It seems that there is significant doubt as to the veracity of that “heartwarming” five-year-old-dying-in-Santa’s-arms story which went viral last week. It may still be proven accurate, but so far no local hospital remembers a five-year-old dying during that time frame.
Any writer can get a story wrong, as I know all too well. And this whole story may be proven true later; time will tell.
But why did it go viral in the first place?
I hadn’t read the story yet when my friend was made ill by it. She’s been through a horrific traumatic pregnancy, ending with several nights in the hospital at Christmastime. Her baby managed to live, but it was a close call. Reading this story was hard on her.
It’s easy to make fun of “trigger warnings” and people who complain about being “triggered,” until you yourself have been triggered. If you suffer from trauma and something provokes a flashback, it can cripple you in severe pain for hours or days. My friend was triggered. She was sick. It took her a few hours to recover; I’ve been through similar things.
While she was recovering, and posting on Facebook for someone to talk to, she made reference to “death porn,” and that got me thinking.
Why are so many Christmas stories about death?
I’m not opposed to literary art about death, or any other scary topic. That’s necessary. Everything that exists in real life needs to exist in art, or we can’t heal from our real life experiences. Some of my favorite books and films are extremely grim tales with a very high body count. But why is there so much death and loss woven into the kitschy lore surrounding Christmas? Not the genuine, serious art and not the religious tales, but the fluff? Why do we tell annoying folktales about little girls freezing to death in the snow– not for a spooky ghost story but a “heartwarming”one? Why are there whiny country music songs about children losing their mothers, and why does anyone listen to them? Why did we all click “share” on a story about a dying preschooler afraid he wouldn’t go to Heaven at Christmas?
Why did we claim it was a “beautiful” story? It wasn’t. It was an awful story by any objective standard. Children aren’t supposed to die at Christmas, fretting about whether they’ll go to Heaven. Mothers aren’t supposed to miss their sons’ death and come sprinting into the ICU crying “it’s too soon.” It was macabre when I thought it was real, and it’s worse now that I have reason to believe it’s fiction. If a freshman had turned this story in for peer review at the school where I got my English degree, I would have written “sentiment” and “soap opera” in the margins. It’s a bad story.Why was everyone so drawn to a bad story?
I don’t have any real answers about this, but I have two thoughts. I can think of two different factors involved in our morbid fascination with death this time of year. One is a good thing, and the other is not; I’d guess that both are present in some measure.
I think that we all recognize that death and suffering are never far away from us. And all of us fear death and suffering. That’s not wrong. They’re fearsome things. Even Our Lord feared them, when the time drew close. At times of joy and celebration like Christmas, we fear them even more because we see the contrast. We can’t just ignore them; that’s not how the human mind works. The human mind works by telling stories. So, we tell stories about death and suffering, right in the middle of our Christmas celebration. Since we’re not all brilliant artists, a lot of those stories are stupid. Since most of us, myself included, have a certain amount of bad taste, the stupid stories appeal to us.
That’s not a bad thing. It’s a completely neutral tendency, like craving sugar when you’re hungry. At best it’s a sacred thing, because it can lead us to empathize with people who are suffering.
But the second factor at play is not good. I think that, because of our fear of death and suffering, we’d like to take comfort in the fact that they aren’t happening to us, right now. We’d like to find someone to look down on, to make ourselves feel secure. And so we stare at other people’s horrific suffering the same way some people look at pornography– we use them to make ourselves feel good. We watch in fascination as children die in the arms of Santa, so that we can feel better about the fact that our own children are healthy. At least we’re not dying. At least we’re going to have a merry Christmas instead of a tragic one.
“Makes you feel grateful for what you have,” we say, when in fact we’re not feeling grateful. We’re feeling superior.
That can happen. We ought to watch out for it. It’s a form of pride, and it can decrease our empathy for others.
I don’t know whether to hope it turns out that this Santa impersonator was telling the truth. I don’t hope that any child died that way– but if he did, I hope Santa comforted him. I hope he went to Heaven in the arms of Saint Nicholas.
I hope that I’m careful not to trigger my friends, by sharing horrible stories because they’re “heartwarming.”
I hope I always seek out the suffering to empathize and to help them, instead of to “make me feel grateful for what I have.” And I hope I learn not to mistake superiority for gratitude.
I hope that kind of suffering does not visit any of us, this Christmas.
(image via Pixabay)