When I was four years old, I got my first front-page scoop.
I had been allowed to call a phone line every night in the few days before Christmas to hear the latest installment of a Santa bedtime story recorded by British Telecom.
On 23 December, I came off the phone with a confused look on my face. “Mummy,” I (reportedly) said, “Santa says he’s coming tonight and we need to go to bed now so he can deliver our presents, but it’s not Christmas Eve until tomorrow, is it?”
[SPOILER ALERT] My mum, cursing the playgroup which had taught her precocious offspring to count well enough to know how many sleeps remained until the big day, sent me to bed with some desperate appeasement, hoping that the Santa Claus magic had not been cruelly blighted on what was only my fifth Christmas: “Oh, I’m sure you just heard him wrong, darling, just go to sleep and don’t worry about it.”
I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but off I went. I was an obedient little person in those days. And of course, I wasn’t wrong. Four-year-olds rarely are. As soon as I was in the land of nod, mum phoned the line herself.
As I had claimed, Santa did say he was arriving later that night, 24 hours ahead of schedule. Chances are, some telephone operative at BT had accidentally popped the wrong tape in before leaving work that evening – it was the 1980s when this kind of manual error could quite feasibly occur.
Or maybe Scrooge had nabbed a seasonal job at the telephone exchange and had done it on purpose, desperate to spoil Christmas for thousands of young children the country over. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that my mum immediately phoned the local paper and it hit the front page the next evening.
“Telecom’s ho, OH!” the headline blazed. “Gremlins infiltrated Santa’s Cleveland workforce last night,” the article declared.
Of course, my mum was one of those members of the public who are the bane of my life in my grown up existence as a news reporter.
“If you want to know the story, just phone the line yourself,” she’d smugly told the journalist on the other end of the phone.
“Oh, you don’t need my name. No, you can’t quote me and, of course, I’m not going to have my child pose for pictures.”
And that dear reader, does not a top local news story make. I still feel bad for the reporter, who had such a great tale inches from his grasp only for it to be cruelly snatched away.
To make this good story truly great, he would need to get the full horror of this calamity from the perspective of the angry parents – ideally containing phrases such as “Christmas has been ruined” – and a photograph of a cute but unhappy toddler, dolefully posing for the camera in front of a gaudily decorated Christmas tree.
Thankfully, Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette circa 1984 obviously had no such concerns and ran the scoop anyway, noting that 20,000 calls had been made to the story line.
I was reminded of this family fable earlier this week when B&M stores came under fire from angry parents after marketing their “Letter from Santa” in cellophane-covered packages by the till.
Mum Emma Mander from Manchester sent an angry message to the discount retailer, claiming the form reply, which parents could buy and fill in to send as a response to their child’s Santa letter, risked spoiling “the magic of Christmas” for her two oldest offspring, aged eight and six, who luckily weren’t with her on the shopping trip.
Meanwhile, Amazon came under fire for sending out parcels to online shoppers without packaging in a bid to cut down on unnecessary waste, giving away the surprise to many youngsters who happened to answer the door to the postie.
B&M has since pledged to review its placing policy of the product, angering another section of society who argued on social media that youngsters needed to face reality and that it is not a store’s problem to perpetuate a lie.
It is a difficult conundrum. As a society, we have, rightly or wrongly, created this myth which we desperately want our children to buy into. And in recent years, it seems we don’t want them to discover the truth until an increasingly older age.
While it seems that many children of my generation dismissed the existence of Santa at around the time they learned to read fluently – perhaps five or six – many parents of today want their seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds to keep on believing for as long as possible. According to a survey on parenting website Made for Mums, just over half of children now still believe in Father Christmas at the age of eight.
Yet, in our fast-paced modern world, where children learn a lot of things far quicker than they would have done 30 years ago, is this really a bad thing?
Most children, according to research, naturally grow out of believing in Santa, the idea of a man climbing down every chimney across the globe to deliver presents in one evening eventually proving to be too fanciful.
But we really don’t need to give children who are barely out of nappies a short, sharp shock of finding out that the treasured letter they received from the most benevolent of mythical creatures has actually been manufactured in China by a discount store – or discovering that the present they put on their Santa list has already been delivered by a global retail giant, rather than the man with the big white beard.
Let’s pull together to do what we can to keep the magic going a little longer.