I started doubting the existence of Father Christmas at about the age of eight. I can’t remember whether it was my older brother or sister who told me he was just a made-up story, and I don’t know whether they took any pleasure from regaling me with their superior, cynical wisdom, but I chose to keep believing in him – or pretending to believe in him – until I was much older. Too old, some might say. Even when I came home from university, I used to put out a stocking and make Mum go through the ritual of stuffing it with oranges, chocolate coins and other assorted crap.
As a kid, getting to sleep on Christmas Eve was the toughest challenge I faced all year. I started getting tense about an hour before going to bed, and by the time I was lying down my legs, arms and gut were rigid with nervous excitement. After turning over and over for what seemed like decades, I would finally, inevitably, exhaustedly succumb to sleep. Christmas morning was all the sweeter for having struggled so hard through the night to get there.
Nowadays, having two kids with Type 1 diabetes means that getting through the night of Christmas Eve can still be a struggle, albeit without any of the magic of my Santa-believing days. Jacqui and I have to plan night-time blood glucose testing carefully so that it doesn’t interfere with our own stocking-stuffing duties. The risk is that they’ll be so excited having struggled to get to sleep that a clumsy finger-prick will burst them wide awake, they’ll notice the bulging stocking lying at the end of their bed, and they‘ll be unwilling or unable to get back to sleep, even though it’s only just gone midnight. Cue a Christmas populated by red-eyed, sleep-deprived zombies.
Luckily that’s never happened, although we’ve had a few Christmas Eves interrupted by the continuous glucose sensors that make their pumps give off an alarm if their blood sugars are too high or too low. Being dragged back into consciousness by the nagging beep-beep-buzz-buzz of an angry insulin pump, and to have to stagger through to their rooms to conduct bleary-eyed finger-prick tests then administer extra insulin or hypo treatments is a great way to ruin the mystery of Christmas Eve forever. If there was a Santa Claus, surely he’d do the bloody tests for us?
Joe and Tom are now 15 and 12 respectively, and not surprisingly, they’re now Santa-doubters themselves. A couple of years ago, I asked Joe where he’d got the gyroscope he was playing with.
‘It was in my stocking,’ he replied.
‘Oh, so it was from Santa,’ I said casually, doing my best to preserve the magic.
‘Santa, yeah,’ he said with devastating teenage cynicism.
‘Why do you say it like that?’ I asked.
‘Well let’s put it this way,’ he said, before lapsing into beautiful euphemism: ‘Santa went down the chimney when I was in Year 4.’
Tom’s faith in Father Christmas was shaken at about the same age as I was when I started doubting the big fatty with the red threads – but for very different reasons. A few years ago, in the days leading up to Christmas, he started sticking notes to Santa up all around the house. Every internal door seemed to have a little letter addressed to Santa in Tom’s felt-tipped handwriting. Come the big night, Jacqui and I went around the house unsticking them and reading them. Every one of them asked for the same thing. What he wanted was not Lego or Dr Who action figures – although to be fair, we’d already got him those – but a cure for his diabetes.
You can imagine how we felt as we tried to explain to Tom the next day why Santa – whose powers include being able to scoot down every chimney in the world in a single night – doesn’t have enough magic to cure a small boy’s medical condition. Thus the wonder of childhood is smashed on the cold, hard rocks of reality.
Having said that, there are real-life Santa Clauses all around the world working for a cure. Ever since Banting and Best discovered insulin, scientists and doctors have helped to find ways of improving the lives of people with diabetes. One day they’ll find a way of making the hypos and the hyperglycaemia, the carb counting and the bolusing, the finger pricks and the needles, the worry and the broken sleep things of the past. When that glorious day comes, whatever time of year it’s announced, it’ll feel like a thousand Christmases rolled into one.