Grinch lives on in the bad Santas and spoilsports

The great comic W C Fields quipped that anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad. His spirit lives on, as an English family discovered when their children encountered a nasty Santa who obviously hated children but made it his business to be among them.

The family paid $12 for each of their three children to sit on a Santa's knee and tell him how good they'd been.

But instead of the usual mutterings about presents, they were told in gory detail about the Sandy Hook school massacre, and cried. Then, holding the boy of the family back while his sisters fled to their outraged parents' arms, the nasty Santa hastily told him Santa wasn't real, reducing the boy, too, to sobs.

Hoping to cheer their children with a nice lunch at a restaurant, the parents instead found their children again being told the nasty news this time by a balloon artist. By then they were probably weeping too.

I wonder how those kids are faring, doubt forever seeded in their minds about whether their parents can be entirely trusted to tell the truth, and wondering whether sitting on strange men's knees is ever a wise move.

It's strange how parents abandon all sense over this issue once a year - the strange men, I mean - when we spend so much time telling children to avoid them. This seemed to be so bedded in my kids' minds that they all shuddered instinctively and shrieked at the very thought of getting close to Santa. Such photographs as I have of those rare events show them staring furiously at the camera as if they fear being abducted by the weird person with a cotton wool beard. They probably never forgave me.

It's a cruel world and nothing is crueller than shattering other people's harmless illusions or beliefs, especially children's. Yet there are people who like nothing better than deflating all beliefs in the belief that they know better - itself a belief that's pretty contestable. Believing in nothing but the mighty power of their own brains, they fall back on science because it establishes facts, as if science isn't making discoveries every day that challenge yesterday's understanding.

In the adult world Richard Dawkins, the professional atheist, is a kingpin. Hopefully, he got no presents at Christmas, and saw the day through on a boiled egg. We've no business meddling with people's faith if they're doing no harm.

Christmas gets more low-key every year, apart from the feverish sales, as belief in Christianity itself wanes, but it would be a shame if the one festival we observe that encourages giving died out altogether.

If you don't believe in the religious aspect of it, or in Santa for that matter, you'd have to be a pretty miserable person to deny others their pleasure, so hopefully the nasty Santa, and the nasty balloon man, got no more than a dry cracker on Christmas Day, and were forced to listen to Richard Dawkins tapes on everlasting repeat.

What I share with the nasty Santa is a horrified amazement at the Sandy Hook killings as the funerals for the small victims dragged on, with some Americans wondering - yet again - if they've got it wrong about guns. It would have been a dismal Christmas for the families of the victims, but one heart- warming aspect was the story of the trained comfort dogs brought into the community to help people grieve, and how effective they were at breaking the ice with traumatised children just by calmly being there, and being touched and cuddled.

The Japanese have invented an automated, artificial cuddly creature that's said to be a comfort to people suffering from dementia, but there's nothing like the warmth of real living fur, and the affection of a real animal.

The world would be a better place - whatever W C Fields said - if instead of teaching kids to use firearms we taught them to love.

The Dominion Post