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15 December 2013

We’re writing to Santa this year, but next year it will definitely be different

Alice O'Keefe's "squeezed middle" column.

By Alice O'Keeffe

Larry is writing his wishlist for Santa. Or rather, he is reciting it and I’m writing it down. So far, it reads:

A brown bear.
A pretend reindeer.
A pretend dragon.
Another pretend dragon.

I stop and bite the tip of my pen. I’m not sure he has quite grasped what is expected of him here. His infant brain is not fully conditioned by the rampant consumerism afflicting the rest of society; he doesn’t yet want stuff in quite the way that he is supposed to. I’m torn between my desire to keep it that way and my urge to see his face light up as he opens his presents on Christmas Day.

“You know, darling, that you can ask Santa for anything you want,” I say. “How about that train set you saw in Hamleys?”

“I want that train set I saw in Hamleys,” says Larry obediently.

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“Or how about a bike like Oscar’s?”

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“Yes! A bike like Oscar’s!” He jumps up and down with glee. That’s more like it.

Oh God, this is awful.

In effect, I’m giving my child an intensive tutorial in how to seek happiness in totally unnecessary material possessions. Parents like me are the reason fleets of ships are now en route from China, loaded down with megatonnes of plastic crap that’s destined to litter our homes for a brief few weeks, before festering in landfill sites for generations. If I’d just kept my big trap shut Larry would probably have been cock-a-hoop to receive a bag of chocolate coins and a tangerine.

“If you don’t want anything else, that’s fine, too,” I say, a touch hopelessly. “Santa’s a very busy man. He won’t have time to get you everything on the list.”

But it’s too late. The horse has bolted; the cat is out of the bag. Larry is jumping around the room doing an acquisitive little dance.

“I’m getting a bike like Oscar’s! A red one! I’m going to ride it! And I want a train set! And a guitar!” He stops and thinks. “And an Octopod!” (The Octopod, home to Larry’s hero of the moment, Captain Barnacles of the CBeebies cartoon Octonauts, is a huge lump of orange plastic that costs £39.99 in Sainsbury’s.)

I help Larry to put the finished list into the open fire, and we watch as pieces of papery ash fly up the chimney.

“How does Santa read it?”

“He has special elves who stick all the little bits back together,” I explain, thinking on my feet. I don’t like to mislead Larry, but what is Christmas about, if not magical thinking? At this time of year, I always feel a teensy bit sad that we are not Christian. At least religion would give Christmas a meaning that wasn’t based on rabid consumerism. And if I’m going to lie about Santa, why should I worry about the factual accuracy or otherwise of the Nativity?

“Perhaps we should take the kids to church this year,” I say to Curly later that evening, and then, as he begins to roll his eyes, quickly add, “Or at least do something nice and wholesome, like those families that only give each other acorns for Christmas, or home-made fudge.”

He gives this no more than half a second’s thought. “But I want a really nice bottle of whisky.”

“Hmm. Yeah, I want a dressing gown.”

“And a new saw.”

“And that ice-cream maker.”

Oh well. Maybe we’ll do acorns and Jesus next year.