Dear Santa, I wrote in childish scrawl,
Please send me an elf to prove that you are real.
Love from your friend Zanni
I was hopeful - desperate, even - as I made a bed for the elf out of a shoebox, and put it at the foot of my bed. The next morning, I pushed back the covers, and scrambled out of bed to see if the elf was there. Had proof of Santa's existence magically appeared overnight?
In my shoebox bed lay a small, Christmas coloured teddy. It was thoughtful of Mum, but the implications were more than she could imagine. No elf equalled no Santa. No Santa equalled no Easter Bunny and no Tooth Fairy. No elf equalled the end of childhood magic and the end of reality as I knew it. I tentatively held onto a belief in fairies, but it was by a flimsy thread.
I swallowed my disappointment in life, and followed the motions of Christmas, unwrapping gifts and feigning excitement for my younger brothers' benefit.
In February, Dad drove me to school. I sat silently beside him. At last, I had the courage to ask the question that burned inside. I needed absolute confirmation.
"Dad, is Santa real?"
"He's as real as you want him to be," said Dad.
My eight-year-old self sunk back into the car seat, and began to sob. Deep sobs. It was my first real experience of loss. The world had let me down. If Santa wasn't real, I couldn't be sure about anything.
I was so upset I left my lunch money in the car.
On my daughter's first Christmas, my husband Gregor and I discussed Santa. Do we? Don't we? For him, the decision was easy - we can play all the games, but we don't have to actually tell our daughter Santa is real. I thought this sounded reasonable.
But part of me was torn. Would we be denying our daughter the magic of Christmas?
Partly, I was so devastated to learn that Santa was a sham was because the magic of Christmas was so important to me as a child. I hung on the joy it inspired for the eleven point nine month leading up to the next Christmas.
But I think it doesn't have to be as concrete as "Santa is real" vs. "Santa is not real". Children have an incredible capacity for imagination and invention. Even though we barely talk to my daughter about Santa, he is a huge part of her imaginary world. She talks about where he lives, and how he flies. She tells me I have to wrap rocks to put under the Christmas tree, so Santa can use his magic to turn them into presents.
Entering the Alstonville Plaza earlier this week, my daughter froze.
"Let's go," she said.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Santa might be here."
She saw the Christmas tree and Santa's chair set up, and was reminded of the anxiety she experienced last year when a strange man in a red suit and white beard offered her a lolly.
"Mummy, I don't want Santa to come to my house," she said.
I stroked her hair, and assured her that it was okay, Santa is just a story, like Red Riding Hood is a story. The man in the suit is dressed up, and Santa doesn't really come to our house.
It didn't stop her talking about it, though.
Growing up, Gregor enjoyed Christmas as much as I did. He and his sister hid in the spare room Christmas Eve, while the Christmas Angel set up the tree, decorating it with candles and toys. At last, the Angel rang a bell, and the children ran into the living room. Gregor believed in the magic as if it was real, even though they were never made to believe it was real. Christmas was as exciting and as magical for him as it was for me.
It's not that I want to protect my daughter from the grief I experienced when I discovered Santa wasn't real. I am not such a proactive parent. It's just I don't think my daughter needs me to create her fantasies for her. She does an excellent job of it herself.
Does Santa come to your house? What stories do you tell your children? Do you play along?