The winter holidays have a developed a life of their own, separate from whatever religious basis they originally had. And while it’s easy to decry it all as shallow, the best argument in favor of Christmas comes from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather. And it’s a secular one.

Minor spoilers for Hogfather follow.

Hogfather is the 20th Discworld book and the fourth one featuring Death as a major character. The basic plot is that the Auditors of Reality, creatures obsessed with order and rules, have hired an assassin to kill the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent of Christmas). Since the Auditors aren’t big fans of humans, there’s definitely something more sinister going on than just kids not getting gifts from a fat man.

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Death knows the problem, but he can’t go where the assassin is going. Instead, he tempts his granddaughter, Susan, into dealing with him. He, meanwhile, disguises himself as the Hogfather and goes on his appointed rounds. Just imagine a skeleton in a Santa outfit and you’re pretty much there. If you haven’t read it, do so. And then watch the extremely accurate TV adaptation.

Hogfather mercilessly deconstructs a lot of the usual Christmas tales, while ultimately still coming down on the side of belief being important. Death stops the Little Match Girl from dying, as she does in the story, since the best gift he can give her is a “future.” And there’s also a great big problem with being a jerk every other day, and deciding to be charitable just for Christmas, like Good King Wenceslas. Death’s also confused by the things he’s supposed to do as the Hogfather, wondering if checking his list twice is “enough.” There are a lot of problems with Christmas myths, Pratchett points out, but children’s belief in Santa is not one of them.

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Pratchett himself was an atheist, but not of the science and logic kind. The embodiment of scientific rules and rationality in Discworld are the Auditors, and they’re the villains. Death knows that the ruining belief in children is deadly to humanity. Death repeatedly warns that if the Hogfather isn’t found before Hogswatch night ends, the sun won’t rise.

What Death means is that the “sun,” with all its attendant extra characteristics and meanings we’ve given it over the millennia, would not rise. A ball of burning gas would be all that rose instead.

And that, Pratchett points out, would be a tragedy. Science and rationality are all well and good, but belief gives color and poetry to life. Meaning, even if it’s false meaning, is crucial to the human experience.

“Hog father” by Marc Simonetti

The most poignant explanation of Santa Claus I’ve ever seen is the one Death gives Susan at the end of Hogfather:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET— Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME . . . SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

It is so easy to deride the trappings of childhood and to see growing up as gaining knowledge and leaving childish things behind. Pratchett points out that those things are vital training for adults. Justice and mercy are good things, but they are not “true” in the sense that they can be touched or measured. And since it’s not true, it’s a lie. And the belief in the justice lie has powered a lot in this world.

In a selfish way, Hogfather gives me, an atheist, an excuse to love the secular trappings of Christmas. In a less specific way, Pratchett gives Santa Claus and Christmas a meaning that is broader than specific theology. It’s an unusually lyric take from an atheist, but one that is much more accessible than “numbers and science.”

And one that fights back hard against the idea that not believing in gods means living in a joyless, colorless world. Or an immoral one. Or one where you have to completely disavow the cultural trappings of your youth. The punch to the gut Pratchett delivers with the part quoted above—the reminder that the human experience is in between the science of evolution and the dogma of religion—is very big and very real. You don’t have to believe everything, but you have to believe something. And it starts with a fat man in red delivering toys to all the world’s children in one night.


Contact the author at katharine@io9.com.