OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a Christmas story I wrote several years ago….it’s mostly humbug!

The Plausible Explanation

When I was very young my parents warned me that if ever I caught a glimpse of Father Christmas, I should keep quiet about it. If ever, they told me, he caught a glimpse of you catching a glimpse of him that would be the last time he ever called. So I resolved to keep my eyes closed and my head down under the covers if I heard anyone moving around in my room on Christmas night. Besides, there were no Father Christmas suits in our house, and if I’d seen who was leaving the presents beside the bed it would have been game over there and then.

Janey was the daughter of a friend of the family. The friend’s name was Betty. I can’t remember how we met Betty, nor why we lost touch with her, but for a few years we saw each other pretty much on a weekly basis, visiting each other’s houses and sharing meals together. Betty was a divorcee who had thrown out her husband, who was one of the nice guys, and had replaced him with a string of unsatisfactory boyfriends, who were not.

Betty always had plenty of cash and liked to spend it. She believed that five shopping bags full of cheap crap was better than one half full of quality. In fact we took to using the word Betty for an assembly of shopping bags. That’s a real Betty of bags we’d say, when we came out of the supermarket with a trolleyful.

Discussing the redecorating once, Betty was horrified to learn that my wife had paid twelve pounds a roll for wallpaper, for the spare bedroom. You can get woodchip for fifty pence a roll, she said. I don’t like woodchip, my wife told her. At fifty pence a roll you can learn to like it, Betty said.

Don’t get me wrong. Betty was generous. She bought a lot, but she gave a lot away too. I would guess that she passed on to us almost as many children’s clothes as we bought, and I mean unused children’s clothes, still sealed in their plastic bags, and that Janey had outgrown, rather than grown out of.

At the age of fifteen Janey was balanced on that dangerous knife-edge between childhood and adulthood. She was a sensible kid though and not in the least rebellious, leastways not obviously so. There was just one thing that my wife and I could never get our heads around. That was the fact that, at fifteen, Janey still claimed to believe in Father Christmas.

Our little girl, who, as you’ve probably guessed, was a couple of years younger than Janey, had twigged the scam by the age of five. Don’t be sad. She’s in her twenties now, and come Christmas time we still play the Father Christmas game with the same childlike enthusiasm as we did when she was four, all three of us, whenever, that is, we get the pleasure of a Christmas visit these days. When she’s not there, my wife and I play it on our own. By which I mean, we hang up our Christmas stockings, and creep around in the early hours, trying not to wake each other, pretending we have not been woken, and stuffing, in the dark, a dozen or so small and generally not valuable presents into each other’s. When I say stockings here, I’m being traditional. I’m not talking about your nylon stockings. Those are for entirely different sorts of games. The Christmas stockings are usually hiking socks which, being large and stretchy, will accommodate the necessary presents.

Sometimes we get a bit sophisticated, and set up duplicate stockings, using the other one of the pair, so that in the long reaches of the night we need only work a quick switch. Once I had a to substitute a Wellington boot, my wife having taken the second stocking out of badness; but I thought the boot was a pretty good revenge, and if it hadn’t had her name written on the inside in black felt tip, I would have passed it off as one of Santa’s, and cited it as evidence of the lengths he would go to for his clients. Think of it, having to visit the rest of the world, on a night like that, with one bare foot.

Betty’s house at Christmas time was done up like a Christmas present! It was done up like a Christmas stocking! It was done up like a Santa’s grotto! There were garlands of fake greenery. There were swags of red and gold fabric. There were waterfalls of lametta. There were streamers and baubles, and fairy lights, and we haven’t got anywhere near the tree yet, which filled the entire bay window of her Edwardian terraced house, from which the curtains were drawn back for the whole season, so that the entire street could benefit from her efforts. Background music of a seasonal persuasion, both secular and divine, played relentlessly.

The decorations were not what amazed us though. It was the Santa Clauses, the Father Christmases, the Pere Noels, who, from life sized to miniature, made of cloth, pot, painted wood, plastic, metal and several unidentifiable materials, stood, lay, sprawled, sleighed, skied, dangled and abseiled, upwards of a hundred of them at our last count, on every horizontal surface, from every vertical one, and off the ceiling as well, and which filled every recessed nook and cranny, every flung open cupboard, and every bookshelf in the room. Some of them emitted intermittent ‘ho-ho-ho-and-a- merry-Christmas-to-you’s, in Hollywood voices, while others produced snatches of Christmas songs that were neither naughty nor nice, but had sure as hell arrived in town. One, fat, large and recumbent, merely breathed stentoriously, his ermine and red swathed chest rising and falling rhythmically, accompanied by the sound of snoring. Perhaps he was as overcome by it all as we felt sometimes.

But this was only the window dressing to what really intrigued us, which was how Janey, despite the undoubted efforts of her school friends to disabuse her, could still believe in this mythical figure; that and why on earth her mother should want to prolong such an illusion so far into her daughter’s adolescence.

With that many fake Father Christmases on show, you’d perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Betty always managed to persuade someone to dress up and do the business vis-à-vis Janey, but of course her problem would have been the same as that of my parents, except in her case the game would have been blown on account of it being a familiar face wearing the suit, rather than one not wearing it. Although, as you can imagine there were a lot of movies played, on TV and video, every Christmas, in which the most surprising people turned out to be the real SC.

Perhaps we needed to lighten up a little, you’re thinking? After all, it was only a harmless little subterfuge, wasn’t it? Or was it? What about science, I used to ask when we got home from a visit? I mean if nothing else, what must it have done to the girl’s grasp of objective reality? Did she really believe that there was some man, who once a year visited, within the space of a single night, every house in the world? I mean, look at the logistics of it. It’s absurd. It’s crazy. How could she have believed it?

We considered the possibility that she did not. That she merely went along with the sham in order to preserve her mother’s illusions. But which illusions did she think she was preserving? Illusions about Father Christmas? Illusions about her? Was it her mother that she was trying to protect? At fifteen she was beginning to take subjects like psychology at school. Could she have come to the conclusion that her mother was subject to chronic, though arguably harmless, delusions that must be pussy-footed around rather than confronted, at least while they seemed to present no difficulties for her in terns of making a living, or having a sustainable social life?

Or did she think, which was the interpretation that we were coming around to, bit by bit, that the whole thing was a doomed attempt to hold back the tide of womanhood that Betty must have known was about to sweep her daughter away from her? This seemed a good theory to us, but not one that a fifteen year old girl would have been likely to formulate. Having said which, Janey must have been well aware of her mother’s general dissatisfactions in the area of adult heterosexual relationships.

But there was always that haunting feeling that perhaps Janey did believe in Father Christmas, for all her apparent level headedness and maturity; that she had this one blank space in an otherwise logical mind, that was filled, not with the usual illogicalities of the human condition, those spiritual beliefs that send us on lifelong quests for understanding and knowledge of what can neither be understood nor known, but which was filled instead with the image of the fat man in the red suit who claims to have entered your bedroom via a chimney, that you, as a child have examined well enough to know that not even a thin man, in or out of the suit, could have a hope of squeezing into; and what about the issues of fireplaces, open and closed, leaving aside wood-burners, radiators, gas fires and electrics?

You can see that the issue is one that wound me up, and still does. Because the fact is, that when Janey fell pregnant and gave birth about three weeks into September of the following year, having just turned sixteen, and her mother asked her, not unreasonably, who the hell the father was, and when it had happened, Janey told her that it was on Christmas night, and that it was a man in a red suit, who had come down the chimney, and whom she thought, naturally, must have been the real Father Christmas.

And what, out of that, either of them believed, I don’t have the foggiest idea.