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shonias has opinions on everything, but is currently particularly interested in fatness, education and watching my kids' social consciences develop.

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47 responses to “Anthropomorphic Personifications”

  1. Mary

    Where I always stumble in these arguments is that a lot of people (not you, here) argue something along the lines of “well, if it was super devastating for children from secure homes and with loving parents to be lied to about this, surely we’d all remember the trauma? Who remembers the trauma? No one? QED.”

    There’s some logical problems with that argument, but even leaving that aside, I remember the trauma, actually. I rarely remember being so upset, as a child. We were gutted. And actually, I don’t think the lying alone was the big thing for me, it was the specific deceit that I had written letters to our mother, believing I was writing to someone else. This was a massive horror to me, having my person-to-person face invaded like that made my skin crawl. (Obviously as an adult I understand more clearly that no matter who the final recipient, she pretty much saw all my written work at that age, and moreover would have been familiar with all of my social faces that were directed at adults. But not at the time. And I don’t think I would have been thrilled with having the realisation at the time.)

    So, the arguments for the good of it tend to fall down for me because many of them are “well, there’s no evidence it’s harmful”. My evidence is anecdotal but rather etched in! Having come to that conclusion, I am not sure where to weigh up other people’s children on this, because the whole argument is usually based on everyone agreeing that they’re pretty sure that there’s no evidence or memories of harm: I’ve never seen someone address what the argument changes to when there is such evidence. Even with my own child, I’m not really sure: other people say that it’s such fun for everyone involved, but for me it has definitely taken on the weight of an unpleasant social obligation at best.

  2. Lauredhel

    I rather disagree that the prevailing Santa myth is one of unalloyed generosity. “He sees you when you’re sleeping … He knows if you’ve been bad or good”. There’s nothing unconditional about the Santa I see most commonly in this culture. He’s used as a hammer over children’s heads in the latter months of the year, to “be good” (obedient) lest they receive no presents on Xmas Day. I realise that he could be taught as an unconditional giver within an individual family’s culture, but that’s not how he’s portrayed, or perhaps wielded, in the wider culture.

    What works for us: I told my kid the truth from the day dot – that it’s an enjoyable myth. We still talk about “Santa”, we talk about the background of the story, we have written letters to Santa, we sometimes leave out beer and cookies – and we play the tooth fairy game, too. The figures exist in our minds, the history is interesting, and not considering it real-real doesn’t subtract from any of that for us. I think that he ‘believes’ in Santa in the same way that he ‘believes’ in the ancient Greek and Egyptian gods. (Except the gods are more fun, at least in terms of the richness of their stories, and the transgressive fun of reading stories about gods getting up to all sorts of indecorous activies.)

    I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about what other families “should” do, but nor do I change the way we do things out of a fear that my kid might tell other people’s kids that he doesn’t believe in Santa. I don’t ban him from talking about his atheism, either, so long as he’s not disparaging or outright disrespectful about other people’s religions.

  3. Tamara

    @Lauredhel we take a similar approach. My children (half jewish) know it is a fantasy but still enjoy pretending it’s real. I have asked them not to tell other kids so as not to ruin it for them.

    We gave an interesting book called “Parenting Beyond Belief” containing essays on ethical parenting issues from a humanist perspective. There are essays on this issue. One suggests that the santa myth primes children for believing in a god…

  4. Tamara

    @ shonias – ha, I think there’s a corresponding essay along those lines in that book. Anyway, I was raised to be jewish and ended up an atheist so there you go.

    My kids are 3 and 5 so it’s still best to be considerate.

  5. Pen

    @shonias, that’s interesting to hear you say, because it was the opposite for my son. He had no belief in God, but did believe in Father Christmas because he could see ‘evidence’. When he discovered physics when he was six or so, he realised that no one could get around earth and deliver presents to all the kids, so that was that.

  6. Aphie

    I’m aware my position is quite unpopular in the circles in which I move, but I am very very into the Santa thing. I found out at seven or eight and my memory tells me my over-riding feeling was disappointment, more than betrayal. But my big reason for doing it is that Santa is a family tradition for my father’s family – it’s a cultural touchstone. I have chosen NOT to emphasise the “bad or good” thing because I do not think it’s helpful or healthy and I do remember resenting my family for doing that threat to me, but we celebrate Santa’s generosity with lots of verve here, as shonias says , as the anthropomorphic personification of the joy of giving. I use Santa as an example, and we act “like Santa” for others, and use him as our model when talking with the four year old about why we give gifts, and how we enjoy it.

  7. highlyeccentric

    Chiming in on Mary’s line of logic – I don’t have an opinion, per se, but I can remember being deeply uncomfortable when other children told me Santa didn’t exist (Christian school – conservative Christians are as likely or more likely than sceptics to eschew Santa), and, worse, the teacher chimed in and told me Santa was *dead*.

    My mother tells me that I was already questioning the whole Santa thing at that age, but she certainly wasn’t *encouraging* my disillusionment, and having decided not to disbelieve yet, being laughed at by peers and treated dismissively by authority figures about it hurt.

    I’m not sure if I want to say that everyone should protect the Santa-illusion of other people’s children, or that parents shouldn’t foster it (so long), but either way, it does hurt. No permanent harm, sure, but if you want to talk about the relationship between Santa and scepticism, it certainly didn’t imbue me with any trust in people who point out the fictionality of my beliefs.

  8. Mary

    I was 8. I don’t think this was unusually late among my peers at the time, although to be honest I don’t recall a lot of playground conversation about it, full stop. It was too long between Christmas and school resuming, for us, and in Catholic schools he wasn’t a banned subject or anything, but there was a Nativity focus.

    My mother had created a Father Christmas tradition based on that of J.R.R. Tolkien (1976, The Father Christmas Letters), and corresponding was a big part of it. We all wrote letters to Father Christmas and a long letter in reply would appear at our front door around about mid-December, usually decorated with ribbon and glitter and with a story about dramatic domestic events at the North Pole (if I recall correctly, he broke his arm one year and wrote to us left handed). Probably part of the reason I believed for so long (I do recall having doubts!) was that it was the way I wished the world worked! I expect some childhood de-conversions to agnosticism/atheism are probably similarly painful, although mine wasn’t, as it happens.

  9. Feminist Avatar

    I was brought up with Santa as a myth figure, but one we still ‘played with’- we put out biscuits and milk etc and pretended Santa was coming, whilst knowing it wasn’t true. But my husband did believe in Santa, and was quite devastated to discover it wasn’t true. It particularly shook his faith in God (as a member of a Catholic family), but also he said he then struggled to believe anything his parents told him- it was like he didn’t know what to trust anymore. And, as result, he says he would never teach his (currently imaginary) children about Santa.

  10. mimbles

    I asked my 3 tonight (15, 14 and 11) what they remember, and how they felt, about finding out Santa is actually Mum and Dad. The boys claim to have figured it out for themselves and feeling satisfied at being right, Cait was told by Dave about 30 seconds after I’d sworn him to secrecy and remembers feeling a bit disappointed. None of them seemed at the time to be at all bothered by the revelation once they were assured that Santa would still visit. Dave was 5 when he cornered me and demanded the truth (it was the first time he’d asked me, I had a policy of always answering him straight as his anxiety issues made anything else upsetting), Cait was 4, and Tom was 6 – his siblings were very good about keeping quiet till then!

    I don’t remember believing in Santa, I would have been fairly young when I found out, but I do remember doing the whole milk and cookies in the lounge room and bucket of water and carrots on the front verandah thing well into my teens – my brother is 6 years younger than me. I did the same with my kids and I even produced Tolkienesque letters from Santa for a few years (Dave is reading over my shoulder, he just said “Oh yeah, the squiggly writing letters, those were cool.”) Santa still comes to this house and there are still snacks left for him and his reindeer.

  11. Louise

    Binky’s not real?????

  12. Nell

    Interesting comments. I was nearly nine when it finally percolated through after a final exposure by school mates. I really wanted to believe and had been happily suspending my disbelief although my younger brother I remember was already questioning the idea. I wasn’t upset though and I think it was because of how my mother handled it when I asked her. She said something like that, no, there wasn’t actually a man delivering presents during the night but there was a spirit of caring and giving at Christmas and Father Christmas was just a way to show this for little children. I remember being perfectly satisfied with this and I certainly never felt I had been lied to.

  13. Aqua of the Questioners

    I don’t know how to write briefly about this, but I’ll try.

    When I was growing up, there was no Santa or tooth fairy or … In my culture as a child, (Scandinavian) I don’t remember much of any belief in anything not real, by any of the other children I knew. You could and I did, pretend play about fairies or monsters or whatever, but they weren’t real.

    I mostly don’t notice that I’m not culturally Australian, but at Christmas, I feel like an alien who is expected not just to tolerate other people’s cultural/religious idiosyncrasies, but that I have to raise my children according to their culture for the sake of their children. I honestly find it disturbing listening to some parents talk about Santa, it sounds like the point of the exercise is that your children trust you so much they will believe you when you tell them things that aren’t true, and I respect my children more than that.

    There’s also the feeling, when people talk about how it’s needed to learn to believe in generosity justice etc (particularly when reading Pratchett’s Hogfather) like when a fervent Christian is telling you about all the people who are evil and will go to hell for not believing/doing the right things, oblivious to the fact that you are an atheist and if they knew, they’d apparently treat you as subhuman.

    Also, since Hogfather seems to be on topic, am I the only one bothered by the plot hole that only children who’ve been visited by the tooth fairy I.e. usually six or older, could have their belief affected? I get the impression a lot of Santa belief power is generated by children younger than that. (I have no difficulty with the idea that some things are real because there’s sufficient belief to power them – that is after all how pieces of paper or plastic acquire financial powers.)

  14. Mindy

    I’m one of those horrible parents who tell their children Santa is watching when they start to misbehave (start who am I kidding). As it should this generally has no effect at all. I am fairly certain that the 9 yr old now knows that Santa isn’t real but is playing along because then there is a present from us and one from Santa. Also his sister still believes, probably through sheer force of will, and he goes along with that.

    I find this whole Christmas Elf thing a horrible combination of crass commercialisation and enforced goodness. Telling my kids that someone mythical exists is one thing, having a thing sitting on the TV stand (that is supposed to be moved around by adults when the kids are asleep to give the impression that the Elf is going home to report to Santa) is just too icky. It’s okay I’m wondering at my own hypocrisy too.

    We still do the Easter bunny and tooth fairy. I remember being disappointed that there really wasn’t someone who gave out money when you lost a tooth (apart from your parents). I guess I’m trying to keep some of the “innocence of childhood” for my kids although I sometimes wonder if that is just something I have been sucked into believing. I still remember Anthony McF telling me Santa wasn’t real. I was in kindergarten and devastated. I think my Mum was relieved that they didn’t have to pretend anymore.

  15. Chris

    Children are told things that aren’t true all the time. The sun rises and sets, a kiss/hug will make their injury feel better, their craft is beautiful etc. None of these fictions are necessary, but they may each serve some useful purpose.

    That’s so true. For a while I happily with my daughter I went along with the fiction from books that the sun goes to sleep at night wakes up in the morning. Not even vaguely true, but its a story which encouraged her imagination. When she was 3 I tried to explain the whole rotating earth concept but it didn’t stick. At 4 with the help of some props it did, but she still prefers the waking up/going to sleep version and as with many other things there seems to be a pretty blurry line between what’s real and what’s imaginary. I don’t know how typical that is, but if you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up she’ll probably say a T-Rex.

    I see Santa as a fairly harmless myth to believe in at her age (less so than the sun waking up and going to sleep!) and she derives a lot of joy and excitement from it. I think I’d be rather annoyed if an adult told her that Santa didn’t exist. But if another child of similar age did (and not in malicious manner), well, that’s life. I would appreciate (but not expect) other parents telling their children not to tell other children that Santa doesn’t exist though.

  16. Aphie

    My flypaper brain has retained from somewhere that apparently the line between real and imaginary begins to solidify between 6 and 8 for most.

    I don’t assume Santa visits every child we know, these days, and generally check in with parents if their family “does” Santa before saying anything in front of their kid.
    The fact that we do not talk about good/bad behaviour resulting in Santa visits makes it easier for us to also talk to the Tiny Tyrant about how Santa does not visit all children.

    I feel quite cranky at the thought that some people are self righteous enough to believe it’s their role to dictate how I celebrate ceremonies in my family (Smalls still learning social conventions and manners excepted, natch). Rude!

  17. Sunset

    The Elf on the Shelf concept was new to me this year and it freaks me. I wonder how many nightmares it’s inspired?

    Like Lauredhel, I find many aspects of the Santa myth manipulative and disturbing. (I also don’t get why so many parents flock to get photos of their kids sitting on the lap of a strange man who gives them lollies, but perhaps that’s another discussion). We generally try to avoid labelling kids or their behaviour as good/bad anyway so the whole ‘naughty or nice” bit doesn’t get any oxygen in this house.

    We have soft-pedalled Santa (or wussed out, depending on how you want to read it). Kids get a small stocking full of small presents that can be opened on waking. We have never said that they are from Santa but we haven’t explicitly said they were from us either. Significant presents are under the tree and are labelled from mummy and daddy. Tree presents are opened in a more ordered fashion when everyone is up and ready.

    We don’t initiate Santa discussion and answer all questions with “The stories about Santa generally say …” or “Some people say…”. The theory is that this leaves room to work it out for yourself and play along if you want to. I confess that the one time our eldest left out food for Santa, it was eaten. I don’t know what the now-7-year-old currently thinks and I don’t plan to probe. He’s excited about Christmas and has produced a wish list which has been stuck to the fridge, rather than posted to the North Pole. Santa has not been mentioned.

    He lost his first tooth earlier this year and had a huge dilemma about whether to put it out for the tooth fairy for the $2 his classmates assured him was provided, or to keep it for it’s own sake. I just said “What do you want to do?” and he decided to keep it. He swallowed or lost the second tooth, and avoided the issue. It will be interesting to see what he does with tooth number 3.

    The one and only Father Christmas letter I got was when I was about 15, reminiscing about all the years of present-giving and saying goodbye because he wouldn’t be coming anymore. It was probably the nicest thing I ever remember my dad doing for me (he took a fairly low-effort approach to parenting) and I didn’t have to ‘believe’ at all.

  18. Chris

    The Elf on the Shelf concept was new to me this year and it freaks me. I wonder how many nightmares it’s inspired?

    I hadn’t heard of the Elf on the Shelf concept before either. I don’t think you can necessarily impose too many adult concepts of creepy to young children though. My daughter gets occasionally afraid of monsters under the bed, but is actually excited and not at all concerned about a Santa sneaking into her room while she is asleep to leave presents for her in her stocking. I was going to hang her stocking in the lounge with the christmas tree, but she really wanted it in her bedroom so I explicitly asked her about it. From an adult perspective it does seem creepy though!

  19. Megpie71

    With regards to Santa, I wasn’t so caught up in the “he sees you when you’re sleeping” aspect of things as a kid. Then again, my father was a minister in the Church of Christ until I was about thirteen or so – I grew up knowing that Father Christmas wasn’t really real, but God certainly was. After all, Dad believed in God, and so did my maternal grandparents (the ones we saw most of), so he must be there.

    Except Mum, at that stage in her life, was the sort of atheist who doesn’t so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him and a lot of the little hypocrisies of his followers. So I got a very early education in the way that a good idea can be damaged by the human baggage which surrounds it (the Christian church is a wonderful idea, and would work beautifully if we could just get the right sort of people involved; unfortunately, said people are as rare as hen’s teeth). In addition, my paternal grandparents were, if not actually atheist, at least functionally agnostic (in that they didn’t speak about their religious beliefs to anyone).

    So I can’t really remember being too worried about Father Christmas or Santa – they were fictional characters, like all the ones in my books. Then again, God was a character in a book, too…

    [Can't comment on what I'd tell kids - we don't have any, by choice.]

  20. Rebekka

    My parents took the same sort of approach as Lauredhel is taking. I would have been FURIOUS if they’d lied to me and I found out.

    I remember being told about Adam and Eve being the first people in grade one at my (Christian) school. When I came home Mum told me it wasn’t true, and I was pretty damn upset that my beloved grade one teacher had lied to me. I can imagine I would have been even more upset if it was my parents.

    Luckily I can’t remember them ever telling me anything that isn’t true.

  21. tigtog

    To be scrupulous, Rebekkah: perhaps your beloved teacher didn’t lie to you if it’s what sie truly believed.

    One can tell/repeat an untruth without consciously lying, although that distinction is probably a bit too sophisticated for most young children.

  22. tigtog

    To expand on my last comment, it’s one of the most interesting differences between the Santa myth and religious indoctrination: there’s many more folks who truly believe the theological dogma regarding religious narratives they tell to young children than there are parents, aunts/uncles, siblings or grandparents who truly believe in the Santa narratives they tell to young children.

  23. Mindy

    I did spend a little time today thinking about why we are so adamant to our children that God does not exist but are happy for them to believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Haven’t come to any conclusions yet.

  24. Mary

    Sundry:

    I’m not convinced the sun rising and setting is actually a lie in the same fashion. It describes a series of sensory perceptions: a small part of sun is seen over the horizon, over the course of minutes a larger part is seen, finally it’s all seen. That is a thing that actually happens, although (obviously) I know that the movements that bring it about are not actually the sun orbiting a stationary earth. I can see how the semantics of it can go either way, but I wouldn’t call it a lie myself, but a description of the appearance. (So then I’d go on to say “the sun rises due to the earth’s rotation…” etc, whereas it sounds like many people here would say “the sun appears to rise but actually does not due to…”)

    I quite like Hogfather but it was actually the first Discworld I read, so the AP/belief creates the believed in idea was fairly new to me!

    On the topic of the post:

    Thanks to various people for sharing their approaches. I am still not exactly sure what we’re going to do. I think for a year or two we will probably do something like Sunset’s approach; I don’t know what he will be like in a year, but this year my son is not awfully interested in Father Christmas or presents, he is interested in stars and trees and Christmas dogs (thank you, David Jones window display, for introducing the idea that Christmas and dogs are intimately connected), and when you aren’t even 3, the process of toys and food showing up is apparently pretty mysterious at all times! I’m slowly seeking out books to introduce major stories and myths of my culture (Anglo-Australian) and eventually other cultures to him as he gets more verbal, that may be a good time to slide in the idea that Father Christmas is one such!

  25. tigtog

    Mindy, I think at least in part it’s because Santa and the Easter Bunny are FUN, and socially sanctioned fun that adults don’t have to make excuses for taking part in.

  26. tigtog

    Mary, I’m sure he’s not quite ready for it yet, but can I recommend a book from the 70s by Nuri Mass titled Many Paths, One Heaven? It’s a generous and rigorous exploration of alternative religious views, and reading that at age 11 is the reason I became a secularist to the point that my questions led to me being kicked out of school scripture classes, and eventually led to me becoming an atheist.

  27. Tom

    I’d like to request a HAT thread on Christmas movies in pop culture as I’d like to talk about things such as It’s a Wonderful Life and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

  28. Sunset

    I just wanted to add that we have both the Raymond Briggs Father Christmas books and a copy of Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters. We read them just like any other story. I don’t know if that has any impact on the perception of the character as fictional or otherwise.

    Chris, I agree that kids and adults can find different things creepy but so do different kids or different adults. I’m fairly sure my kid would be weirded out by an apparently inanimate object that was there to spy on him and report back to a third party on a nightly basis. I don’t plan to try it though.

    I thought much the same as Mary, regarding sunrise and sunset (but perhaps I have a vested interest).

  29. Aphie

    That book sounds really cool, tigtog.

    I have a few books of European NeoPagan beliefs, a “Children’s Bible Stories” and a wonderful book by one of Pixar’s animators on the Hindu pantheon (cute little Kali, with her necklace of skulls!). One of my goals when I am in Malaysia next year is to find a book of Islamic stories appropriate for children.

  30. Alien Tea

    I think Santa plays into privileges which are hard to explain to away kids whilst still maintaining the fantasy.
    Ie – Why doesn’t Santa give presents to poor kids? Why doesn’t Santa give presents to kids of other (minority) cultures? I think talking about a Santa that has a magical never-ending source of toys that he gives to ALL children is the worst part of the lie. Either the poor kids & Jewish/Chinese/etc kids are too naughty for presents, or they are just invisible to our privileged children. (Although of course some poorer kids and non-christian kids DO get Santa, but not all do, nor is it culturally appropriate for everyone).

    Why must we encourage the child who doesn’t get presents in a stocking on December 25th to be silent about it in order to uphold the fantasy for those who do? It smells of privilege to me.

  31. Mindy

    We had Jehovah Witness kids at school who didn’t get to celebrate Christmas or birthdays [with presents] (from memory). Most of us knew by then that our parents were actually Santa and just thought that those kids’ parents were just killjoys.

  32. Tamara

    @ Mindy 28 – One reason I think Santa is different from god mythwise, is that scale of it. Belief is god is something that necessarily permeates ones entire worldview, 24/7 365 days a year. Santa is just at Xmas and it’s just about pressies. Big difference in scope.

    @Alien Tea 36 – I grew up Jewish in NZ, which my friends new, and did not get Xmas presents (although I did get Channukah ones). I have no memory of friends having much of a view about it one way or another. I didn’t feel a lack of privilege either, I quite liked being fairly unique. I don’t see any harm in asking a child who has a strong non-christian tradition to be sensitive to those who do celebrate santamas.

  33. Aphie

    “Why must we encourage the child who doesn’t get presents in a stocking on December 25th to be silent about it in order to uphold the fantasy for those who do?”

    Well, I’d ask no loud declarations about the Unreality of Santa for the same reason I’d encourage my child not to have loud, public and aggressive conversations/declarations about God and the Bible not being real at Christians we know – basic consideration.

    That said, as I noted above, we don’t assume in our family that everyone gets visited by Santa, we don’t link the receipt of gifts to “good” behaviour (though we have been forced to discuss others’ belief of same by pushy adults), we do have conversations about other beliefs and traditions, and we try not to have loud, in your face conversations about Santa visits in public places.

    But I think declarations of Unreality are different to “we don’t do Santa visits in our house/family/religion/traditions” which I do not see as generally aggressive or pushy, just a statement of personal belief and practice.

  34. Chris

    We had Jehovah Witness kids at school who didn’t get to celebrate Christmas or birthdays [with presents] (from memory).

    The Jewish kids I knew at school used to get presents from Santa. I’d guess that for some non-Christian people Christmas has become a cultural rather than religious celebration. And I think there’s probably quite a few “nominally” Christian people out there who put a lot more emphasis on the cultural side (family get togethers/presents for kids etc) than the religious side of it.

  35. Alien Tea

    Hmm, seems like I was wrong about the cultural part.
    However, i wasn’t suggesting aggressive discussion – just discussion in general.

    But I think the cost/poverty thing is still an issue. How do you tell kids that the Santa that brings them presents doesn’t bother with kids who’s families can’t afford Santa?

  36. Tamara

    @Alien Tea #41 I agree, that must still be an issue. I have no idea how that plays out in real life though. Anyone have experience of the poverty issue?

  37. Rebekka

    Tigtog, I know that now – I’m sure my teacher believed what she was saying, but as a five year old, my grasp of lies was that you were saying something you knew wasn’t true, and obviously a teacher should know what was true and what wasn’t, because teachers knew pretty much everything, so she had lied to me!

  38. tigtog

    Rebekka, the falsehood/error/untruth/lie/deceit distinctions certainly are a difficult thing for a child to grasp!

    And then there’s just simple misunderstandings. One of the earliest manners/etiquette conventions I taught my kids (after please/thank you/excuse me) was to say “I thought I heard you say” rather than “but you said!”

  39. Aphie

    At this stage I suspect the poverty thing may be what leads the Tyrant into the realisation of Santa’s Unreality. He hasn’t questioned yet why Santa doesn’t just bring them lots of toys/doesn’t necessarily visit them.

  40. Chris

    Aphie – my daughter is in a similar mindset. She certainly knows that there are many children out there who don’t have many toys. Since she was about 3 we have regularly gone through her toys to find ones she doesn’t use any more to give to children who don’t have any/many. She’ll even volunteer toys now without being asked. But at the same time she doesn’t yet recognise the contradiction of why Santa brings her toys and why other children do not receive them.

    I recently discovered an acquaintance who is currently going through divorce does not have enough money to buy her children any Christmas presents. I wish there was a way I could anonymously give her some money so she could. But it turns out anti money laundering policies make that quite a bit harder than I expected (to do it electronically anyway).

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