I was lucky. In my early years Christmas was good. I have to thank my parents for that, I know. I wish I’d known at the time. They gave me a good couple of years before it all turned to ashes. Some kids don’t even have that. And I do have some happy memories, some almost unadulteratedly happy ones, though they are all mediated with the memory that I always, always had ‘issues’ with Santa. Even when I believed in him I couldn’t understand why. And what I wanted, more than presents, was to understand the world.
In my first year at primary – the same year we did the ‘best’ Santa recce – I was picked to read at the whole school Christmas assembly. I’m not sure if it was because I was the youngest, the smallest, the best reader or if I was picked at random, but it was a huge honour and one I was determined to live up to.
I practiced for weeks. My bit was ‘and in those days there went out a decree that all the world should be taxed.’ I can’t say I understood it and I certainly didn’t engage with it as readily as I did with Christmas carols. I loved to sing. And even though I felt I’d outgrown rocking the Baby Jesus by the time I went to ‘big’ school, I could get lost in the story of Good King Wenceslas ‘gathering winter fuel.’ I loved the picture of him and a boy wandering through the snow picking up kindling. It’s still an enduring happy memory today. I still love gathering winter fuel. Though it’s not wise to leave it till the snows fall as it’s the devil to light a fire with damp kindling. And early on we learned ‘O Come all ye faithful’, and the descants sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to have the soprano voice to take part fully. And a decade later, I did, in the original Latin. Even though by then Christmas wasn’t something to look forward to, the carols kept me coming back. I suspect it’s like that for lots of people.
Santa and midnight mass make liars of us all.
We love to sing. We love to believe. We want life to be glittery and sparkly and call it peace on earth good will to all men. Even as we know it isn’t. We are told that we deserve to forget the truth for just a day. And we want to believe.
And that year I did believe. And I had evidence. Here it is. I had written my letter to Santa. I had posted it – in the post box because we didn’t have a chimney – I was told that Santa would park the sleigh on the roof, and come in through the back door which was to be left on the sneck. Why he couldn’t just park in the garden I don’t know. But we were all prepared with buckets of water and carrots for the reindeer and sherry and mince pies for Santa. And come Christmas morning the mince pies would be crumbs, the carrots vanished and the bucket of water half drunk, the sherry glass empty.
This might have convinced me as a four year old, but now that I was at school and nearly six it was circumstantial evidence. I needed something stronger. Especially with an older brother who was muttering ‘things’ about Santa not being real.
As I said, the letter had been sent. I’d said what I wanted. I hoped I’d get it. I couldn’t know if I’d been good enough. What child ever knows if they’ve really been good for a day never mind for a whole year. Santa must have to undertake some pretty fancy statistical analysis to work that one out.
Back to the story: I was out with my parents. We went past a toy shop. In the window was something I’d never seen before. And I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted before. But I hadn’t told Santa. I hadn’t known it existed when I wrote my letter. So I knew I wouldn’t get it. But I wanted it so badly. I pulled my parents back – ‘Look at that – it’s the soldiers from Pippin Fort’ I said, in hushed tones. They could obviously tell that this was special to me, but they didn’t pull out the usual ‘you’ll have to ask Santa,’ because they had posted the letter for me, so they knew I couldn’t go back on the deal. I’d set out my demands to Santa. I would just have to be disappointed. I pressed my nose to the window for as long as I could, and on we went.
I didn’t forget about it, but I didn’t have an expectation that I would get the soldiers from Pippin Fort. And then the magic happened. When I awoke on Christmas morning, I felt down the bed to my stocking and it was large and lumpy. Nothing different there. I switched the light on. I could see it was only four thirty because I could tell the time and I had a clock in my room. I knew I shouldn’t be up till six o’clock, even on Christmas morning. But Santa had been. I had to peek.
And there, filling the top of the stocking were The soldiers from Pippin Fort. Never have twelve little plastic men done so much to bolster belief in the incredible. I hadn’t looked closely enough in the shop, but what they were was a set of plastic skittles (plastic was the new must have textile for children’s toys in my day). Twelve of them, six inches high. They made me believe. I had been with my parents all the time we were outside the shop. They couldn’t have bought it. I hadn’t told Santa. I’d just wished. And Santa had made my wish come true.
I still don’t know how my parents did it. It was Christmas Eve when we went past that shop. Unless one of them carried out the mother of all distractions on me while I was at the shop window and sneaked in, or went back while we were preparing to leave the car park – no, I still can’t work out how they did it. But they did. It’s enough to make you believe in the magic of Christmas. I still have a couple of the plastic soldiers – no matter how bad Christmases have been since, I can cling onto the wonder of childhood and the possibility of magic when I look at them. And sometimes you need something positive to cling on to. Especially at Advent.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.