Monstrous plastic shapes leered back at him through the glass, the latest horror film characters rendered in ghastly realism and encased in individual see-through packs.
Dolls dressed in tiny skirts and low-cut tops, dolls ready to be made up and dressed like street-corner hookers and boxes of play makeup for the little girls to emulate them. This Christmas did not come from God. This Christmas came from someone else, and now Father Monteith knew who, and he knew where and when it had changed. The memory of today’s confessional blurred his vision.
It had been an uneventful confessional so far that afternoon. A few lustful thoughts, the usual petty snipes at neighbours, things said in haste and now regretted. Father Monteith doubted that God even listened to such trivial concerns these days. Against the mayhem in the world, they could surely mean nothing. He dispatched each with no more than a few ‘Hail Marys’ and some lit candles. There was nobody doomed to eternity in the flames this day.
The final confessor of the day took a seat and Father Monteith opened the grille. The shadowy figure spoke with a man’s voice.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” There followed a pause.
“How long has it been since your last confession, my son?” It was unusual for Father Monteith to need to prompt his parishioners. His brow furrowed as he tried to place a face to the voice.
“I haven’t done this before, Father.”
“Are you a Catholic?” The prospect of telling one not of the Faith to clear off was daunting, but could he take confession from someone outside his flock?
“Yes, Father, but I have rarely attended church. I am sorry. If I had known—” The voice choked off.
“There is a first time for us all, my son. What is it you wish to confess?”
Another long pause. “It’s something terrible. I didn’t know until it was too late. It’s not just me. There are others. Hundreds. Thousands. All over the world.”
“Calm down, my son. I’m sure it’s not as bad as that.” Father Monteith released the catch on his door. The man’s voice had become shrill and he could well be unhinged. This might be the confession he had heard about and always dreaded—the real, terrible crime confession.
Through the grille came the sound of deep breaths. “I am sorry, Father. It’s just so terrible. I can still barely believe it. I’ve sold my soul to evil, Father.”
Father Monteith pursed his lips. He suspected the man had watched one too many horror films. People did not sell their souls to Satan in this day and age. Still, there were some who believed in that mediaeval nonsense and they had to be brought back to reality gently.
“Pacts with the devil are not binding on the good Christian soul, my son. Tell me about this deal you made and we’ll see what can be done to free you from it.”
“It’s too late, Father. Christmas is nearly here. I always thought it was Christian to observe it but all these years I was wrong. It’s not Christian at all. The tree, the fairies, the tinsel, the gifts, all of it is wrong.”
Father Monteith sighed. “The Church has often spoken about the commercialisation of Christmas. We ignore the pagan aspects and the money-changing parts and we stick to our beliefs. We rejoice in the birth of Christ. It does no harm to partake of the gifts and the decorations as long as that love of God is foremost in our minds. You need not fear Satan, my son.”
“Satan.” The man spat the word. “Satan has nothing to do with this. I made my deals with Santa. Year after year, I wrote notes and year after year, he delivered. He kept his part of the bargain. Now my soul is his.”
“um...” Father Monteith checked his door was free to open in case he needed it in a hurry. There had been fruitloops in the confessional before but this one was the whole Harvest Festival’s worth with a cherry on the top. Sold his soul to Santa?
“Santa isn’t real.” The man spoke the words before they left Father Monteith’s lips. “He’s just an image. Stolen from Christianity.”
Father Monteith rubbed his head. “Santa is not part of Scripture, my son. He’s based on Saint Nicholas and—”
“You’re wrong, Father. They took the image, the affinity with fireplaces, the corruption—smoking, drinking, gluttony—the unseen and secretive nature, an association with the old Pagan elves, the midnight appearance and they even contrived to make his name an anagram of the most evil creature in the Bible. Santa isn’t Satan, Father. He’s a caricature. A corruption of the most corrupt, so cleverly made that he seems benign.”
“I don’t think I understand you,” Father Monteith said. “You didn’t make some kind of pact with Satan and you don’t believe Santa is real. So who did you do this deal with, and why?”
The man took a deep breath. “When Christianity swept across Europe, it brushed away all the old gods. It did this by taking over their festivals and renaming them. So the Pagan spring fertility rites became Easter and the Winter Solstice became Christmas. The early pilgrims did it deliberately. They wanted to overwrite the old ways.”
Father Monteith nodded. “That’s a matter of history and is well known, my son. The True Faith overcame the primitive superstitions and devil-worship.”
“No, Father, it didn’t. It pushed those old gods aside but they didn’t die. They watched and learned and they retaliated. They created Santa.”
“Oh, come now. Santa is a children’s story. Based on Saint Nicholas, maybe, but he’s just a story. An image on a card, a fantasy. Something to entertain the innocence of youth. He’s nothing to do with devils and monsters.”
“Isn’t it the Church who says that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to make people believe he didn’t exist? Father, I’m not making this up. Those old Pagan gods made Santa and they made him nonexistent. He’s a mask. An illusion. It’s not Santa we ask for gifts. It’s those old gods.”
Father Monteith lowered his head and wished there were some way to refer this confessor to a psychiatrist. “Look—” He heard the harshness in his voice, paused and tried again. “The gifts come from the parents. Santa delivers nothing. There are no real elves making presents at the North Pole and no flying reindeer. Santa is just a story. A game parents play with their children. Santa doesn’t get the notes the children send and he doesn’t really bring presents down the chimney. Your pact is imaginary. Those childhood notes to Santa were fulfilled by your parents. If you owe your soul to anyone, it’s to them.”
“Temptation, Father. The children write the notes and the old gods tempt the parents into spending money they cannot afford. The gods don’t buy the presents themselves, that’s true, but they get the child’s wish granted. They fulfil their side of the contract. The deal is made with the help of our parents and none of us realise what we’re doing.”
Father Monteith blew a long, slow, silent breath before responding. “This is all in your imagination, my son. Those old Pagan gods are long gone. They were never real in the first place. They were made up by people who had not heard the Gospel and when they did, they abandoned their illusory gods and turned to the one true God.”
“How can you say that, Father? The demonic spirits are taught as real and dangerous by the Church. We are told to beware of them, told to watch for their tricks and deceptions and the old Pagan gods are among those spirits. Spirits don’t die, Father.” The man snorted. “If spirits die, then the promise of an everlasting afterlife rings a little hollow, doesn’t it?”
“It is not the same thing!” Father Monteith held up his hands. “I am sorry, my son. I didn’t mean to shout. But surely you must see the absurdity of your statements? I mean, Santa wasn’t even invented until Christianity had been the dominant religion here for quite some time. He hadn’t even been thought of before then so he simply cannot be a Pagan god.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “You accept that Santa is not real, that he does not receive the children’s notes and that the parents buy the presents. There is no demon making deals with infants. It’s all a fairy tale.”
In the long silence that followed, the man’s breathing and his occasional shifting on his seat were Father Monteith’s only indications that his visitor was still there. He moved closer to the grille. “Are you all right, my son?”
“You cannot help me, Father, because you do not believe this devil is real. I don’t mean your horned and hoofed red Satan. I mean the invisible, silent, ancient spirits that the Church ignores. Your own Church teaches that Satan works best when we don’t believe he even exists.” The man opened the confessional door, allowing a little light into his side. “I didn’t really think you could help, but I hoped you could warn others. It’s too late for me.”
Through the grille, Father Monteith could make out a shabby, unshaven man, his face mostly obscured by the shadows in the small box. He felt an urge to discuss this matter further. Something had touched his mind, something primal, some idea buried in what people like to call ‘race memory’.
“We can continue this conversation less formally, if you wish. Would you like to chat in the church, when it’s quiet?”
“There’s no point.” The man rose from his seat. “Santa is not Satan, Father. Satan’s ways are known to us and we watch out for them.” He leaned in close to the grille, sending a blast of cheap-tobacco and discount-whisky breath into Father Monteith’s face. “Nobody believes in Santa, Father. Nobody makes deals with spirits they don’t believe exist. Those spirits can do as they please because we aren’t even looking for them.”
Father Monteith backed away from the grille, thankful that the darkness hid his expression of disgust. “You’re right, but that solves your problem, surely? You cannot have made a deal with an imaginary creature.”
“Ah, but there are some who do believe. Some who call on the power of the old gods without ever asking the price, without even knowing they are making deals with demons.” The man pushed his door fully open. “The children, Father. They get us when we’re children.”
Old memories drifted through Father Monteith’s mind. Snatches of remembered histories, pieces of information picked up but dismissed as irrelevant throughout his studies for the priesthood. Fragments of thoughts that had never before been called upon to connect into fully-formed ideas. His subconscious shouted unintelligible warnings, wordless articulations that seemed to hark back to a time of frightened cavemen, a time when people staved off the horrors of night with fire. A time when the ghosts were real, a time when gods were not worshipped, but appeased. A time of vengeful spirits, a time that had passed into oblivion. Had those old gods really passed into oblivion too, or were they plotting their return? They had had two thousand years to do something. Had they already done it, and had the Church not even noticed?
By the time Father Monteith regained his composure and stepped out of the confessional, the man had left the church. All that remained was the scent of unwashed vagrant, a trail through the aisle that was almost tangible. The man had left more than an odour. He had left an idea, an awakening of lost thought.
The fairies of old were not pretty little things with gossamer wings. They were dangerous spirits. The genies, the Djinn, were not the comical lamp-dwellers of modern children’s tales. Both granted wishes but there was always a terrible price to pay. Accept the granting of the wish without asking the price and the demon could set its own deal. Souls were lost, children taken, lives destroyed, and often for no more than a desired trinket. A toy. The sort of wish Santa might grant.
Father Monteith only just reached the pew before collapsing into it. It was the same. All the same. Those Djinn granting silly requests, the fairies making spells for trivial desires, they were the same as a child’s Santa list. The list was accepted, the wish fulfilled, the deal struck and the price left undefined. Just as those vicious fairies became delightful little images of beauty, just as the evil Djinn became entertainment for children’s shows, so the dangerous old gods became the amiable and jolly Santa.
All along, all this time, Christianity’s true enemy had not been Satan. The enemy was hidden in plain sight and nobody, before the mysterious confessor, had noticed. Father Monteith’s church had a Christmas tree, decorated and lit, where he would never have countenanced the inclusion of Satan’s defiled altar. Yet there it was, in his own church, with its Pagan symbolism laughing at him. Laughing at the Catholic belief in triumph. The old gods were supposed to have been vanquished yet there was their symbol, their tree, mocking him in his own sacred church.
There was another decorated tree in the toyshop. More, in every shop and in every house. Another in the town square, a big one. All bore the tinsel strands, the representation of those ancient solstice sacrifices where the glistening entrails of the victims were draped on the bare branches of the frozen trees. The old gods were not dead. Their festival continued.
Through the toyshop window, Father Monteith saw the entrance to Santa’s Grotto. A dark papier-mâché cave that had never disturbed him before as it did now. Memories of the dolmens and underground rituals of the pre-Christian Pagans chilled him to the bone. Santa’s Grotto was a dolmen. A place of connection with the world of death. A place of ritual where children passed into a land of fantasy and made deals with that representative of the old gods within. Surrounded by elven-folk, fairies, they made their wishes and Santa saw to it that their wishes were granted.
Not one child ever thought to ask the price. Father Monteith almost choked when he remembered his own childhood. His bright-eyed acceptance of Santa, the notes up the chimney, the visits to the Grotto, the Christmas mornings of frantic paper-tearing and childish wonder at Santa’s generosity. He had never asked the price either.
Father Monteith, for the first time in a life based entirely on faith, did not want to believe what his own mind told him. He tore at the logic but it would not yield. He tried to blank his memories but they came through his defences like a train through fog. Santa was not Satan. By comparison, Satan had been a sort of celebrity devil, a bragging and shallow dilettante of devilment. Santa had been so much more subtle, so much more devious, so much more clever.
The clues had been there all along. Right there, right in the face of reason. The link to Saint Nicholas could not hold when Santa was a fat, smoking drinker who associated with Pagan elves. Where was the saintly self-denial, the exclusion of Paganism, the refutation of commerciality? Santa’s elves made toys. Nothing useful. Toys. Santa delivered what children asked for and let adults believe he did not exist. Precisely what the Church watched for in Satan and yet ignored in that anagrammatical illusion.
Could it be? Could all those years of preaching have come to nothing? Had every one of his flock written a note to Santa in their youth? Did he have no souls at all to offer Heaven, not even his own? Did Darvell Gadarn still laugh from his oak tree at the upstarts of the new religion?
Father Monteith headed for home where his pipe and his small nightly sherry waited for him. On the way he passed the huge Christmas tree in the town square. He had paid it no more than a passing glance in all the years it had been there but this time he looked with new eyes on the illuminated star at the top. The one that had adorned the tree for every Christmas he remembered.
A five-pointed star. The old gods’ laughter rang in his ears all the way home.
Back to work for me. I have a few more yarns to spin and I hope to have enough for a Christmas book you can all give to other people's children this year. Unless you happen to like those children, naturally.