All I want for Christmas
It’s become part of family lore that when our eldest daughter was about 4 or 5, Dad got lost driving during a snow storm and we ended up, after dark, in a forest festooned with twinkly lights, where elves were waiting to greet us, and Mother Christmas had gingerbread men that needed decorating and her husband was snoozing by the fire in his cosy little hut, waiting to hear what she wanted most of all on Christmas Day.
Believe me, it worked a treat. The (real) snow was a fortuitous, if unexpected bonus (the hairy drive from London to Kent notwithstanding) and everything else, in the four hours we spent in that magical forest, sealed a belief in the big beardy guy in a red suit that has not waned, even though our eldest is soon to be 11.
I’m fully aware that she may be going along with it, still, for our benefit, but I don’t actually think that’s the case – I think our eldest daughter has an ingrained belief in magic. Richard Dawkins can huff and puff all he likes about the dishonesty of promoting myths and the supernatural to kids but, for her, it’s made every Christmas since just that bit more special – and for us, too.
So when our youngest daughter came into our lives, four years ago, it’s been our aim to recreate that magical experience ever since she heard about it, in breathless wonder, from her older sister. But, for one reason or other, I’ve never pulled it off – for her first Christmas with us, it was just too soon; another year, we had a family bereavement to cope with. But, most often, it was the prosaic reason of not having booked early enough – this gig tends to sell out in early November!
Don’t get me wrong – we HAVE taken our youngest to see Father Christmas at some venue or other, every year. But, last year, after a particularly disappointing specimen, her world-weary verdict afterwards of: “Well, he was just an actor in a suit, wasn’t he, mum?” gave me a lump in my throat for all the wrong reasons.
She’s five years old.
This year, when Christmas started to appear in all the shops, and she said: “I wish daddy could drive and get us lost so that we find that forest with the real Father Christmas!”, I could hardly keep the smile off my face – this time, we were booked, well in advance.
So, yesterday, we set off; the special, personalised invitations for each child safe in my bag, we told the girls we were going for a family day out to the zoo. Neither wanted to go – why were we going to a zoo on a cold, damp day when they could go to the indoor play centre down the road? We bundled them out, still moaning and sulking, and off we went. An hour and a half later, they’re beside themselves with contempt when Dad said he’s lost and the satnav has stopped working.
“Let’s just go back HOME!” protested the eldest.
But by then we were in the forest, and I pull the trump cards out of my bag… “Well, actually, we’ve got a special appointment, girls…”
Our youngest couldn’t read her invite but she recognised the guy’s picture on the front, along with her name. Our eldest was squealing at such a high pitch that only (husky) dogs could probably hear her now.
So far, so special…then:
“You know what I’m going to ask Father Christmas for, Mum?” breathes our youngest, her eyes shining.
“I’m going to ask if I can meet my birth mum, again – even before I’m a teenager.”
Her dad and I glanced wordlessly at each other but we kept the smiles on our faces.
“You can ask him that baby, sure,” I said. “But I don’t think he can make that happen straightaway, you know. Besides, I hope he doesn’t think that you’re asking that because you’re unhappy living with us?”
Why on earth did I say that? This wasn’t about how good a family we were; we’re not in a competition, here. This was my OWN need for affirmation that shouldn’t impact at all on what my child feels about her situation at any – maybe all – given times of the year. And at least she was sharing it with us, rather than burying that (probably) ever-present longing down deep for fear of how we might react.
Fortunately, she considered my statement with a maturity that had temporarily deserted me. “Yes, I’m happy living with my family,” she nodded. “But I just want to see my birth mum again before I’m 18.”
“Well, we’ve said we’ll help you with that, baby,” I said, “but when you’re a bit older, though.”
And then suddenly we’re tramping through the forest, back on track in every sense, and it was just as magical as I’d remembered from before and hoped for this time. Sitting in a fairy-lit glade, with a wise-cracking elf hanging his socks on a washing line between the trees, our youngest turned to us with THAT expression peculiar to Christmas time – full of wonder and glow and glee.
Then, when he cracked open a wooden door to the main attraction – the forest dusted with snow, lit only by fairy lights in the gathering dusk, and winding paths where special ‘herders’ were walking actual huskies, her grin was a mile wide.
But while her sister galloped on, taking it all at face value, our youngest felt the fir trees between thumb and forefinger. “It’s not real snow, mum,” she whispered. “I think it’s made of paper.”
“That’s because it’s magic snow, love,” I whispered back.
Then, later, with the elves in their toy factory: “I don’t think they are elves, mum – I think they’re grown ups dressed up. And why is my invite from Father Christmas printed and not actual handwriting?”
“Well, he has to write to a lot of children, love, so he’s probably got a printer to save him time.”
We’ve been aware from very early on that our daughter tells it how she sees it and that there’s a cynicism in her world-view that is not apparent in her older sister. Whether this is simply a personality trait or informed by her early years experience of being let down by the two most important people in her life, we don’t know. Maybe it’s a mixture of the two. But surely every child needs to have one moment of believing in magic, don’t they?
And, eventually, we’re knocking on the door of the main man’s hut at the end of a long, winding, snowy path. We’re ushered in by an elf and even I feel a lurch back to 40-odd years ago when I believed in magic. I gasp back a single sob that comes out of nowhere. The kids sit beside him, awe-struck. He knows their likes and dislikes; their hobbies; their pets. He shows them their names on his ‘good’ Christmas Eve list. He asks our youngest what she wants most of all and I hold my breath, ready to pitch in if I need to.
“I’d like a tree that grows diamonds!” she announces. “Or a doll’s house….”
On our way out, she confides in me as we walk along, past grazing reindeer and a parked up, red and gold sleigh: “I don’t think dad really got lost driving here, mum, and the elves and snow aren’t real – but Father Christmas is. Can we come again tomorrow?”
I laugh and say no, but he’ll be visiting us on Christmas Eve – and I’m really glad she’s finally got to meet the real Father Christmas.
Silence. Then: “I love you, Mum”.
And there, knackered and a bit muddy, trying to find our car in the dark in a forest car-park, was the magic of Christmas.