I have recently developed a theory that if you cannot explain something adequately to a 5 year old, then you do not know what the hell you are talking about. When my children were babies, I often thought about how I would come to explain to them the mysteries of the universe. I looked forward to seeing their eyes widen with wonder as I stood beside them at bedtime, dispensing fascinating nuggets of knowledge. I would sweep my hands across a map of the world or one of the three solar system models we own, which would be hanging in correct order from the ceiling and no longer be a diaspora of planets across two toy boxes and a play cooker. ‘Did you know that, right now, the earth is spinning at a thousand miles per hour?’ After a brief pause, someone would gasp.
Anyway, the trouble with children is that they don’t ask you about the stuff you want them to. Even the lightest grilling from a 3 year old involves awkward questions that expose your ignorance of things you once considered to be an area of expertise. Because it turns out, I don’t know jack. I have been bluffing my way through University Challenge this whole time. Anything more academic than the plot developments of Paw Patrol leaves me flailing wildly through terrible similes, like a stupid, wading, flailing… thing. Physics, history, geography, how to select BBC iplayer on the digital telly box thing (as i really believe it is called), why salad cream is better than mayonnaise, how light switches work, contemporary bioethics and the workings of an industrial tribunal (thank you, Postman Pat’s Special Delivery Service) – I find myself explaining these as if I were a sixteenth century alchemist put on the spot by an angry mob.
After a car journey that culminated in me sitting on the M5 outside Birmingham for an hour trying to explain to my children the politics of a global fuel economy, we agreed that petrol is ‘magic juice to feed the car’ and left it at that. My eldest daughter glanced at me carefully in the rear view mirror afterwards, with eyes that were definitely not full of wonder. I quickly looked back at the road ahead. This doesn’t happen to Professor Brian Cox.
I now think there should be a test before you can gain entry to, say, PhD level studies. An assessment panel would nod sagely over the applicant’s submissions, ask a few cursory questions – and then abruptly spin a high backed chair around to reveal my smallest daughter, holding a card with a single question mark on it. ‘Why?’ She will ask, again and again and again at every juncture, mercilessly, until those without a molecular level understanding of their subject run, weeping, from the room.
And this, of course, is why I love Christmas. Now here is a subject on which I am a renowned authority. No more doubtful expressions – no more dealing with 6.30am questions about how shoes were invented or how radiators are made. Nothing that requires a firm grasp of reality, merely a bold line in creative fiction and a flair for delivery. It’s not lying, you understand. It is bringing my children joy.
In their playroom, on the skirting board at the back of the desk there is a fairy door. It is about 3 inches high, comes with its own miniscule key that is the perfect size for fairy pockets and the head of my vacuum and, like all portals to other dimensions, is covered in glitter. Small offerings are left before it to encourage a visitation from a fairy with a penchant for pieces of gravel and Shopkins figures. Because fairy-land was apparently largely decorated during the summer of 2009, above the door is a tiny string of bunting. It spells out a single, tiny word: ‘BELIEVE’. And they do. For these few short, short years, they will believe anything at all.
So, at Christmas I don’t have to fudge half remembered facts and change the subject. Just this once, magic itself is the honest answer to every question. And best of all, it is guilt free. Fobbing them off with bullshit is actually positively encouraged as good parenting. No wonder we can’t get enough of it, embellishing the story with elves on shelves, passing satellite sleighs and a telephone hotline to the big man himself.
Of course it’s not lying. It’s bringing joy, truly. And for every parent, seeing their children experience joy is an addiction. Having examined compulsion all my working life, it is only now I come to understand what craving is. I spend my days scouring small faces for each little fix. When we put our arms in the air to the exact same beat of the song, when we cup our hands around matching mugs on opposite sides of a café table some Tuesday morning, I am consumed by towering, 3 inch highs. It has no ill effects. I am not hollowed by absence – from the moment I first patted the quick smoothness of my belly, I find that I swell; I brim with pleasing them. I feel the fingers of a happy little hand pressing into mine, I feel my fingers endlessly pressing the final piece of a jigsaw into place.
It’s the reason for all the good things i try to do for them, like educational day trips and letting them wear slightly inappropriate clothes they love and giving them chocolate when i want them to be quiet. It’s the reason for everything I will do for the rest of my life.
It is also why I sadly had to elbow another parent out of the way in order to secure the role of Santa’s Elf at the school Xmas Fayre, such was my devotion to festive goodwill. It was a shame, but of course one has to think of the children. ‘The things i do for my daughters’ i thought, pulling on curly toed shoes in the disabled toilets. I straightened the bell on my hat and took a selfie to post on Facebook later. ‘It’s all for them.’ I sighed.
Like an undercover operative behind enemy lines, I have internalised my cover story to the extent that I can no longer tell the difference between fact and fantasy. And Christmas has its own internal logic with no fault lines to be pointed out by precocious children. I do not have anything up my sleeve. Christmas is a lesson I can teach all by myself – I correct their unintentionally hilarious mistakes with the air of a tired university professor greeting yet another freshman class. A friend’s child came home to tell his mother that he would be a kangaroo in the nativity play and would require the appropriate outfit to be made. A kangaroo giving BIRTH, he specified, as he left the room. Ha ha! How we laughed. What ridiculous ideas they get – he was of course a camel. My daughters, on the other hand, were angels – messengers of god in human form and small wire halo headbands from The Works. ‘God Bless Us’ they intone, prissily. ‘Goodwill to all men’. I think they saw that on TV. We put their aunt’s old handmade angel outfits into small, labelled plastic bags for school and talk about how Father Christmas will travel the world in a single night. We mention all the countries (France, Gloucester, Africa) and discuss how the elves might be doing, getting all the toys together for every single child on the planet. Every one.
Of course, I haven’t actually done the elf on a shelf thing and my children are neither naughty nor nice. For one thing, I lack consistency. My children would soon realise that the elf watches them kind of most of the time, but since he spends 45 minutes of every day looking for the tiny yet indispensable pieces of Friends Lego necessary to leave the house only 10 minutes late, he is perhaps overly alert to bad rather than good behaviour. For another, I’m busy. The Elf’s craaaazy antics would be succeeded by fallow periods of despondency and inaction. I feel that if the Elf had a Tinder profile, it would hint at exessive drug use and a belief in conspiracy theories. I have swiped left on their behalf.
Instinctively, I want my daughters to know that there are other, better things for them than being a ‘good girl.’ They will spend a lifetime being watched. No need for it to start now, in their own home, in their own little heads. I want their moral compass to point due north, but not just because that’s where the presents come from. I must demonstrate that the value can simply exist, without measurement in pounds, posts or ‘likes’. Besides, if my children are going to feel guilty, I’d rather it wasn’t because of an ageing white guy who hangs around schools and shopping centres, or small, creepy boys with boundary issues who leave a fucking mess everywhere. Naturally, I’d far rather their guilt was a by-product of crippling self-doubt passed down to them by passive-aggressive parenting, like all British people.
Also, if we continue to get up at 5.30am and punch our sister over what to watch on the iPad and then deny it, we will only get a lump of coal in our stocking. That is a true thing that happened once to a friend of a friend, so we need to consider our position on violence. I did say I lacked consistency. ‘If you continue with this behaviour, Father Christmas will not come at all’ I shout, tired and standing in the doorway. ‘Is it VERY naughty to lie?’ my eldest asks. I admire that a) she immediately sees the weakness of my position, and that b) she left count two (common assault) off the list. ‘If you lie, do you go on the naughty list?’ ‘That depends’ I answer wearily. ‘How naughty to you have to be to go on the list?’ I can see that, thinking of her sister, she is looking for specifics. ‘No more questions’ I say, and sit down.
So, like a tired, tracksuit wearing mystic, i summon the magic of Christmas in the aisles of Poundland and Aldi, and with card making and Christmas Fairs and raffles and post office ordeals, where I finally stride up to cashier no.6 wielding my wrapping paper tube like fucking Gandalf. Subsequently, my children increasingly experience this magic via the medium of television, and the illicit thrill of Christmas advertising. This is the low point of a toxic relationship that I thought I had walked out on some time ago. All year long advertising makes us feel small and slightly inadequate, then at Christmas, when we have been trained to think we need it the most, it stops being an arsehole and is funny again (the perfume ads! Hahahahaha!) and charming, and pulls on our heart strings (people who are old get lonely! Dogs love trampolines! Sob!).
I hate this. I don’t want a frenzy of pointless Christmas tat to make them materialistic. It is hard enough to live in a culture that teaches us to consume, yet idealises the minimal, the small, the bare. In our lives, in our bodies. There is definitely no way i am teaching them to build up huge expectations that will inevitably disappoint, because our Christmas is going to be PERFECT. Besides, I have finished working on my crappy laptop and no longer need them to be quiet. I turn off the adverts, to howls of protest. ‘Darlings – they are like Hans’ I explain. ‘They look like they love you but actually they are lying because they just want your money.’ It’s a bit strong, but Christmas is about honesty, after all. Eldest daughter nods in an enlightened manner. Youngest daughter just holds a page of the Argos catalogue in front of my face and mutely points at a skating Elsa doll, circled in felt tip.
At some point every year, they ask me what I want. ‘Oh, only something lovely that you made.’ I always reply softly. ‘A poem, a picture, or a yummy cake.’ Or a functioning laptop. I bloody need one of those. ‘It doesn’t matter what presents you get, or what we eat, the important thing is that we are all together and show each other how much we love each other.’ I know I must finish decorating the play room with hand painted frames for artsy prints and the children’s only Pinterest worthy paintings in time. And edit those pictures of us making our own wrapping paper where actually everyone just painted themselves and I shouted. And get Scandi knitted socks for us all to wear while we play board games in front of the fire. Otherwise Christmas will be SHIT.
While I pour chips onto an oven tray one afternoon, I flick through my Nigella recipe book. This really is some lifestyle bullshit, I think, just like the other 4 books of hers I bought as soon as they came out. The Christmas one is of course the most involved bullshit. If a year of parenting lifestyle bullshit was a computer game, Christmas would be the end-of-level baddie. I think about the pictures of Nigella during her break-up: grainy tabloid shots of a strained white face through the windows of expensive restaurants. All the leering, gawking details of how the other half live. Between the lines: misery of a very ordinary sort. I turn the page. Look at that beautiful kitchen. She’s so lucky. What I really need, i think, is some pomegranate seeds, 65 kilner jars and a set of teal coloured miniature risotto pots.
I try not to buy the tree until the winter solstice, or thereabouts. It feels symbolic or something and also I am disorganised and hate cleaning up pine needles. Anyway, as a result we are always cutting it fine in a decidedly sparsely populated field just above the A46. It’s a tradition, you see. We didn’t know it was until we ended up there twice in a row and took a picture each time. We lack imagination and have made a feature of it. The girls don’t know that this tradition is about as old as Facebook messenger. Their history books are full of empty pages, blank like freshly laid snow. We huddle together in the wind and take the obligatory sprucy photo in the gathering dusk. This is the first year that my eldest won’t pose. Tired at the end of a new school term, she wriggles away and has a small tantrum. In the end all I have is a picture of me standing in the mud and making a stupid face, trying to make her laugh despite herself, out of shot. I’ll edit it later. Telling that story can be a new tradition for her to enjoy.
We decorate the tree at home and the children have free artistic expression – I hate those ones that have obviously just been done by the parents. We have carols on the radio, as always. I feel the tingle and pull of Christmases past – not my own but those of others I never knew, who sang these songs and gathered in their hopes between tree and fire – our lives a string of lights across the long, timeless dark. I shiver and draw the curtain. It is no accident that we talk of community so much now, with a capital C like all the best words. The dusty bible leaves us the form, but the function goes deeper. I normally treat nostalgia with derision and respond to talk of ‘the good old days’ with devastating asides about polio and casual racism. To be honest, the planning committee for the village jubilee street party was lucky to have me. But on winter walks across high, cracking fields, no one can see their feet beneath the cold mud and hear the crows call and not feel their breath escaping. We all huddle together.
In order to bring yet more joy, I take my daughters to a Christmas production of Peter Pan (a vaguely feminist one – how’s that for sticking it to the patriarchy), in a small village hall packed with two dozen small children and their parents and grandparents, most of whom we know well. My Community. In the dark at 4pm, we are transported to Neverland on plastic school chairs. I watch my daughters in the front row, clapping their hands furiously with belief. In Tinkerbell, in magic, in the idea that their own words could literally kill someone. The grandparents too – their faces bathed with stage light, wrinkles filtered away. Absorbed, open mouthed with delight, they could be children. We believe. The magic of Christmas is real, I explain later in the car. I cannot see it or touch it, yet still I believe it exists – like the tooth fairy and the concept of goodness. ‘And DNA’ remembers my eldest. Well, yes. I want them to have faith in me, so I lie to them a little longer.
At home, my children write their Christmas lists, and we all write ours. We are kind, generous people; excellent parents who love our neighbours and help those less fortunate than ourselves. We don’t ask why it is that they should be less fortunate, but we forget our differences at least, and good grief there have been so many this year. For one magical day, we are the best versions of ourselves. We greet each other warmly and gather together to sell homemade everything and bread for £7. We buy it all. We are good. We will it.
When the children are sleeping, I rearrange all the baubles hanging at the bottom of the tree and take off most of the gaudy ones that I don’t like, leaving a few for authenticity. I gather up another car load of Plastic Crap and Horrible Stuffed Toys That No One Actually Plays With (that I will later talk vaguely about having seen somewhere) and shove them into the boot of the car for disposal later. What lovely gifts for other children – my good deed. A small face with big glassy eyes looks up at me mournfully in the street light and I cover it guiltily with a blanket. It feels like the end of a very bad night out in Vegas. By next Christmas, we will have bought only wooden toys in neutral colours that educate and amuse over many years, I promise myself. I will have learned more for my children, to help them understand things better. I will have stopped shouting about getting their shoes on. I will have tried harder to help my Community, to make their world a good place for all their Christmases to come. And I’m not lying, not truly. The ghost of Christmas Future Perfect accompanies me back to the house. Today, I will believe anything at all.