Up to now in our house, there has been no need ever to talk about Jesus. Christmas last year came and went without a single mention of him. But this year, I decided, things were to be different. My eldest child is now three and a half, and at nursery school, where he is likely to encounter some version of the Christmas story. As we will also be spending Christmas with his thoroughly Christian cousins, I felt I needed to prepare him a little for what lies ahead.
But where, and how, to begin? I am myself a committed agnostic, who was raised on large doses of church and Bible stories but who became a lapsed Catholic more or less from the age of seven ("Mummy, why do we have to be Catholics just because you are?").
Nevertheless, I have always believed - and my partner agreed with me - that when the time came, our children should receive some kind of grounding in the Christian religion, not least because of the central role it has played in our history and culture. Other religions I should like them to learn about as well, but not too much at once. I have my doubts about the "pick'n'mix" approach adopted by some inner-city schools, which seems to offer young children little more than a jumble of world faiths on assorted feast days.
"Jesus was a very kind man who lived a long time ago, and other people wanted to be like him," I began, gingerly. Despite a religious background, and a spell as this newspaper's religious affairs correspondent, I felt hopelessly inept broaching this matter with my son. "He was born on Christmas Day, and so at Christmas time people remember his birthday."
So far, so good, I thought. I can do the humanistic bit. But Jesus as the son of God? How ever do you explain God to a three-year-old who has never even heard the word before, and when you need him to understand that you do not actually believe in him yourself?
"Tell him that God is everywhere and everything," suggested one friend, in pantheistic mood. I did not. Instead, I turned for help to the local bookshop. The Kingfisher Children's Bible, with its long stretches of text and rather watery illustrations, was, for the time being at least, completely out of the question. More promising was The Story of Christmas: a nativity tale for children - a large-format book, with photographs of real children acting out a nativity play. But by page three I was already daunted by the arrival of the angel Gabriel "to deliver a special message from God". As if God were not difficult enough, how on earth do you explain angels?
So I was cheered to come upon Spider's Christmas Gift, by Melissa Kajpust, with lustrous pictures by Veselina Tomova. Here, the nativity story is told from the point of view of a family of spiders, one of whom inadvertently falls into the manger beside the sleeping baby Jesus: for "little spider" read "anxious, liberal, unbelieving parent, striving to keep the Christian message at one remove".
No mention of God and no angels - save a pair of winged flute-players in the penultimate illustration, which can be easily passed over. To my relief, my son appears to like it. I can see, however, that my problems are only just beginning. He listened attentively to this story the other night, but when I got to the end there was a pause: "Mummy, who is baby Jesus?" Fortunately for me he did not stop for an answer, rushing on to another book and more questions. Perhaps baby Jesus can wait until next year.
'Spider's Christmas Gift', by Melissa Kajpust, illustrated by Veselina Tomova (Viking, pounds 9.99). 'The Story of Christmas': a nativity tale for children', retold by Anita Ganeri (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 7.99). 'The Kingfisher Children's Bible', retold by Ann Pilling, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Kingfisher, pounds 12.99).Reuse content