Most of my favourite Christmas stories have one thing in common: the moral is always that love and friendship mean far more than material gifts.
Classics like A Christmas Carol, The Gifts of the Magi, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life all come to the same simple conclusion.
Nevertheless, as much as I loved the sentiment and agreed in principle with the message, when I was a kid the getting and giving of gifts was my favourite part of the festive season by a long shot. Everything else was just the icing on the Christmas cake.
Love and friendship are all very well, but a girl needs the occasional token — or 10 — to show in real terms how she is valued.
That opening line in another morality tale, Little Women, really summed it all up for me: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”
I used to read it when I was pre-teen and imagine how I would feel if the unimaginable happened and I woke up on Christmas morning only to find that Father Christmas had by-passed our chimney altogether. The fact that we didn’t actually have a chimney didn’t occur to me for some reason, but one thing did: it would be heinous and I certainly wouldn’t have greeted it with a solitary sigh of acceptance like those simpering siblings did.
For me, a decent pile of pressies was like an annual salary for being a good girl and for toeing the line all year. For all those interminable Sunday mornings at Mass, not to mention the tedious Holy Days of Obligation where we had to go to church mid-week; all those red-eye wake-up calls for school in the pitch dark of winter; for biting my tongue instead of answering back insolently when the nuns at school took a sidelong swipe; for standing up and surrendering my seat to elderly passengers on the bus and for all the other polite gestures I did without question because that was the way I’d been brought up — this was payback time. It was my personal Christmas bonus that I’d earned as much as any public servant or loyal employee.
Of course, I was only a kid, and a very naïve one at that, so my view of the world was a bit skewed and Santa and God were still a bit mixed up in my head. For example, when we were rehearsing our school nativity play and the teacher said, “Hands up who knows how Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem?” I put mine up and replied, “On a reindeer”. To this day, I’m convinced that’s why I was given the part of King Herod.
But as a Catholic I had been taught to believe in the Holy Trinity, so the idea of yet another super-power, who rode all around the world on a flying sledge rewarding good children was well within the realms of possibility.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that after I discovered Santa was a global conspiracy, my behaviour took a very sharp nosedive, plummeting off the scale of Naughty or Nice until I became official Black Sheep of the Family. But that’s another story.
No, in those days, his credibility wasn’t an issue. I was more concerned with technicalities such as what if his sleigh breaks down, or if Rudolph gets a lame hoof, or if he runs out of toys ...
Mind you, I had a contingency plan. Inspired once again by Louisa May Alcott’s holier-than-thou sisters, I announced: “If Father Christmas doesn’t come, I’m going to sell my hair to a paintbrush shop and spend the money on presents! For myself.”
After lengthy guffaws, my family of Clever Dicks pointed out the numerous problems arising: paintbrushes haven’t been made out of human hair in Britain since Victorian times and even if they were, there’s no such thing as a paintbrush shop and even if there were, there wasn’t one in Preston and even if there were, it wouldn’t be open on Christmas Day ... and so on and so on ...
Santa did come, so I didn’t get a chance to prove them all wrong. My hair remained intact, as did my belief in the Holy Quadrinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Santa Claus.