First we saw Elvis, and then Harrods FC

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The Independent Online
I WAS woken in the grey dawn by an excited small figure brandishing a large card in my face. 'Get up, I can't find number one,' said my four-year-old. The card was an advent calendar. Her first thought on Wednesday 1 December was to start the countdown to Christmas by opening the calendar's first window - on a smiling snowman. 'I can't wait, I can't wait,' she chanted.

Her glee at the approach of Christmas could not contrast more starkly with my own, more gloomy, view. I tell myself I like Christmas, although it's hell getting there. But this year I have made no preparation beyond purchasing advent calendars, and accepting that the whole family will descend on me for the holiday. There is not a present or Christmas card in the bag, and no recipes or plans for Christmas cakes and puddings.

And I'm not alone. Everyone I know who likes to have a planned Christmas is sounding adrift. Just as the flu and cold viruses have been causing havoc to commercial life, with meeting after meeting cancelled, so normal family life has been completely disrupted. The prospect of shopping for anything other than basic food has evaporated as the viruses keep hopping from baby to child to adult and back again, reinforced by new strains picked up at school and in the office. I am seriously undershopped for this point in the season. I notice that so far no one has sent out Christmas cards.

In an attempt to galvanise myself with some seasonal spirit, I took my recovered four-year-old to see Father Christmas. We went to Harrods, because it is free, and they usually put on a good show. But, oh dear, on the way she said: 'Actually, I want to see Mickey Mouse, too. Is Harrods in France?' In fact, the Harrods FC was on the fourth floor next to In Wear, the trendy clothes department. We got lost among the Paul Smith designer sweaters. Then she came face to face with a gyrating model figure of Elvis in silver lame. My daughter observed this and said: 'Some children say Father Christmas is just a man dressed up. Will he be the real Father Christmas?' Feeling uneasy I said, well, Father Christmas does have helpers at this time of year, but let's go and see him for ourselves. We went into the darkened grotto, past toy teddy bears playing in artificial snow; since they were not Disney bears, my daughter paid them scant attention.

But stretching out towards us was a flight of stuffed reindeer. She was suddenly very excited. Harrods FC was sitting, looking rather lonely on a sledge seat and wearing glamorous red silk trousers decorated with gold stars: 'Just a man dressed up,' I thought uncharitably.

But my daughter was shy. 'I want a dolphin for Christmas,' she whispered. 'Anything else?' asked FC. 'A pony, but don't worry, not a real live one,' she replied. With that she took a badge from him and posed for a picture ( pounds 5.95, there's no such thing as a free trip). But then the outing degenerated. It was not so easy leaving Father Christmas through a narrow room stuffed with expensive soft toys. She threw a tantrum when I refused to buy one, arguing that this was what Father Christmas gives you; another when her Haagen-Dazs ice-cream was found to contain real bits of chocolate and was too lumpy.

So we went to the toy department in search of Mickey Mouse, but found a large model of Noddy instead. After my daughter had kissed him, she seemed quite happy. 'My legs are very tired,' was all she said as we plodded home. There was complete silence on the subject of FC, which made me think the trip had been wasted. I could have spent the time in a charity card shop, I thought grumpily.

But in the evening a transformation took place as experience was embellished by imagination. At the supper table her face glowed: 'I saw Father Christmas, I went on a sledge with him for a ride. I sat next to him and there were real reindeers and I patted their fur.' We all smiled. She then produced the badge he had given her as proof. It was astonishing to see the old magic of Christmas at work once again.