I used not to believe in Christmas. I mean, I knew it happened. The fake tree and the silver tinsel saw to that. And I can't pretend that I didn't like the presents. What child doesn't? But I never believed that any of this really meant anything. Long before I stopped believing in Jesus, I'd already given up on Father Christmas. My mother has a photo, taken when I was six, with me sitting on Santa's lap surrounded by toys in plastic packaging and looking less than impressed. Mum says I was a difficult child even then. I say I was too clever to be taken in by such an obvious fraudster. Any fool could see that this wasn't Father Christmas at all, but a man from down our road in a cheap beard.
Looking back, I think my disenchantment with Christmas began when I first realised that I was different from other boys. You internalise a lot of negativity as a queer child, and by the time I was six I'd internalised more than my fair share. I didn't know that I was gay – I didn't know what "gay" was – but I knew that I was different. The boys who bullied me at school knew too. They were calling me a poof long before any of us understood what a poof was. My father understood, though. If I came home crying because some lad or other had beaten me up in the playground, he didn't offer to visit the school or talk to the boy's parents. He threatened to hit me too. That was the extent of his parenting skills. I don't know how good a dad Father Christmas was supposed to be. Was he even married? Did he have children of his own? But he couldn't have been any worse than mine. My parents' marriage was not a happy one. Not for them, and certainly not for me.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, though. At the age of seven I appeared in the school Nativity play dressed as one of the three wise men. By now, I was wise enough to know that the tale of the Virgin Mary was about as believable as that of Show White. But I did like the costume. My mother was a whizz with the sewing machine and had run me up a red velvet robe from one of her old dresses. I liked the way the cuffs hung over my hands. I liked the crown, too, even if it was made from cardboard and covered in tin foil. My mother could be very inventive when she put her mind to it. She was skilled in the art of making something from nothing. I like to think that I did her proud that night. I wore the robe well. I recited my lines. One teacher told me I gave a good performance. Another found it a little too "festive".
Back at home, the festivities were left largely to my mother. It was her job to create the illusion of a happy Christmas, and to play the part of Santa. When I was a boy, strange men didn't come sneaking into the house in the middle of the night bearing gifts. They went sneaking out of the house having affairs. By now my father was a stranger to me, and getting stranger all the time. Once, when I was eight, I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified and alone. My mother was a nurse, and was working through the night at the local hospital. My father was nowhere to be found. I searched the house, careful not to wake my six-year-old sister. Panic-stricken, I ran down the street to a neighbour's house. A few hours later my father appeared, insisting that he'd been at home all along. I didn't believe him. Neither did my mother. He left shortly afterwards, and moved in with another woman and her teenage daughter. I can't say I envied them much.
My fondest Christmas memory came when I was 10. My parents were divorced, my mother had remarried, and we'd moved out of our smart bungalow and into a dilapidated terraced house purchased for the grand sum of £3,500. It was what was known as a "fixer-upper", and fixing it up took a little longer than my stepfather planned. As Christmas approached, the kitchen was far from complete. One "wall" consisted of a plastic sheet, and the floor was dug out to a depth of three feet to allow for new pipes to be laid. We ate our turkey dinner off garden furniture suspended on scaffolders' planks. It was the best Christmas I'd ever had.
Paul Burston's next novel, 'The Gay Divorcee', will be published in May by Sphere