E Jane Dickson: 'Where Conor stands on the question of Father Christmas'

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Conor is unimpressed by Tom Hanks' portrayal of Santa Claus in the film The Polar Express. "I don't know," he says, stroking his chin like Sheridan Morley, "he just wasn't, you know, fat enough." "And he wasn't that jolly, either," chips in Clara.

I have, as it happens, interviewed Mr Hanks recently about this testing role. So I am able to relay, in some detail, the motivation for his austere characterisation, how he wanted to create a figure of great dignity and magisterial blah blah...

"Well, he could still have done that and been fat," Con, who is not a thin boy, points out. "No, Mum, I'm sorry," he goes on, flashing me the "talk-to-the-hand" sign, "there's just no point making a film to get people to believe in Santa Claus if he doesn't look like him."

"So," I ask, "where did you stand at the end of the film?" I've been wondering for some time exactly where Con stands on the question of Father Christmas and hoping we can squeeze in one more year of "proper" magic before all my ontological arguments ("Santa exists because we believe in him/ if Santa didn't exist we'd have to invent him" etc) hit the wall of Nietzschian certainty ("Santa is Dead!" - I couldn't bear it). "Do you, for example," I press with a show of scholarly disinterest, "think Santa cares whether we believe in him or not?"

"That's private," says Conor. And we leave it at that. I note, however, that when the children are putting in their written requests for presents, Clara, who likes at least to observe the formalities, addresses hers "Dear Santa", while Con heads up his three-page letter with a non-committal "Christmus List". I am tempted to suggest he writes "To Whom It May Concern" at the top of the page, but decide not to push it. The same canny approach comes out in the Christmas cards he writes to his school friends. While Clara writes flowery personal dedications in each card (half-a-dozen are addressed to "my best friend", but her real best friend gets extra blandishments and private jokes), Con dispatches his with ministerial efficiency, scrawling his signature on a pile of cards and leaving me to fill in the blanks.

"That's fine," I tease him. "I'll just write 'with lots of great big kisses' above your name when I'm doing the cards to the girls in your class."

"You'd better not, Mum," he says, appalled, and I notice that all subsequent signatures are jammed tight against the printed compliments of the season.

"I don't really think Conor's got the true spirit of Christmas," says Clara, who would give her right arm to take muffins to the poor on Christmas morning. "Well," I say, groping for some Hanksian platitude about the truth being in our hearts, "it's not always what you say that counts. What matters about Christmas is..."

"Mum, I do understand, you know," says Con. "What matters about Christmas," he goes on, face shining like a choirboy on Prozac, "is the presents."