Just before midnight tomorrow, a rotund geezer with rosy cheeks and a bushy white beard will park his sleigh on our roof and squeeze down the chimney.
Rather him than me, but then that's his job. He will scoff the mince pie that he finds on the hearth, knock back the glass of sherry, and leave some presents artfully tumbling out of three embroidered sacks, before squeezing back up the chimney, untethering Rudolf, and directing his sleigh towards distant rooftops, doubtless hoping not to be breathalysed by our local copper, PC Shakespeare.
That, at any rate, is the story that my five-year-old son Jacob will swallow, and his eight-year-old brother, Joseph, too.
But my 10-year-old daughter Eleanor knows it is all hokum. She demanded the truth about three weeks ago, after discovering that she was about the only believer in her class.
When her teacher cracked a joke about Father Christmas, everyone laughed conspiratorially. And Eleanor found herself as the lead character in a Bateman cartoon: The Girl In A Class Of Knowing Ten-Year-Olds Who Still Believes In Santa.
So on the way home, she tearfully asked to be put out of her misery, a situation with which her mother dealt uncertainly. That's the thing about parenting; it's like exploring. You get halfway along the Amazon and no longer feel intimidated by snakes, spiders and piranhas, only to get a poison-tipped dart in your backside.
In other words, we know pretty much all we need to know about dealing with the under-10s, but Eleanor keeps leading us into uncharted territory.
Clearly, there was no point in trying to sustain the deception. After all, this is a 10-year-old, still delightfully unworldly in so many ways yet who has Busted posters on her bedroom wall and dresses like a rock chick for her weekly guitar lesson.
I sat her down and tried to go down the God route. Some people believe in God, I said, and some don't. Neither set are necessarily right, or necessarily wrong. People choose to believe what suits them, and that's how it should be with Father Christmas. I was rather pleased with this line of argument until Eleanor blew a metaphysical hole in it. "But God does exist," she protested, "and Father Christmas doesn't. Does he?"
Eventually, with neither my wife Jane nor I ever quite uttering the dreaded, illusion-shattering words, we reached an understanding with Eleanor. It might not be Father Christmas who eats the mince pie and drinks the sherry on Christmas Eve. It might, in fact, be me. But it's as much fun to be the deceiver as the deceived. She can now subtly collaborate in the subterfuge.
And if she continues to believe in Father Christmas at least outwardly, then he will continue to bring her presents. Which, now that I think of it, isn't a bad stratagem for God, either.
In the meantime, we have discussed the issue with our friends, many of whom have kids of roughly the same age. One slightly piously says that she has never encouraged her children to believe in Father Christmas, or the tooth fairy for that matter, on the basis that she is trying to bring them up to know that lying, under any circumstances, is wrong. And what is Father Christmas but a big, fat, rosy-cheeked lie?
I understand the logic of this, but she is surely mistaken to confuse innocent schemes designed to enhance the magic of childhood, with bare-faced lying. Besides, if you take the view that children should at all times be told the truth and nothing but the truth, then where do you stop? And, equally, where do you start?
"Darling, if anyone ever tells you that this little piggy went to market, and that this little piggy stayed at home, and that this little piggy had roast beef, and that this little piggy had none, and that this little piggy went wee, wee, wee all the way home, then please be aware that they are, in fact, your fingers."
Speaking of those little piggies, incidentally, we have some other friends, vegetarians both, who in all seriousness, when they are playing with their two-year-old son, replace the piggy who had roast beef with one who had nut roast.
But then we all bring up our children as best we can, according to our own principles and values. And as it happens, Father Christmas slots right in to mine.
Jane and I have an annual disagreement about the number of presents we give our kids. I think they get too much; she thinks, because she tirelessly does all the buying and wrapping, that I have no right to stand on the sidelines and carp.
Either way, it has always suited me that the sackful of presents not under the tree is seemingly from some other fellow.
That's another reason why I am disconcerted by Eleanor's new awareness. I don't want my children, even at Christmas, to think of us as a completely soft touch.Reuse content