Christmas 1964 and we were at my grandmother’s for Christmas as usual. The house was a huge old stone-built vicarage and had a sweeping staircase and a balustrade that looked down into a hall where the Christmas tree was. I already had a sneaking suspicion that Father Christmas didn’t exist and tonight I was going to prove it. As the witching hour approached, I was lying awake waiting for present-delivering noises. Sure enough from below there came a rustling sound and hushed voices. I sneaked out and peeked down and as expected, there was my dad placing a large square box under the tree with what I was sure was the Dansette autochange record player I was after. Was I disappointed? Not really. I had reached the age where my rational mind had seriously begun to question the existence of 1000 year old blokes dressed in red, who could swan around the world in about 24 hours delivering presents to millions of children, and not get either breathless with the physical exertion or pissed with all the sherry consumed en route. My four year younger sister sleeping in the bed next to me was of course oblivious to all this and I was at least gentleman enough not to spill the beans. Yet my unmasking of Father Christmas also marked another change. I somehow sensed that I had entered into the mysterious world of adulthood and it felt ok. Present haul? As hoped: a red and grey Dansette auto changer with room for 10 singles, a copy of “Teatime in Tokyo” by Helmut Zacharias and his orchestra – for some reason my dad considered suitable pop music, and a purple “Remo’ jacket like the Beatles wore. Paradoxical that my dad didn’t consider the Beatles music but was prepared to buy me a collarless Beatle jacket. Horrible thing it was in retrospect.
Fast forward to Christmas 1996 and my 6-year old daughter has already begun to doubt the existence of Father Christmas. I suspect this may have been something to do with the fact that we had already had a pre-Christmas in Denmark at her Danish grandparents’ and she had reached an age where she could work out that if ‘Julemanden’ could arrive on the 22nd December in Denmark especially for her when everybody knew he came on the 24th and on the 25th in England, then her parents were either extremely influential, getting him to turn out three days before his allotted time, or there was something seriously dodgy about the discrepancy between present delivering dates. She was beginning to feel the wool was being pulled over her eyes.
As I put her to bed at my sister’s on the 24th, I said “Aren’t you lucky having two Christmases! I wonder what Father Christmas will bring you here in England?” “It’s all right daddy, you don’t have to pretend, I know Father Christmas doesn’t exist,” she said, in what I felt was a rather patronising tone of voice for one so young. However, it was obvious that the game was up. But I’m a sentimental geezer and felt somewhat saddened by this loss of innocence. I loved my little girl and wanted her to stay little just a bit longer. Already a plan was forming. “Would you like him to exist?” I suggested. ” Well it’s a nice story, but I know it’s not true. The thing about St Nicholas is a nice story too,” she added, giving her poor deluded dad another metaphorical patronising pat on the head. When did she become so cynical? This is what education and having rationalist, left-wing, Guardian-reading parents does to children, I thought. So she’d managed to make the connection between apocryphal quasi-biblical stories of charitable early Christian bishops, the Jolly Christmas Postman and the possibility that it was all bollocks. “Supposing I could prove it to you?” “Well you can try, daddy, but as long as I get either a horse or that dress I wanted, I’ll believe whatever you like. But I know it’s you really.” The horse was definitely out and she knew it. And the dress had already been bought. “Well, we’ll see,” said I mysteriously, and kissed her goodnight.
After a suitable period has elapsed, and after having agreed on a subterfuge with my sister in which Christmas cake and sherry were set out and a plate of biscuits for Rudolph, artfully crumbled to give impression of hungry reindeer, I took the video camera and filming as I went, began to re-create the magic of Christmas for my refusenik daughter.
First I went into the sitting room, the camera acting as my eye. The door opened and there was the half drunk sherry and the crumbled biscuits. “Wow, he’s been!” I said melodramatically, camera panning to the tree where all the presents lay glittering and Christmassy, “..and look at all the presents.”
Now this has always amazed me: how children manage to ignore the fact that during the week or so up to Christmas, presents have begun to build up under the tree, yet they are still able to suspend their disbelief on the actual day and believe that somehow Father Christmas brought them. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s just me.
“I’d better go and tell Auntie Julia,” I said conspiratorially into the camera microphone and went up stairs. I knocked on my sister’s bedroom door, which she opened dressed in her finest flannelette Christmas pyjamas. “Has he been yet?” she asked with over-exaggerated theatrically. “Yes,” I replied, “And he’s left all the presents, drunk his sherry, eaten his mince pie and Rudolph has eaten the biscuits!” “Wow!” Said sis, “I’d better come down and have a look.” So down we went again, me as cameraman, following my sister who would turn around occasionally, put her finger over her lips and say, “Ssshhh!” We did the whole rigmarole in reverse, like Going On A Bear Hunt… ” back down the stairs,” …. “oooh look…all the mince pies are gone,” ….”oooh look he’s drunk his sherry…”….”oooh look at all the presents…” I knelt down and looked at a big box, turning over the gift tag. “And look at this. It says Emma! I wonder what it is?”
The next day after we’d opened all the presents and had five minutes to ourselves in Nanny’s sitting room, I showed her the film and we had a laugh and talked about belief and childhood. I asked her when she first realised that Father Christmas didn’t exist: “I don’t think there was a time,” she said. “Maybe when I was about four. I just sort of gradually realised, but at the same time wanted it to be true.” Isn’t that how we all feel?