My mother was anti-Santa. Not that she had anything against the real, historic St. Nicholas. It was the overweight, white-bearded imposter that she was up against - he isn't, never was, real, and, my mother insisted, no child should be told that he is. ''Make-belief'' was all right, though. We could hang up our stockings, as long as we knew no one would really came tumbling down the chimney. Somehow the magic was there, just the same. When we visited Father Christmas (Santa's British alias) at the local store, we knew it was just an exciting game, even when he ''gave'' us a present (paid for by my mother) wrapped in thin colored tissue paper.
Other people's children believing in Father Christmas was a trial to Mother. She knew she mustn't meddle, but she could hardly stand it. Her only resource was to tackle the parents - the way she sometimes stopped mothers in the street to advise them that their children's shoes were too small. We found it embarrassing. In fact, our differences often made us blush.
For instance, we wore our hair in Dutch bobs (no barrettes needed), and because the family owned a shoe shop, our shoes never looked like anyone else's (we wore the ''unsellables''). My elder sister suffered considerably because the rest of us kenneled a pack of ''dogs'' in the roots of the beech tree. To the literal-minded they were sticks with twine leashes, but we knew each twig by name, and even wept when one snapped.
Belief in Santa wasn't the only prohibition that seemed to apply only to our family: never stay indoors before lunch, never eat sweets in front of a friend without sharing them, never name any of my father's hens (eating a friend could cause emotional problems).
And we were never, never allowed to comment on the way my grandfather cut the Christmas cake. It was always a splendid sight, a rich, fruity mixture decorated with a snow scene (icing sugar and the china Eskimos we brought out every year). Grandfather had been known to cut himself an average slice and then put the whole cake on his plate, leaving only the slice to be divided among the rest of us.
But it was the Father Christmas deal that really set us apart, though oddly enough it wasn't a difference that bothered me, perhaps because the anti-crusade had begun so early in my life. My mother had always been uncompromisingly (sometimes embarrassingly) honest, and the idea of deceiving us had made her uneasy. Then something happened that stiffened her opposition to the old gentlemen. When my older sister Joan was about four, she saw a tricycle in a shop window. It was love at first sight, and my father determined to scrimp and save and buy it for her.
So, on Christmas morning, Joan was pedaling around the kitchen shouting her thank-yous. She was thanking Mother for this, my aunts for that, and ending up her litany with ''Father Christmas gave a trike, and Daddy - Daddy didn't give me ANYTHING.''
So from then on Father Christmas was banished from our lives and never darkened our chimneys again. It didn't bother me. ''Make-belief'' was completely satisfying, and if I had to choose between my ''dogs'' and an imaginary Father Christmas, I'd have taken my sticks any day.