“I have just had a very difficult Christmas - my first in my second marriage. My ex-husband and I, whatever our other difficulties were, shared a view that it was wrong to lie to children. Our daughter (now 11) was always told the truth about Father Christmas and appreciated the fact that it was her own father who filled her Christmas stocking at night and that this Christmas it would be her stepfather. This Christmas was also the first time my stepdaughter Chloe (aged 6) came to stay with us. From the moment she arrived she was full of worried questions about what Santa Claus was doing; would he have enough toys for everyone? How would he get round all the children in all the countries in time? Whilst I was struggling with how to respond, my husband fed these fantasies even further. We had the biggest argument we have ever had and it was all I could do not to tell my step-daughter the truth.”
December is a powerful month for many people. Whilst Christianity celebrates the birth of a special baby, other religions or cults celebrate an age-old midwinter festival. Whilst Chloe worries if Santa has enough resources for the two combined worlds of family life she is now experiencing, adult countries worry if they have the resources to support different Gods and beliefs. In parts of the USA this Christmas, for example, public nativity scenes were seen as an attack on the rights of other religions and only non-religious Christmas songs like “Jingle bells” were allowed. It is not just children or stepfamilies who worry about the juxtaposition of different belief systems and which baby is best. How to be different without being rivalrous or destructive is a universal problem.
However, a first Christmas in a new stepfamily is a particularly difficult time. Gill Gorrell Barnes has been studying children growing up in stepfamilies from the National Development Cohort. She comments “The first Christmas in a new stepfamily is the most stressful. It attacks every primary family loyalty. It is a festival that strikes at so many levels- not just peoples’ conscious thinking about family life but their more unconscious rootedness in each others’ belief systems and traditions which have meshed over the years. Stepfamilies often find it hard to acknowledge how powerful those belief systems have been.”
Mary, aged 8, was inconsolable because her new stepmother gave her Christmas presents at lunch-time when she was used to the whole family unwrapping them before Christmas. John, aged 10, had a sensitive stepfather who did his best to follow his past Christmas routine. However, John could not bear to show him he was pleased with his presents because of a feeling of disloyalty to his father and his memories of past family Christmases. A step-parent’s place, like a parent’s is in the wrong- but often even more so.
Mrs W has the difficult task of being an additional parental figure- not a replacement one. She is not the custodial step-parent. That makes her different views on her stepdaughter’s upbringing harder to deal with. For someone who has never perpetuated the fantasy the issue of elaborating a Father Christmas myth is a very serious one. Passing on a lie to children about Father Christmas is passing on a lie. Whether it is done sadistically, or in the mistaken belief that the lies are the Christmas magic, or whether it is simply and unthinkingly copying what ones own parents did, it is still a lie. A lie is destructive. However, to use the truth destructively would also hurt Chloe and her biological parents.
Powerful as the difference over “Father Christmas” is - it represents something that Gill Gorrell Barnes regularly sees in her work with stepfamilies. In a joint research project between the Institute of Family Therapy and the University of Essex she has found that the biological parent-child coalition in step-families is stronger than in all other groups. In other words, the fact that Mrs W and her biological daughter and Mr W and his agree with each other is as important as the item they agree over. “This extra involvement can work well but it becomes problematic when the stepfamily group is dysfunctional. In this situation the biological parent-child bond may exclude the stepfather bringing out a lack of mutual decision-making skills in the new couple”.
Since Mr W was presumably aware of both his ex-wife’s and his new wife’s differing Christmas models why was he unable to raise this earlier as a discussion issue? A new relationship brings hope for the future. However, sometimes this hope includes an unreal idealisation of the new family and corresponding devaluing of the past relationship. It may have disturbed both Mr and Mrs W to recognise an area where their past relationship matched their beliefs better. The argument may have been all the more loaded because of the unreal expectancies on the new relationship. A remarried couple, says Gill Gorrell Barnes “is one of the most widely scrutinised subsystems of family life, being watched by the children of each partner, by the parents of each partner and the parents of their former partners; by their ex-
spouses who are also ongoing parents and by friends allies and enemies on each side”. For those who work through the inevitable early difficulties there is hopeful research on the benefits stepfamilies can bring. Others may find it is easier to progress with skilled help.
What about Santa Clausitis? Perhaps it is no coincidence that it was the Victorian age of religious doubt that elaborated the Father Christmas myth so fully and powerfully. Many adults grew concerned that their religious belief came only from their parents. By deliberately fostering a lie with their children such adults could attempt to understand how beliefs are transmitted. However, as the Father Christmas lie would be slowly and gently revealed there could also co-exist the hope that religious belief would remain strong if a more minor transitional belief could be offered to be broken instead. However, there is the world of a difference between passing on what an individual believes to be truth (regardless of other people’s doubts) and the passing on of a lie.