Last November, Bess turned ten and it felt every bit the milestone for me as it did for her. A whole decade of loving her, and of being her mum. Closer to the teen years than the toddler years, which definitely feels like it has come far, far too quickly.
And now, here she is, this long legged, clever girl who is better at maths than I ever have been and who has really started to question the world around her. She has always been a thinker, an analyser, but since turning ten that feels to have developed well, ten-fold. She’s curious and seeks reason everywhere and I knew, deep down, that would mean that doubt around one our most beloved family traditions would inevitably creep in.
In my heart of hearts, I knew this was the last ‘Believe’ Christmas for Bess.
I’m sure that I don’t need to explain to you the importance of Father Christmas in our traditions, because I have no doubt that he’s just as prominent in your own. My mum made our Christmases so magical and I’ve carried that baton on as I’ve raised my own family. We enter fully into the magical world of Christmas, with North Pole letters, magical glitter. We even get this special stuff from Amazon that we put into the fireplace that adds colour to the flames, and makes them dance to indicate that Father Christmas has received their letters to him. There’s Christmas Eve boxes left by the Christmas Fairy, and just an air of ‘something’ that hangs between and around us throughout December that magic is everywhere. There are glimpses at the window, an ‘is it? Could it be?’ ring of bells on the wind on Christmas Eve. And finally, Father Christmas always brings a stocking, and one small-ish gift that he leaves on the end of their beds, leaving faint footprints throughout the house as he goes.
Bess is my eldest, and our traditions began when she was just a month old. She has grown believing in Father Christmas so intently that she would run to the window, eyes closed, and quietly whisper ‘Thank you, Father Christmas’ after she had found her stocking on Christmas morning. As we welcomed her siblings into our family, the things that became our family traditions got ever greater and the belief deeper. For Bess in particular, this magical world of Christmas was so important – not just from a present perspective, but from a need to enter into an incredible world of make believe, and I have always felt that creating that special world where their imaginations can run free is an important part of our family.
But suddenly last year it all felt… different. There was a little ‘knowing’ look occasionally. Or I’d catch her scanning my face for any clue, or fib, or suggestion that I wasn’t totally telling the truth. Some of her responses to suggestions over the Christmas period felt sort of ‘sceptical’, and there were some rather outrageous requests for gifts that she’s never made before, just to test my reaction.
And then there were the moments of doubt that came thick and fast. We took a ride on the Santa Train which she loved, but when she met Father Christmas, she looked at me and whispered ‘His beard was really weird, and like, stuck on. He wasn’t the real one, was he?’. She scrutinised my explanations of how Father Christmas entered the house to leave presents, especially as we had relocated during the year and no longer had an open chimney. “How on earth can he get in, if he doesn’t have a key and we have a gas fire now?”. I squirmed out of doing Elf on the (f*cking) shelf by quarantining them, but she knew that didn’t ring true because surely Father Christmas would have arranged ‘bubbles’ for elves as they don’t leave your house until Christmas Eve? By the time Tesco delivered the Christmas shop with items from their stocking sitting RIGHT ON THE TOP of the first crate, I was ready to turn myself in and admit it all, but instead, I waited.
I waited for the question I had been dreading for the last ten years.
On Christmas Eve, I prepared everything, and like many mums up and down the country, waited up until I was sure as I could possibly be that they were asleep and it was safe to deposit the stockings, and gift from Father Christmas on their beds. Dressed in black leggings and top (the lengths we go to, eh?), I slid off my slippers, and tiptoed up the stairs, avoiding the creaky steps. With my heart in my mouth I silently lifted the stockings into place outside their bedrooms and like a stealthy ninja, slipped through the ajar door to the end of her bed. My heart beat loudly in my head as I held my breath and gently placed the stocking and the gift just below her feet, nestled into the footboard. And then I bolted like a cat on alert out of the room, down the little steps and into the safe quiet of my own bedroom where I collapsed onto the bed, exhausted down to my bones, and fell asleep.
“Mumma?” I opened an eye – just a tinsy bit, into the darkness. Bess stood by the side of my bed, clutching her Molly cat. “I don’t want you to say anything until I have said what I needed to say but I need to say it, okay?”. Bess is nothing if not dramatic, I’ve no idea where she gets it from. “I stayed awake and I saw you come into the room and I saw you put the stocking on the end of my bed and it definitely wasn’t Father Christmas!”
A billion thoughts raced through my head. Mostly, SH*T! F*CK! B*LLOCKS! Matt stirred next to me, harrumphing and pulling the cover over onto his side. This couldn’t be the moment. I couldn’t ruin Christmas on Christmas Eve. “Darling,” I whispered. “Darling, it’s okay. I got up for a wee in the night and I saw that Father Christmas had left the stockings and gifts at the bottom of the stairs so I popped them onto your bed so you wouldn’t feel disappointed that they weren’t there. He must have known you were awake and that he couldn’t come up?”. She paused, taking a moment to think. “Okay. Yes, maybe he knew. It was weird, because I didn’t hear him on the roof and I usually do.” She left the room with a goodnight kiss and I lay awake until 4.30am with tears in my eyes that I’d fucked it all up and it was all my fault, and turned over and over how I should have been quieter, more stealth like, a better mum.
Christmas Day dawned and the kids tore into their stockings and gifts, and chatted and giggled and whooped with joy over the things they found, and every now and then I would see Bess out of the corner of my eye in quiet thought. But the chaos of Christmas – a completely normal Christmas – continued, and whether it was total pretence, or just a desperate willing for it all to be true after all, Bess went along with the chatter about Father Christmas and I dared to hope that we had got away with it after all. The day went by in a blur, a wonderful, lovely Christmas still full of magic and tradition and everything it always has been.
Until yesterday, when my lovely girl squeezed my arm after school and said “Mumma, I need to ask you a question. Is Father Christmas… real?”
Oh, this is it. I knew the game was up, and there was no minimising the next step. She knew, and she deserved to know.
I gently guided her into my bedroom, and sat next to her on the bed. Her little face looked so earnest, so… expectant, and yet desperate for a reassurance that she already knew wouldn’t come. “Oh Bess”, I said. “I knew this moment was coming. I’m going to tell you the truth about Father Christmas, but first, it’s not quite exactly as you might have thought before asking me.” Tears filled the rims in her beautiful, huge, blue eyes. “Okay,” she quietly replied.
I’d ran this over and over in my head recently, practising this moment in the hope I wouldn’t mess it up and leave her feeling betrayed from years and years of tall tales and mythical fibs. My mouth suddenly felt dry and the words stumbled as I started, falling out in a bit of jumble as I composed myself. I felt a deep pull inside me, an ache, as I knew this would be a moment she’d remember for the rest of her life. Don’t mess it up. Don’t mess it up.
“You’ve heard of Saint Nicholas through school, and the books we have about Father Christmas, haven’t you? It’s thought that Saint Nick was a kind, generous man who gave gifts to the the poor – especially children – and he did so without any desire for thanks. No one knew where the gifts came from until St Nick passed away, and to maintain the tradition for the children, parents took on the responsibility of keeping the spirit of St Nick’s generosity alive by leaving presents for their children and pretending that they were from St Nick still. It’s really a tradition that is about kindness, generosity and about giving without any expectation of thanks, or a gift in return. It’s a tradition steeped in love and something that parents do to not only make Christmas a very magical time for children, but to share and teach the importance of giving selflessly.”
Don’t quote me on any factuality to this account of St Nick, by the way. Purely illustrative purposes and all that, but by this point, we were both crying as I held her in my arms. Without a doubt, she was heartbroken.
“The lovely thing to know though, Bess, is that the magic doesn’t end here. You just become part of the magic now, on the other side of creating it. And you get the reward of being on this side of knowing; you get the lovely secret moments of seeing belief in other’s faces, of seeing their delight and enjoying the mischievious moments that bring it all together.”
I went to my wardrobe and reached to the back where a box of three tiny velvet pouches was tucked away. Each pouch containing a small silver bell that tinkles when you shake it. Taking one into my hand, I turned to Bess and said, “this is something I’ve had for you for a little while, waiting for this moment. This is the real ‘Believe’ bell, a bit like the one in the Polar Express film. But unlike the one in the film, this one still rings because the real belief is in the knowing of the true story of Father Christmas, and it’s a reminder that when we hear the bell that kindness, love and selfless generosity are all around us, all of the time.”
She looked at the bell, and she looked back at me. “So Mumma, it was you, all this time? You toilet papered the living room and then pretended to be cross at the elves?” I nodded. “Did you put soot from the fireplace on the carpet? Did you spill coco-pops all over the floor and then TIDY THEM UP knowing you had done it all along? And is that why you kept weirdly saying ‘IT’S THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS’ all of a sudden all the time like it was some weird new mantra?!” As I went to explain, she said “Hang on, now I know… can I help you do it for Maggie and Ted? And can I be ELF ON THE SHELF?”
And so, my Big Girl knows that Father Christmas isn’t real. Not in the sense she had believed, anyway. And I know it was the right time to tell her, and thank god it’s been a bonding moment for us rather than a moment of betrayal. Importantly, Bess has sworn to secrecy for friends and family who still believe and I know she’ll take that responsibility seriously. But I can’t lie that my heart has broken just a little in her knowing, a milestone of growing up that came far, far too quickly.