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My best ever Christmas present from Santa

Four writers and two local celebrities share special memories from their childhoods

We can all remember the wonder of Christmas in our childhood. The restless night before the big day as we waited for dawn and the chance to waken our parents and see what Santa had brought us.

The breathless rush into the living room to see the presents heaped up and the momentary fear that perhaps he had forgotten to bring us what we really, really wanted. And as we tore the wrapping paper off, the relief that, yes, he had remembered.

But no matter how many presents we received over the years, there was always one that stood out. It may not have been the most expensive, the largest or even the one that our parents thought we would love most, but it was still the one that stuck in the memory.

Alex Kane: ‘I only wore the outfit once and then put it away’

My first Christmas - in the sense that it was the first I remember-was 1961. I had been adopted six months earlier and Christmas, like every other memory of my first six years, had either been wiped or lost from my memory.

That's probably why I still remember the presents 55 years later - a slinky, a gyroscope, a tin of humbugs, a cowboy suit, a magnifying glass, a kaleidoscope, a pack of 'magic cards,' Ludo, chocolate money and an assortment of nuts and fruit.

That probably sounds very naff today, yet I still remember it as a treasure trove, particularly the cards.

Magic has intrigued me since then, and when I was in my early teenage years I cobbled together a routine to amuse (although I suspect that they simply endured it) my friends.

The Slinky was great fun for the first hour-we had the right sort of staircase - but then I tied it to the handrail and bannister halfway down the stairs, miscalculated my jump, caught my foot and crash-landed face down in the hallway. I've been wary of them since then.

The cowboy suit consisted of a waistcoat, chaps, hat, sheriff's badge, bandanna and a plastic gun and holster. I put it on after breakfast, kept it on until bedtime, wrapped it in brown paper, placed it in the bottom drawer of a huge chest in my bedroom and never wore it again. I've no idea why. I found it years later, when I was clearing the room before going to university, and discovered my Mum had stapled a photograph to it; in which I looked like a bizarre cross between The Milkybar Kid and Woody from Toy Story. I packed it with my books, but managed to lose it when I moved house a decade later.

I still don't know why I refused to wear it, let alone why I wrapped it up.

I was in a very difficult psychological stage at that point in my life: still not talking to anyone and probably still fearing that I would be returned to the orphanage. So maybe I wrapped it just to make sure that I would have something to take back with me to that 'other place'.

Yet that worn-once suit remains my favourite present.

Decades later, I remember every detail of it. It's my 'Rosebud'; that one object, that one memory I still return to when I have a dark day.

Mairia Cahill: 'I got a He-Man, Skeletor and Battle Cat... it made me the envy of the boys in our street'

As a child in the 80s and 90s, Christmas was a magical time in our house, and my parents ensured that both myself and my sister had many happy memories of the Santa season.

We had a family tradition of going to Leisure World to visit the man in the red suit, marvelling at the decorated snowscenes and posing for obligatory photographs while whispering shyly to him what we wanted for the big day.

On Christmas Eve, my mother staved off some of the building excitement by giving us one present from our parents and cooking cocktail sausages while we sat in our new pyjamas watching a seasonal movie before going to bed early in the hope that Santa would remember everything that we'd asked for. He never disappointed us.

On Christmas morning itself, my father would take two excited children to the stairs while he checked to see if Santa had been, before we unleashed ourselves in a frenzy on the wrapped presents set out before us.

I preferred to take my time, savouring the moment, while my younger sister, Caoimhe, would tear off the paper quickly and squeal in a high pitched voice, "Just what I always wanted", before moving at breakneck speed to the next thing that she'd always wanted but hadn't realised before.

One year, I nearly put Santa over the edge when I asked for a present scarcer than a Hatchimal, the Big Yellow Teapot. In the days before the internet, Santa had to rely on the Yellow Pages, and quickly discovered the Irish elves were stumped when it came to sourcing one. Not to be outdone, Santa managed to find one in Harrods, and a friendly English elf dutifully brought it to Belfast and packed it in his sleigh.

I had many hours of fun turning the top of the teapot to change the scenery inside, where little figures could be put in bed or the living room, depending on whatever mood I was in at the time.

I wasn't one for Barbies when I was younger, so a favourite from another year was a He-Man, Skeletor and Battle Cat, which made me the envy of the boys in the street as we took turns shouting "By the power of Grayskull!" Our toys were gender-neutral before it was fashionable.

My mother and I have continued to go all-out for Christmas, lighting our houses up like Lapland this year, and my own six-year-old daughter will hopefully have as many happy memories of Christmas as I have. I'm reliably informed that Santa's elves have processed her list, so this year is sure to be a great one.

Frances Burscough: ‘I’d never seen anything so exciting or clever and I just gasped in amazement’

The season of gifts is upon us, and as I was wrapping mine this week I took some time to reflect on what makes the perfect present and why. It also allowed me to indulge in one of my favourite year-round pastimes, which is reflecting on lessons I've learnt from the distant past.

It was in the good old days, when Christmas was still as magical as any fairytale. I passionately believed in Father Christmas, the elves, the reindeer and a flying, jingling sleigh that defied the laws of gravity and common sense, but then I was only about five or six at the time. Although that was 40+ years ago I will never forget one particular present that was waiting for me under the tree. It was a giant book called the Pop-up Wizard of Oz and, still to this day, it was the most incredible-looking book I've ever seen.

As you opened the first page it was just like a normal story book, with text to the left and pictures to the right, telling the story of a day in the life of Dorothy, her dog Toto, Aunt Em and their farm in Kansas. In the background a dark storm could be seen brewing ominously on the horizon. The illustrations were absolutely beautiful, but a huge surprise was waiting as I turned the first page. What had been lying flat suddenly popped up from nowhere into a dynamic, three dimensional scene. A twisty tornado intricately crafted out of card and wire spiralled and quivered from the centrefold about ten inches high, with the cut-out farm house suspended in the middle, while a cow, a car and an uprooted tree dangled on threads from its periphery.

I'd never seen anything so clever or exciting before and I actually gasped in sheer amazement, like I was seeing something genuinely magic happening before my eyes. As I turned each page, the story unfolded - literally - in front of me. Characters and scenes rose up from the book in incredibly intricate detail.

There was a little cardboard tag that said "pull here" and when you did the Munchkins popped up from behind a flowerbed. Then the cowardly lion, the tin man and the scarecrow arose from the pages to become real, three-dimensional characters in the story as they followed the cardboard yellow brick road lined with printed paper poppies. But the absolute piece de resistance was of course the Emerald City, which was quite breathtaking to behold. What must have been about twenty layers of card lifted majestically and architecturally out of the book to form an amazing cityscape, complete with turrets, towers, domes, doorways, columns and courtyards. Everything was coloured emerald green and here were even sparkly emerald-coloured gem stones inlaid into the buildings, doors that opened and closed and tiny windows you could look through made from green cellophane.

Yes, that was by far the most fantastic book I've ever owned. But what made it all the more special - in retrospect - is that I found out later that it was dad who had chosen it and dad rarely did any shopping of any sort. When mum eventually spilled the beans about "where Christmas presents come from", I learnt that dad had spotted it in the window of a bookshop during a trip to London. The Wizard of Oz was his favourite film at the time (it still is, for that matter!) and he had spent the whole 3 hour return journey on the train reading it and marvelling at the craftsmanship. Mum said that it was probably a wrench to give it away, but he had chosen me out of eight children, which made it all the more special.

Sadly, it eventually fell apart from years of use and ended up being unceremoniously tossed into a bin with torn bits and pieces missing and wires and threads all hanging out from the broken spine. But it is and always will remain perfect in my memory, and every time I think about it, I'm reminded of how thoughtful my parents were and how exciting the season of Christmas can be.

Not just for a child on the receiving end of gifts, but as a parent too, creating so many magical memories that will last long into another generation's lifetime.

Kerry McKittrick: 'I loved my a la carte kitchen... it had all the housewife of tomorrow could possibly want'

I loved Christmas morning growing up. It was the only day of the year which saw me being the first person in the house awake. I would turf my sister out of bed and then tumble into my parents' room to wake them up. While everyone rubbed their eyes and donned their dressing gowns, I would be jigging about on the landing waiting for them all.

We went downstairs as a family and it was always a nerve-racking experience, the house was deathly quiet and dark with the curtains still drawn. The moment before we opened the living room door was the worst. Had we been good? Had Santa shown up? Would there be nothing but a bucket of coal?

But thankfully, we were never disappointed on Christmas morning. There would be a pile of gifts for my sister and me, gleaming and ready to be plundered.

I can remember all sorts of toys from my childhood. The Big Yellow Teapot, Transformers, My Pet Monster, Care Bears, My Little Pony, the list goes on.

I loved dolls and I too had the Sindy house with a huge collection of Barbies and Sindys - although they were never the same once you cut their hair off. I loved the Cabbage Patch dolls too. When you got those, you actually had to adopt them and make a promise to look after them.

When I look back at Christmas, cringingly, there is one gift that stands out to me - the A La Carte Kitchen by Bluebird. It was a cart on wheels that featured every appliance the housewife of tomorrow could possibly want, from a sink and oven to a washing machine with a pull-out table.

I think that it being interactive made it such a huge hit - I remember it had a featured role in many of our games, because we could use it and make it part of the play.

That's perhaps why it stands out over everything else.

I don't remember there being must-have toys back then. I do remember wanting certain toys, and they would always appear on my letter to Santa.

Niamh Perry: 'My Furby was a big deal but would go off in the middle of the night and wake the whole house'

Niamh Perry (25) came to fame by taking part in the BBC Series I'd Do Anything. Since then, she has become the youngest person to play Sophie in the West End production of Mamma Mia. She is originally from Bangor and says:

My best ever Christmas present was a digital piano. I still have it and I've only just had it shipped over to my house in London. I think I got it when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I didn't ask for it, I just arrived downstairs and there was a big parcel wrapped under the Christmas tree.

I'd been having lessons for ages before that and had played the violin when I was younger. It's been a really useful gift that I've held on to over the years.

Otherwise, the best toy I remember getting was a Furby. It was the first year they came out and they were definitely a big deal back then. The problem with mine was that it would go off in the middle of the night for months afterwards and it would wake the whole house up.

I also remember the year that everyone went crazy for Buzz Lightyear.

I didn't get one because I was too girly and obsessed with my dolls. But I loved Toy Story and I remember people going crazy for the toy.

Niamh will be making a guest appearance at the Grand Opera House tomorrow with James Huish and his band for the Christmas Spectacular. For details, visit www.goh.co.uk

Claire Allen: 'My Sindy house was just the ultimate Christmas present for me as I really loved dolls'

Claire Allen (40) is a novelist who lives in Londonderry with her husband Neil and their children Joseph (12) and Cara (7). She says:

The best ever toy I ever got was a Sindy house. It was in 1984 the year it came out I think and it was quite simple. It was essentially three boxes on top of each other, each with an open side but I loved it.

The panels were painted to show different scenes in each room and it even had a lift that went up and down the outside. It was so tall that I couldn't even reach up to the roof garden at the top. I was always a Sindy girl instead of a Barbie girl so it was like a dream to me. I loved dolls and dolls houses so it was the ultimate Christmas present.

I know this year the ultimate Christmas present is the Hatchimal, these eggs that will produce a cuddly toy if you look after them a lot.

They're really difficult to get hold of and I've heard of some selling on Ebay for £400. They did a stealth campaign on YouTube so the kids were all clamouring for them before they even came out.

Back in the day I can remember the hysteria over toys, it all started with Buzz Lightyear or the Telly Tubbies toys but I can't remember which."

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