The Six Secrets of Santa

13/12/08 | Posted by feihero

Draw a Father Christmas. Right now. In your mind at the very least. Was he fat? White? Old? Why? There are a lot of images which we see so often, that it's easy to forget we've created them. Or chosen them at least. And we may never stop to question why we've chosen to make them look this particular way. But when a psychologist says - "Draw a... house" - you might be shocked to learn how much more your drawing says about you, than it does about any house you've ever lived in. And the bloke you draw trying to squeeze down the chimney has got even more surprises in his sack. Secrets in fact. And not his secrets – ours! So what does Santa say about the things we really want (not just) for Christmas?

 Draw Your Own Santa

Santa, the Buddha and middle-age spread..

It happens to us all I suppose. With the passage of time. A few extra pounds. A bit of extra padding. But when even mythical figures and cultural icons put on weight in later years ought to raises a few eyebrows. So why is Santa fat? Apart from the sherry and mince pies? Or why is the Buddha for that matter? And how has Jesus managed to stay so trim?

 Thin St Nick

Part of the answer is – we’ve made them fat. The relatively lean St Nick, like the positively scrawny Siddharta Guatama , has become chubby by design. That’s how we want to think of him. But why?

A big belly seems to be a symbol of generosity – maybe we think a big tummy needs big heart to carry it about. It symbolizes an appetite for life, it indicates plenty, and in fact, despite these being male characters, it symbolizes fertility. The funny thing about making Sinterklaas a bit of a Christmas pudding is that in times and cultures of need he can represent a fantasy – what we’d love to have. And in cultures like ours, that flip between massive over indulgence and a grotesque fear of flab, he can carry all that extra weight for us.

Of course, another funny thing about bellies is that they are funny. We associate them with parties (and bowlfuls of jelly) and humour (there is no such thing as a big six-pack laugh). But in the end - the thing we love about the love handles is that they give us something substantial to hold on to. Big means actual – not thin like ghosts or spirits or unrealized dreams, but solid like flesh.

So it says something about what we hope for in the bleak midwinter, that Santa is well stuffed. And it’s interesting that we simply will not think of Jesus as anything but skinny.

By the same token there are some other things on Santa’s list that might be worth wondering about:

  • Chimneys & stuffing - about this desire to put large objects through small spaces.
  • “I didn’t come up the river on a bike”: Why only flying reindeer would ever do…
  • “Do you do requests?”: Why we feel the need to make lists…
  • “You better watch out! “: Who is good and who’s bad?
  • “Who ate all the pies?”: Why we leave gifts for the gods…

Chimneys & stuffing - about this desire to put large objects into small spaces…

Is part of the reason we’ve made Father Christmas bigger, that we like this game of fitting a big thing through a too small gap?


It is one thing to register the origins of chimney-diving and stocking-filling in the original story of Saint Nicholas dropping gold into hearths – but why do we have such a thing about gold, or ghosts, magicians or messiahs managing to get into (and out of) rooms that should be locked? And why do we love the idea of something huge emerging from something tiny?

Maybe it’s because we did – biologically of course, but also cosmologically. This enormous thing we call life appeared as if from nowhere, in a universe that seems as safely shut up against the darkness, as the cosy living room of a snowbound house. If we are to make sense of what we regularly find filling our stockings – namely ourselves – maybe our story needs a big guy on the roof who can enter and leave our world at will.

“I didn’t come up the river on a bike”: why only flying reindeer would ever do…

Of course the idea of somebody ‘up there’ is quite a lot older than even our white bearded friend. It is the oldest belief there is.

In fact, it seems in every culture, the earliest god worshipped, was a variant of a sky god: people looked up at the roof of the sky – saw light coming through it and jumped to the obvious conclusion.


As a result our expressions of worship have always been connected with height. We’ve built towers or totem poles; our Holy men go up mountains or ascend into the skies. And angels or messengers have wings and come down from on high.

All that, plus the fact that we fear crumbling back into the earth, makes soaring into the air a pretty basic aspiration. So naturally our heroes do it – Superman, the Petrellis and Santa. It just wouldn’t be the same if he (still) came over on a boat, and left presents on the doorstep.

“Do you do requests?”: Why we feel the need to make lists..

If Santa didn’t have supernatural powers like flight and omnipresence in his sack, we’d hardly be queuing up to entrust him with our secrets and prayers. Which is what we do on our pilgrimages to the Grotto. And not just when we’re children.


Ok, as adults we rarely clamber up onto his knee, but if you have ever made a Christmas List then you have taken part in a powerful ritual. Making lists is as Christmas as mistletoe, and list making is a way of putting our wishes and anxieties outside of ourselves – into safe hands. Does it matters that anyone ever reads the list? That is up for debate – but the act itself is, in the words of psychologist Sasha Cagan, ‘a secular prayer’. Post-It Notes and letters to Lapland, or to Jim’ll Fix-It, or the Editor, are part of the same human impulse – the appeal to a higher power: ho… ho… Hope. 

“You better watch out!”: Who is good and who’s bad?

Unfortunately we’re not the only ones making lists at Yuletide. Santa is too – and he’s checking his twice. Which is tricky – on account of the naughty or nice question.

 Odin in the sky with spears

You could argue that we’ve put this sub clause in the Santa deal because, as parents, we never miss a chance to blackmail our children. But the truth may run a little deeper than that. It was almost inevitable, in fact, that our cuddly Christmas teddy-bear would turn out to have claws. Because, as much as we crave kindness, we demand fairness. We struggle to separate the two. And we instinctively feel that the moment our innermost dreams come true will be the same moment all we’ve done in secret is revealed.

It’s the flipside of the whole Higher Power/ Sky God thing. He knows when you’ve been good. Or bad.

“Who ate all the pies?”: Why we leave gifts for the gods…

So perhaps it’s sensible to make a few offerings, to get us in his good books. After all it’s the thing we’ve been doing since around the same time we started thinking someone up there might have their mince pies on us.

From cows set on fire, to coins thrown down a well, or into the grave - we leave gifts out for the gods. Sacrifices. Maybe it’s the act of a guilty conscience. Perhaps its an old hunch – that if there is another world, there must be a toll for crossing over. Or it’s just a natural response to generosity – wanting to give something in return.

 Mince pies

But there is one thing about leaving Rudolph’s carrot and Santa’s sherry out on Christmas Eve that make it part of the magic of Christmas. In the morning it is gone. To be any use to us at all, our stories – our beliefs – have to come off the page and into our everyday in a way that actually affects our lives. In a way that we understand. And there’s nothing we understand better – nothing more down to earth - than eating.

Certainly we want our gods to give us gifts – but we’d love it most if they sat down and ate with us…

Secret Santa?

Which brings us back to where we started. To the well-fed Santa and all the trimmings. Who is this really – this jolly icon we’ve dreamed up? And when did we start calling him Father Christmas?


Well, whisper it softly around the other adults, but in the end Santa might just turn out to be the absence of your Dad…dressed up.

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It was almost inevitable,in fact,that our cuddly Christmas teddy bear would turn out to have claws.

#1. By robert on January 13, 2010

These facts are totally scary, But I liked the post.

#2. By Alex on July 20, 2011




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