What is Father Christmas doing in Narnia? I confess it’s one of my favorite scenes in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: the children, along with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, flee from the White Witch across a snow-covered waste, when behind them comes the jangle of sleigh bells. She has caught them! – I was sure the first time I read it. But in one of the book’s sweetest eucatastrophic moments, the sleigh bells belong not to the evil Witch but to the saintly Father Christmas who has arrived to bestow urgently needed gifts. But my delight in this scene is far from universal. Some readers feel there is no place for a Christian figure in a world without Christ. Others object to the mish-mash of characters from competing mythologies such as Germanic, classical and medieval. So how does one explain Father Christmas’ presence in Narnia? Several have tried.
The Syncretistic Theory. Laura Miller, co-founder of Salon.com and author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, argues in the New York Times –
“…what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.”
Miller points out that Lewis was emulating the medieval “Model of the Universe”. In his book, The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote that medieval writers gathered together and harmonized “views of very different origin: building a syncretistic Model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements” that they had inherited, adopted and perfected (12). Accordingly, the English Father Christmas, the dwarfs of Germanic legend, and the fauns and dryads of classical mythology all show up in Narnia simply because Lewis liked them.
The Planet Narnia Theory. Not so, says Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, in a rebuttal letter to Miller’s New York Times op-ed piece. Narnia is not a “hodgepodge of motifs”, but a meticulously-crafted universe, he writes-
“The seven Narnia Chronicles embody the qualities of the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos, which Lewis called ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’”.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, according to Ward, embodies Jupiter and abounds with medieval associations with that planet, including kingly self-sacrifice (Aslan), the passing of winter, and the Jovial spirit: festive, joyful, blood-red (Father Christmas). Ward believes Lewis “included Father Christmas in Narnia not because he had a come-one-come-all attitude to mythological traditions, but because Father Christmas is the nearest thing in the modern imagination to the ‘Jovial’ personality.”
Theory of True Myths. “Tolkien Professor” Corey Olsen, in a lecture for the Mythgard Institute, asserted that our world’s Father Christmas is only a pale imitation of the “true” Father Christmas, whose home is Narnia, for Lewis’ Narnia is the place where true myths exist, a sort of homeland for Platonic ideals-
“At the core of what Lewis and Tolkien both believed about myth and about mythology: that they believe there is something out there, a Real (capital ‘R’) out there. Not only our ideas and our stories but even our world itself are only shadows, are only reflections, are things which point to that Truth (capital ‘T’), that Reality (capital ‘R’).”
Baked Beans in Botswana. Each of these theories is interesting as to why Lewis may have included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But for myself, I found the answer one morning in a most unlikely place: the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Instead of celebrating Christmas with my family in Colorado, I decided to take an African canoe safari that year. It was exhilarating, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yet still, I sighed heavily at the Christmas Eve campfire and lamented the absence of a Yuletide feeling. Morning dawned hot and bright, and as I sprang from my sleeping bag and tore open the tent-flap, what to my wondering eyes did appear but a pile of tinfoil-wrapped presents stacked beneath a scraggly bush! Each of us campers squealed delightedly as we ripped open packets of baked beans, tennis biscuits, and safety matches. Somehow, in the middle of the remotest place on Earth, Santa Claus had found us after all. That was a great comfort to me, as I’m sure it was to the Pevensie children, that no matter where, someone was watching out, providing exactly what was needed at the exact right moment: a sword for Peter, bow and arrow for Susan, a healing cordial for Lucy, and baked beans for me. Nothing else could have sufficed better at that particular moment than any of those gifts. In quest narratives, supernatural aid often appears to the heroes. And who else could have known what each person needed more than Father Christmas himself? Simply put, he was the right myth for the job.
Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. 1964. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Miller, Laura. “It’s a Narnia Christmas.” New York Times (17 December 2008).
Murray, Jef. Official Website. http://www.JefMurray.com .
Olsen, Corey. “Lewis and Tolkien: Closing Session 8.” Mythgard Institute. Hartley, DE (23 March 2012).
Ward, Michael. “Narnia and Father Christmas’s Jovial Spirit.” New York Times (25 December 2008).