Baby Jesus struggles to shake off Santa's stifling embrace

20-12-2003

Christmas is just days away, and it would be obtuse of me if I wrote this Letter from Prague about anything else. To be honest I find Christmas has little to recommend it: as an atheist it has no religious significance, I'm too old to get excited about unwrapping presents - a major downside of adulthood, and I don't have kids so I can't enjoy their fun either. So usually I find the holiday usually passes in a blur of mild indigestion and mind-numbing vegetation in front of the TV. This year, I expect, will be no exception.

Finding something interesting to say about Christmas is equally daunting - after all, what hasn't been said before? Perhaps the only point of interest is the method in which the presents are delivered. Where I come from, it's Father Christmas - aided by a reindeer and a crew of elfish helpers - who does the hard work, sliding down the chimney with his sack of gifts. Here, as in many countries in Europe, it's not Santa but the Baby Jesus. How he manages all those heavy boxes with his little arms and legs is beyond me, but he does, and has done for decades.

But for how much longer? Before 1989 Santa Claus was an unknown concept in this country. Now he's everywhere - dangling kids on his knee in shopping centres, driving Coca Cola trucks on TV. The Baby Jesus increasingly finds himself being usurped in the minds of the nation's children by a bigger - and hairier - benefactor.

If I was six I have to say I'd be pretty confused by all this. So who's bringing the presents? The baby or the big guy with the beard? Some adults are also concerned at the trend, and articles have been written in the newspapers. "Czech traditions under threat from rampant Western consumerism" - that sort of thing.

Czechs, of course, have survived similar impostors in the past. The Communists even tried to import Santa's distant Russian cousin - Deda Mraz, or Grandfather Frost - from the icy wastes of Siberia. But Grandfather Frost was something of a failure, and was sent packing back to Moscow.

But will the Baby Jesus be able to shake off the stifling embrace of Santa - and his army of commercial sponsors? Well, that could be a much harder task. Even for the infant incarnation of God.

20-12-2003