Let's enjoy the Christmas story, en suites and all

17th December 2010 at 00:00

We hear the same old story every Christmas. No, not the one from Luke, chapter 2, verses 1-20, the one from Luke (or whoever) in your class who is destined to unleash the annual Coca-Cola Christmas story. He will assure everyone that Santa Claus is only dressed in red because the mighty American multinational bribed the Christmas card manufacturers to re-brand him in their corporate colour.

Boundless gullibility is one of the many endearing qualities of secondary school children. They may snort with derision at a younger sibling's continued faith in Father Christmas, yet they happily swallow huge portions of other bizarre seasonal fare. "Well, it's a nice story, but it's not actually true," I tried pointing out to the latest pupil to be taken in by the Coca-Cola tale. But he was not to be dissuaded. His step-dad had told him, who is apparently a martial artist and (more chillingly) a stamp collector, so I decided to let it pass.

'Tis the season for hoary old chestnuts. One of my sixth-formers tells me he intends to spend another Christmas scrutinising The Wizard of Oz in the hope of spotting the munchkin actor who committed suicide, said to be hanging from a tree. Folklore has it that there is a half-second when you are supposed to be able to spot him swinging in the background behind Dorothy as she merrily dances down that yellow brick road. (The poor fellow had taken his life due to unrequited love for a female munchkin on the cast.) How did my student even begin to believe this story? If he only had a brain ...

Even in the adult world it's that time of year when we reminisce about the (probably mythical) school nativity play where a mischievous first innkeeper is said to have told Mary and Joseph that there were en suite bedrooms aplenty to spare, or to have simply told them to "bugger off home". We may even start dreaming of a white paper that is aimed at freeing up educational choice while limiting GCSE subject choices and that wants to remove a target-driven culture while also setting us more targets. All such tales are plainly an absurd seasonal grotto-land fantasy.

Teachers tend to feel it is our mission to enlighten the young and to explode the more ridiculous urban myths, but I wonder whether life might be better if we elders simply kept quiet and nodded in affirmation. Believing these harmless legends makes for a more wonderful world than not believing them.

My life was just a little bit jollier when I used to believe that the characters in Captain Pugwash all had thinly concealed rude names, that footballer Les Ferdinand was one of the lads who smashed up the Blue Peter garden, that certain rock classics contained sinister messages when played backwards, that The Twelve Days of Christmas is a Da Vinci-like code, and that we unwittingly eat spiders in our sleep.

Why take these harmless nuggets of nonsense away from people? In destroying such fantasies we are being as needlessly mean to our children as the primary head who once revealed to a tearful young assembly the truth about Santa Claus. (Though, come to think of it, that may be an urban myth, too.)

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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