Saints and Santas

Tales of wacky vicars are an integral part of what the media insist on calling ‘the run-up to Christmas’. So hats off this year to the Revd Dr Lee Rayfield (b55, d93, p94), who according to the Daily Telegraph ‘exploded the Santa Claus myth’ before an audience of pupils of St Piran’s School in St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead.

Dr Rayfield, a PhD in science from London University, treated the tots to a lecture on the physical impossibility of Santa’s mammoth task. With 378 million presents to deliver to 91.8 million homes and thirty-one hours in which to complete his journey, Santa would have to travel at 3,000 times the speed of light!

The infants, apparently, understood all this. Their faith in Fr Rayfield so exceeded their faith in Fr Christmas that parents were horrified by the precocious scepticism which resulted.

Said Ulrika Jonsson, the television presenter whose eight your old son Cameron attends the school, the sermon was ‘every parent’s nightmare’. ‘Cameron still believes in Father Christmas, but anything could tip the scales. I have told him that just because the Vicar doesn’t believe in Father Christmas it doesn’t mean that he can’t.’

Said Mr Rayfield: ‘I am mortified and appreciate that I have put some parents in a difficult position with a lot of explaining to do. I love Christmas.’

The ‘story’ (as journalists call the myths they publish) raises a number of questions.

Who, for heaven’s sake, was St Piran? Why do parents think it important that children believe in Father Christmas? And to what gospel truth, if any, was Mr Rayfield’s debunking of nineteenth-century sentimentalism intended to point?

Let us start with the easy bit.

Piran, as every schoolperson knows, is the patron saint of Cornwall. He was of Irish origin (so neatly reversing the trajectory of Patrick). The tales of the saint are various. Piran, it is said, was tied by the heathen Irish to a millstone and cast off a cliff. The stone miraculously floated on the water and took him across the sea to Perranzabulo in Cornwall (Perranzabulo = ‘St Piran in the Sands’; cf Perranarworthal, Perranporth and Perranuthnoe), where (rather more plausibly) he invented tin mining. His head and other parts of his body were held in reliquaries in Perranzabulo, according to extant inventories in St Piran’s Church there. One of his arms was (and may still be) in Exeter Cathedral.

Perhaps when he has recovered from his present embarrassment, Revd Rayfield might like to bring his scientific expertise to bear on these surprising assertions in a sermon at the eponymous school.

As to the motives of parents in wilfully misleading their own children about the origin of Christmas presents, your guess is as good as mine. Obviously it is useful to have a kindly but absent stranger to blame for one’s own failures to deliver. But the fierce reaction of parents to Rayfield’s misguided excursus into rocket science shows that there is more to it than that.

Belief in Father Christmas is part of a whole superstition about childish innocence which says more about adults than it does about their offspring. We are all atheists now (even vicars, as Ulrika Jonsson obliquely concedes). Even bishops of the Episcopal Church, our American readers will be obliged to add. But we know, subliminally, that faith is good and that there is more to myths than meets the scientific eye.

In his New Statesman Christmas essay The Myth of Secularism, John Gray delineated the rancourous and destructive path of atheism in the twentieth century. ‘Whatever their disciples may say today, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were adamant that religion would die out with the advance of science. That has not come about and there is not the remotest chance of it happening.’

The realization that their programme was doomed, claims Gay, has produced the aggression and intolerance of the humanists. It has also generated, in those who are merely the hangers-on of Western post-Christianity, the whimsical nostalgia tinged with anger which Dr Rayfield encountered – so fiercely that he has agreed to write a personal apology to every person whose child was present at his ‘sermon’.

‘Secular societies’, says Gray, ‘believe that they have left religion behind, when all they have done is to substitute one set of myths for another. It is far from clear that this is an improvement.’ I suggest that at a gut level, the parents of St Piran’s know precisely that.

Which leaves us with the fascinating question of where Dr Rayfield’s sermon illustration was leading. To what gospel conclusion did it tend?

It would be hard to say. But in the present day Church of England there are some entertaining possibilities.

One reason to debunk Father Christmas, of course, might be to assert that Mother Christmas would assuredly do things better. For all I know, Rayfield is a disciple of the redoubtable James Finn Garner, whose Politically Correct Holiday Stories have occupied pride of place in my downstairs loo since their publication in 1995. He may well have concluded that the ‘myth’ of Father Christmas is not only scientifically unsustainable, but the product of a repressive patriarchal past.

Then again, Dr Rayfield may be a partisan of the Holloway Tendency. In that case he will have moved on from physics to philosophy, and pointed out the logical absurdity of an Incarnation, as well as the biological improbability of a Virgin Birth. He will have expostulated, as these people do, about the difference between astronomy and astrology, the implausibility of the magi and the tropology of ‘shepherds’. In front of an audience of eight year olds that would have been a tour de force worthy of the annual Selby-Saxbee award for Creative Scepticism. Oh that we were there!

Almost equally difficult to imagine is how he got from Father Christmas and the improbably accelerating reindeer to the incarnate word of God; how the heavy-handed bludgeoning of one (admittedly tawdry) myth could lead into the exposition of the transcendent truth of another.

Answers (on a postcard, please) to 7 Tufton Street. The winning entry will be forwarded, as a tribute, to Dr Rayfield himself.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.