Much-loved Fr Dennis Higgins has caused a storm over his apparent remarks to children. But why are we obsessed by the figure of a great fat man bearing presents?

Do spare a thought for Fr Dennis Higgins, the much-loved pastor of St Anne’s in Buxton, who has aroused the ire of a small number of people, as reported here in the Daily Mail, for telling children, it is alleged, that Father Christmas does not exist, or something similar.

As with all sensitive matters, this one too requires sensible handling. Father Christmas is an imaginary figure who represents the spirit of festive cheer – hence his enormous girth and his famed jollity – and who first appeared in the national consciousness in the early seventeenth century. He was invented by Ben Jonson, a Catholic, or so it can be argued, and makes his first appearance in a Jacobean masque. So, Father Christmas certainly exists, as much as Hamlet, Cinderella and Elizabeth Bennett exist; though he does not exist in the way that you or I exist, or Julius Caesar existed. It all depends what you mean by “exist”. Laying aside the question of existence, one might want to ask what values Father Christmas represents, and what our attachment to him means. Why are we obsessed with the figure of a great fat man bearing presents, who is attended by reindeer and elves? How has this obsession moulded, or better, warped, our vision of the world, and our economic and political outlook?

These are big questions, and it was doubtless of these that Fr Higgins was trying to make the younger members of his congregation aware. The comfort of myth can sometimes blind us to the nature of reality. But help is at hand. St Nicholas, otherwise called Santa Claus, has his feast tomorrow on December 6. We know that he existed; and we also know what values he embodies, namely kindness and generosity to the poor and help to all those in need. We need to make a hermeneutical leap here, from the fiction of Father Christmas, which reinforces values that are not necessarily good, to the reality of St Nicholas, whose values are truly in keeping with the real spirit of Christmas.

So, all you partisans of Father Christmas, get with the programme. And if you would like to show your support and solidarity with Fr Higgins, you can do so at this Facebook page.