'All I want for Christmas': Letters from Santa's postbag

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From requests for Lego and leg warmers to a popcorn maker and a Puffle, letters to Santa are an art form in themselves. Clare Dwyer Hogg delves into the world of children's wishlists.

Obviously, santa sorts it all out. But if he didn't, imagine how tricky it would be for, say, parents to negotiate Christmas lists. Father Christmas makes all your wishes come true. Parents don't. Father Christmas is a mystical being who has been delivering presents to generations of children all across the world, so there's absolutely no reason why he shouldn't be able to rustle up a "sledge that can turn into a caravan" (Elizabeth Ahmed, writer, circa 1983), a "ring that sparkles when I talk" (me, 1991) or a "racing car (a real one to go to the park" (Leo Manolson, aged five, 2011). But if you depend on mere mortals – people who happen to have had children – to deliver the goods, then letters to Santa spell trouble. Parents? They don't even have an elf-run workshop at their disposal.

Spare a thought for Catherine McCallum in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, this Christmas, whose five-year-old daughter Grace penned Santa a letter asking for a colouring book, markers... and an actual star from the sky. "She said God could surely spare one from heaven as he had loads and she wouldn't need her night light anymore," sighs Catherine (who was unable to fault the energy saving argument). Will this be the Christmas Grace loses faith in Father Christmas and, double-whammy, a Higher Power?

Most parents hope their children can maintain a sort of innocent joyousness around the whole occasion – which is where the makers of that ubiquitous John Lewis advert got it so right. Remember, it's not all about getting (but when you're giving, give John Lewis). Admittedly, I shed a tear when I saw that little boy give his parents a present, even though I knew it was an advert for a shop. And I wanted to cry when I saw the hard-as-nails Littlewoods advert too, probably because it was a more accurate reflection of reality. The tiny mercenaries (are they really supposed to be in a nativity play?) ask for brands, brands, brands, and mummy can get them all – on credit. It's fantastic – if you want a great example of when fulfilling demands gets out of hand. Look through the lists we've gathered, and either the children are the progeny of millionaires, or they have no concept of budget. Neo Oakenful, aged seven, has asked for an iPad 2 (£399), an Xbox Kinect (around £289), a MacBook Pro (from £999) and, crucially, "lots of cash". Charlie Tuckey, also aged seven, is a big fan of Lego, and has listed the Lego Republic Gunship (if it's the Star Wars' version, that's £299.99) – and a Nintendo DS (over £100). Oh, and a MacBook Pro, too. He's not confident he'll get everything, he tells me. But worth putting down everything he'd like...

It's not really any different from internet wish-lists, much beloved of teenagers (and, let's face it, adults long past the teenage years), who tend to have very specific requests. As Sky Moore-Clube, aged 14, aptly put it this year (at the end of a list which kindly documented the monetary amounts her requested gift cards should hold): "OR JUST MONEY, cos then if you don't know what to get me, I can get it. But please, this year, sorry to sound rude but if you wanna get me something can it be from the list cos then you know I'll like it". Some of us know all too well that Santa's taste can go awry. Which is, of course, the appeal of online tools such as Amazon's 'Universal Wish List' . People can add products from any website, says Kes Nielsen, one of Amazon UK's directors. "We aim to make shopping as easy as possible... and Wish List makes it simple to buy a gift that someone really wants with the minimum of fuss. We will even gift-wrap it." Handy, but – sob – is the spirit of Christmas meant to operate at such a remove?

Not that commercialisation is something unique to this year's generation of letter writers. "I remember getting the catalogue out and highlighting everything Santa might like to give me," remembers Angela Ferguson, a management consultant who, at 33, appreciates her early efficiency didn't live up to the Disney ideal, where letters to Santa whooshed up chimneys leaving showers of sparks in their wake. "I doubt Santa coughed up everything, but I think you forget all that on Christmas morning with the excitement." Not so for Nancy Brown, aged 35 and an editor, who recalls that 25 years ago her young self very much viewed Christmas as a cross-check operation, ticking off each item on her list when it was revealed. Which makes the case for setting the Christmas lists alight: not so much for nostalgia as much as in the hope that the intervening days will blur some of the requests off the memory.

Ha. Children have notoriously rigorous powers of recall in these matters, as proven by those who can't write, but nevertheless maintain a very definite, fully-formed notion of what Santa should deliver. And when that present is undesirable from the parents' point of view, that's when you need to assume a type of diplomatic prowess rarely seen outside the UN.

This year, again, four-year-old Honor has asked for a rabbit. But her mother, Gerry, has finally cracked it. "I said Father Christmas wouldn't be able to carry it all the way from the North Pole to Kensal Green," she says. "I also said that she'd end up with rabbit poo all over her room and she'd have to clean it up – that seemed to kill the idea fairly swiftly!" A request from Chrissie Wilson's five-year-old Lola in Brighton for "a pooing plastic dog, as seen on the vile TV advert" (her mother's description) was swiftly nipped in the bud. It wasn't on Chrissie's vicarious Christmas list for Lola. "I told Lola that ownership of a real-life incontinent cat was enough, and please could we think of something else. At the moment she is young enough to accept my suggestions," Chrissie says. "I imagine when she's older I'll take the when-you-earn-your-own-money-you-can-buy-what-you-like route. It worked on me: my first holiday job was at 14."

You have to tread carefully, though, if you want to maintain the story of Santa while simultaneously orchestrating the list. Lydia Prior, a playwright from Dublin, was a Santa nay-sayer from an early age, due, she thinks, to her parents' judicial determining of what she should ask for. "I do have a memory of writing a letter and getting involved in asking about the health of Mrs Claus and the reindeer," she says. "But when it came to listing present requests, I was steered by my parents to avoid disappointment – 'Apparently Santa isn't delivering any Cabbage Patch Kids this year'. No wonder I smelt a rat!"

What happens, though, when you tell your children from the outset that (whisper it) there's no such thing as Santa Claus? Jude Burrows, aged 34, from Belfast, wasn't brought up with the idea that he existed, and continued the refusenik tradition with her four children. "They understand that we buy presents for them and they also buy for each other," she says. They pretend he's coming, and find the story exciting, but won't have the disappointment of discovering the truth. This has helped, she thinks, with reasonable expectations. "It seems like a good balance," Jude says. "We won't feel like we're letting them down, they know not to ask for too much, and they understand the value of stuff, the importance of giving and receiving." Of course, it doesn't help if you are happy for your child to believe, but Santa does everything in his power to bust his own myth. "When we went to visit jolly old Saint Nick at a major department store last year, he started telling us how he'd been an extra in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones," says Chris Smith, a 38-year-old journalist. "It's hard to explain to a three-year-old why the twinkly-eyed old man whom he has been led to believe lives at the North Pole, was also a Clone Trooper and once met Ewan McGregor." His four-year-old son, Lucas, remains unwavering in his faith – now, he just credits Santa with more celebrity experience .

Belief can surmount many a hurdle. This year, Heidi Scrimgeour, from Surrey, buckled under six-year-old Edan's questioning, and admitted the ruse. Her other son, Zack, aged five, was quick to learn the news, and Heidi feared the magic was over. Not so. Talk of Santa disproportionately increased, letters were written, excitement about reindeer has ratcheted up and, she marvels, it's as if the conversation never happened. All became clear when Heidi realised she has two conspiracy theorists on her hands: "The other day I overheard Edan say to Zack: 'Mum might be wrong, Santa might be real'," she says. Upon questioning, it turns out that Zack has completely disregarded the grown-up assertion, developing his own line of belief, which goes along the lines of: "There's four people to help Santa which is you, Dad, Santa, and Santa's elf. Santa jumps off his sleigh, goes down the chimney, gets all the presents ready, and then he sneaks up on to the bed and bounces and bounces then drives away to the next house."

Thus proving that the thinking behind those Santa letters is far more complex than we might imagine.

The willing suspension of disbelief can also serve purposes much more poignant. When Sara Piot lived in Belgium aged six, she penned a fervent letter to St Nicholas, asking if her father could spend more time at home. She doesn't remember writing the letter, but it made her parents feel so bad, they kept it, and recently, more than 20 years later, showed it to her– then it was her turn to feel terrible. (For the record, Sara and her father were very close then, and still close now, which made her private entreaty to St Nick all the more heart-wrenching).

On a cheerier note, though, sometimes it's the absolute surprises, off-piste from the penned lists, that really stay in the memory. Hannah Williams, aged 25, remembers waking up in Wales one Christmas morning 19 years ago, aged seven, to find her dolls' house had been magically wired up so that every room had a working lightbulb. "It was amazing, and Santa Claus got all the credit," she says. "My poor dad! But, still, it was such a brilliant present, and one I would never have dreamed of asking for."

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