By the time we speak next, Santa will have been and gone, leaving the usual trail of devastation and disappointment behind him. There are, of course, two kinds of disappointment: the first consists of not getting what you want, the second in getting everything you want. I am of the generation for whom disappointment assumed the former shape.
There are good reasons why I shouldn’t have expected anything in the first place – the faith of my fathers being one, the view people of other faiths entertained of us (you can’t really expect a Christmas present for killing Christ) being a second, and my offered indifference, from the earliest age, to seasonal cheer, being a third. If you’re so above it all, my parents would have been within their rights to tell me, if you’re so convinced there’s nothing to be said for giving and receiving, then that’s what you’ll be receiving – nothing.
But bravely they soldiered on, against poverty, against our unfamiliarity with the rituals, and against my sour nature, creeping in at the dead of night wearing red hats, holding a menorah, and filling one of the three stockings I’d had the effrontery to hang at the foot of my bed. I can’t say I was ever much pleased at the time to receive what, year after year, they left me. A bar of Toblerone, a rubber mouse (not for a computer: there were no such things as computers then), a small compendium of games comprising Snakes and Ladders, a cardboard belt, and a tangerine with a bit of leaf stuck in the top.
The tangerine was the mystery. We were a family that didn’t eat fruit, not because we couldn’t afford it but because we didn’t like the messy palaver of peeling and, once we’d done the peeling, didn’t like the taste. So why, since it was known I didn’t like a tangerine at any time, was it assumed I’d like a tangerine for Christmas? Perhaps it was meant to be ironical: for the boy who doesn’t want, here’s something he doesn’t want.
Pathetic, I know, the way one turns deprivation into nostalgia, but I miss those modest Santa droppings now – especially the Snakes and Ladders, which is the best present you can give a child because it teaches that life has its ups and downs, that you no sooner get to the top than you’re sliding down again to the bottom, a lesson recently learnt by the English cricket team to whom no one, I hope, will be so insensitive as to send Snakes and Ladders for Christmas.
I also miss the mouse which I would throw at the wall and catch – my apologies again to the English cricket team – and also use as an eraser. In those days when we wrote by hand, erasers and pencil sharpeners and Parker pens and bottles of ink and sheets of carbon paper were highly prized. Take away the primitive mystique of writing and you take away the sense of difficulty. If you want to know why every person thinks he has a novel in him today, it’s because the word processor makes him think he has. Sit breaking nibs and blotting words and you soon know whether you’re doing what you were born to do or would be better occupied throwing a rubber mouse against a wall.
You will see from the above that I attach moral value to the thwarting of expectation. Show me the child that gets his iPhone 5 complete with all requested apps and accessories next Wednesday morning and I’ll show you the hoodlum, the banker, or the Tory minister of tomorrow. The ethical life is partly predicated, as Mick Jagger understood, on our accepting that you can’t always get what you want, and what is more that you shouldn’t. The role disappointment plays in our moral evolution should not be overestimated. We complain that too many of our leaders were educated at Eton. But Eton isn’t itself the problem. It is that the people who go to Eton always knew they would. The chain of optimistic expectation was never broken. Cameron wouldn’t have got as good an education at a comprehensive as he got at Eton, but the shock of life turning out other than as planned would have made a better prime minister of him. Boris Johnson the same, though I realise he isn’t prime minister yet.
It’s your choice, reader, but if you don’t want your child to grow up thinking that the possession of wealth is proof that he deserves it, that a feigned interest in TV personalities confers the authenticity of the street on him, or that greed is good so long as it’s not the poor who are practising it, then you still have time to promise him that an iPhone 5 complete with all requested apps and accessories is what he’s getting for Christmas, then substitute it at the 11th hour for a cardboard belt.
I won’t say my cardboard belt never did me any harm. Deprivation has its consequences too. I cannot now pass a shop selling belts made of the belly of Komodo dragon without wondering where it all went wrong for me. But I like to think I recover quickly. Even when I can afford the things I covet, I don’t buy them. For I have learnt the importance of the principle of doing without even when one doesn’t have to. The little girl who stamps her foot in Harrods for a Dolce & Gabbana floral frock from Santa and gets it isn’t stealing from the girl whose parents shop in Asda and think Dolce & Gabbana is a flavour of frozen yoghurt; she is stealing from herself. Imagine never knowing what it is to be refused. Imagine growing up without the experience of hope withering and anticipation dashed. Every Christmas I thank my parents for that tangerine.