As I walked with my daughter Amy through the city streets one winter evening, the wondrous decorations shone down, showering us in an orgy of colours. Happy snowmen, radiant reindeer, and smiling Santas hung around our heads, and at the end of the road stood a 50-foot fir tree adorning glowless lights, waiting patiently for The Celebrity and their ceremonial switching-on. The season of goodwill was rapidly approaching. Personally, I felt good will for no man.
"Can we put our tree up tonight, Daddy?" Amy asked again, tugging on my arm.
"No!" I snapped. She looked up at me with solemnity hardly seen in a face so young.
"Because it's November the tenth." Anyone who says Christmas comes earlier every year is right. The local paper has been running advertising features since the end of September. "Eat Out for Christmas!" they joyously proclaim. "Party at Our Place!" The shops soon join in, exulting for their yuletide discounts and their ringing tills. Worse still, a nightclub put a tree on display to remind their patrons to book early for Christmas - in June! Normally I love the festive season, but there's a time for everything, in this case from December the first onwards.
"Oh, please," pleaded my darling child. She was preparing to turn on the tears, hoping they would get her what she wanted. "Christmas trees are what Christmas is all about."
"Actually, Amy, it's about the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. How he was born in a stable in Bethlehem. It's about how the shepherds and the three wise men came to see him and brought him gifts. Remember your Nativity play last year?" She nodded.
"It was boring. Anyway, if the wise men were so clever why didn't they give Jesus a Nintendo?"
"Shut up!" I ordered. I can't stand smart alec 8 year olds. At this point our conversation died, partly because Amy was moody, partly because she was admiring the multicoloured illuminations above her.
As we strolled on we spotted a familiar figure emerging from a toy shop. It was a fat old man lugging an enormous bag. His hair was pure white and in a glimpse of his face we noticed round-rimmed spectacles, red rosy cheeks and a huge bushy white beard. Amy reacted in a second.
"Look! Daddy! Santa Claus!" she blurted uncontrollably. I had to agree there were similarities, but I couldn't imagine Santa shopping in Toymaster, especially not in the battered old grey suit this man was dressed in.
"Don't be stupid," I sighed., "It's November the tenth."
"It is him," she insisted, slipping her hand deftly out of mine before darting off. I chased her, but she was too swift and had already found her target, greeting him with a shriek. "Hi, Mr Claus!" The poor bloke jumped in surprise, dropped his bag, and swivelled around to glare at my daughter.
"You moronic little brat," he boomed fearsomely. "You made me drop my sack. If anything's broken there'll be hell to pay." I arrived on the scene, and just in time.
"I'm terribly sorry. I'll pay for am damage." I hoped that would placate him as he glared at me over his glasses.
"You should control her," he advised me sternly. "Kids can be a real nuisance."
"I know. She just thought you were Father Christmas."
"He is, aren't you?" Amy cried again. "You are Father Christmas!" The man didn't answer. He was too busy checking his bag. Out of it he took a doll with a porcelain head. For a face it had a dark, jagged hole.
"This seems to be the only thing broken," he said. I took it from him, and while he waited I went into the shop and bought a replica. On my return he seemed to have calmed down. "Now I believe it's my turn to apologise. I shouldn't have barked at your lovely child. It's just that this is my busiest time of the year and the stress is beginning to get to me. "I handed over the doll. "Oh, thank you. Young Tracey Gillings will be delighted with this next month."
"You're welcome," I told him as he placed the doll back into the safety of his bag.
"Let me buy you a drink, a coffee or something," he insisted. I felt I had to accept. Amy had annoyed the poor fellow enough already, I didn't want to offend him further.
Down the road was a small teashop. I was sure it would be closed at this time of evening, but our new friend assured us it wasn't. The three of us walked briskly and as promised it was open, if empty.
"What would you like?" asked the man. I only wanted a coffee.
"Can I have a coke, please?" asked Amy.
"NO!" scowled our elderly companion., but he quickly realised how harsh his voice was and softened it. "I'm sorry. Have a milk shake."
"Okay, that'll be nicer anyway." As we sat with our beverages I asked the man about his business.
"You could say I'm an annual gratuity distribution agent." Amy looked at me with a blank face. My expression matched hers.
"Insurance?" I asked. The man laughed aloud; a bellowing, well-rounded "ho-ho-ho"
"No. I.., he paused for effect, "am Santa Claus." Amy's face radiated delight.
"I told you so," she shouted. I shushed her and stared quizzically at our confidant.
"You've got to be joking."
"I wish I was," he answered glumly. "I can't take the pressure anymore. This year will be my last I think. Children can get their presents from someone else in future." Amy became distressed.
"Why?" she asked. Santa placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"My dear, do you know what commercialisation is?" Amy shook her head." Let me explain. About a hundred years ago, the Victorians had the perfect Christmas. They would decorate their tree, send each other cards, and on Christmas morning they would find in their stocking an apple, and orange, and a penny."
"That must've made your sack a lot lighter," I sneered. Santa seemed to miss my sarcasm.
"Indeed it did. You see in those days it was all about Jesus. People even went to church on Christmas morning. It was wonderful, but since then things have slowly changed. At first the children wanted toys instead of fruit. That wasn't too bad, until the Big companies realised they could use Yuletide to make lots and lots of money. Christmas has got real selling power." Amy was most confused.
"I don't understand." Santa took out a small silver flask from his jacket pocket and poured something into his drink, winking at me.
"It's what keeps the cheeks colourful," he smiled before returning his attention to my enthralled daughter. "Here's an example. What do I wear when I drive my sleigh?"
"A big red costume with lots of white furry bits," she replied enthusiastically.
"I never used to. My job is to deliver all the presents to all the children, but without being seen. It's hard enough being inconspicuous flying around in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. I didn't want to wear a scarlet monkey suit to make me stand out even more. Then the Coca-Cola Company paid an artist, Haddon Sundblom, to paint my portrait to help them sell more fizzy drinks. He dressed me in red and white, the same colours as the Coca-Cola trademark. The image stuck, and my job became a million times more impossible."
"Is that why you don't like coke?"
"Exactly." He took a deep gulp of his intoxicating coffee. "It's not just Coca-Cola. Look at the Post Office. You send lots and lots of cards?" We both nodded (I was becoming captivated too). "Everyone does. In this country 700 million of them. All those stamps make £135million for Postman Pat. Then there's the toys. The victorians wanted toy soldiers and skipping ropes. I could make those with help from my elves. Nowadays I'm lost. How on Earth do you make a Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Red Dragon Thunderzord? I don't even know what one is? Now I've got to go to the shops like everyone else. They make a fortune! And don't forget all the pop stars who wanted to be number one on Christmas Day, the restaurants who want to cook you Christmas dinner, the milkman who tries to flog you a yule hamper. It's all about cash. The only Christmas spirit around is sold in pubs. I'm sick of it all. No-one believes in Christmas anymore, and no-one believes in me!" There was a long silence as Santa guzzled the rest of his coffee.
"I believe in you, Father Christmas," said Amy softly.
"Pardon?" The old man was startled.
"I believe in you. Everyone does. You just need to look a little closer." Santa scratched his snowy head.
"What do you mean?" Amy took a deep breath.
"Look at the face of a little baby when he sees his first Christmas tree. He believes in you. Look at the faces of the children when they open the gifts that you brought them They believe in you. Look at my Daddy's face when Nanny gives him a horrible jumper she made for him which is so long it covers his knees. He doesn't say 'this is rubbish'. He says 'thank you' because he believes in you. Christmas might be about Jesus. It might be about money. But it's really about happiness. It tells us the world isn't so bad really. You give us that Santa, so please don't stop. We may not tell you, but we all need you, even if it is only once a year" Santa listened carefully, and just sat in wonder. I was stunned too. "Please don't give up now." The weary old man stood, picking up his sack, then leaned over and gently kissed Amy's head.
"You are so wise," he whispered. "Drink up now, my angel." He walked to the door.
"Are you giving up?" Amy asked. He looked back for a second, gave a knowing smile, then winked. An instant later he was gone.
Like Santa (I don't doubt that is who we were talking to you), I was overcome by my daughter's little speech. "Where did you learn all that?" I asked her as we walked home.
"What book?" She grinned at me.
"One you gave me last Christmas." He little face glowed in the lights from the street decorations, and I just had to smile back. I knew of just one thing that could make that smile grow.
"Let's go home," I said. "We've got a tree to put up." I knew it was going to be a really Merry Christmas.