At six, I realised the truth about Santa. How deep did the lies go?

I had a lot of existential questions. What is death? What if the dead wake in their coffins? And who was going to deliver my presents: Santa, God or Rabindranath Tagore?

Christmas was always such a magical time for me when I was young, and the beginning of December 1970, filled with excitement and anticipation, was no different. I was six and though I had already figured out there was no Santa, I didn’t quite understand how presents materialised in the pillowcase annually hung from the post of my upper bunk bed. My parents were adamant about Santa’s existence, but my friends and older brothers had confirmed the awful, heart-wrenching, nihilistic truth of my suspicions.

There were a lot of other existential questions in my mind that year. What was death? Did people seriously spend eternity in a box buried underground? What if they woke up? At school, the alternative of an eternity in heaven was presented by our overtly Christian teacher and, on balance, heaven definitely sounded preferable to an afterlife of maggot-ridden decomposition. The caveat of complete faith and devotion to a bearded man who floated on a cloud seemed a small price to pay for everlasting bliss. God even looked a lot like Santa, only his beard was more straggly and his suit less fun. Maybe God delivered the presents. Sorted. Roll on Christmas.

Then came the curve ball. I remember, that December, looking at a photograph in my mum and dad’s bedroom. I stared in shock. I asked who was in the picture. “That’s Rabindranath Tagore,” replied my mum. “He wrote plays, songs and poems.” My mouth dropped open at this tall, white-bearded figure, who the great pandit-ji Ravi Shankar would later in life tell me “looked like the sun”. “How many people out there have this look?” I wondered. “There’s God, Santa and now this dude. All with huge beards and a wise grin.” It was disconcerting. Which one delivered the presents?

Nitin Sawhney aged 6, in 1970
Nitin Sawhney aged 6, in 1970 Photograph: Courtesy of Nitin Sawhney

That December my mum also started explaining Hinduism to me. I know it was then because I remember what I was practising on the piano. Suddenly, there were lots more gods, but the beards varied hugely. Many had no beards at all. There were also goddesses, which confused me because the only female I’d heard of in Christianity ran around naked in a garden, tempting a man to follow her, with an apple. Also, with Hinduism you were cremated after death, which seemed altogether less boring.

I told my mum we were being presented with an alternative perspective at school, of eternal damnation or heavenly bliss as opposed to the less intimidating magical stories of Krishna and Ganesh at home. She said that Hinduism accepted all other faiths and everything was really about being a good person. That helped a lot, because I’d heard Santa only gave presents to kids who were good. So even if there was no Santa, whoever was going to give me the presents felt my moral fibre was important. Everything seemed to tie up. Roll on Christmas.

That year I could not wait to see the TV animation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I’d watched it the year before and it was the most magical thing I’d ever seen. I loved Rudolph. I could already play the theme tune on the piano, and Rudolph himself was simply fantastic.

Then it came, and I was so disappointed and unmoved. Rudolph had lost his magic. If there was no Santa, I realised, then Rudolph couldn’t possibly be real or meaningful. Just like the Lone Ranger was fiction too. People were making this stuff up. How deep did the lies go?

Christmas finally came and I waited up in bed the whole night. Who should I expect? Could I be wrong about Santa? Was he real after all? Or would I be visited by some other bloke with a longer, more flowing beard? Or should I expect someone blue with eight arms and an elephant trunk? I’d seen one of those on the living room wall and I’d been told that was also God. Definitely not the one Miss Churchill talked about in class though. Hmm.

So, early on Christmas morning, when Dad ran giggling into the room and slapped a pillowcase full of gifts on my bed, I just shouted: “Dad? What are you doing?”

Belief is such a strange thing, I learned that Christmas. If we want to believe something, we seem to ignore reality till we have no choice. I do miss that magical world though … the world before dad ran into my room with no beard or extra arms … before I discovered the lies you hear as an adult are far less innocent and well-meaning than those accompanied by marvellous, warm, cosy dreams.

To mark Coventry’s tenure as UK City of Culture, and the 60th anniversary of Coventry Cathedral, Nitin Sawhney has been commissioned to create a new site-specific performance in response to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Ghosts in the Ruins takes place on 27-29 January. Tickets are available at


Nitin Sawhney

The GuardianTramp

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