A hand goes up and the dreaded question is asked: 'Does Father Christmas exist?' What do you say and what will the repercussions be? Susan Young reports.He's overweight, bearded and once a year breaks the law by speeding, violating international airspace and trespassing in the homes of millions of children. Then there are his breaches of immigration and customs controls, the sherry drinking and his reckless overindulgence in fat and sugar-laden mince pies.
The identity of this appaling role model and notorious international criminal is, of course, Father Christmas, loved by children and their parents all over the world.
Along with the Tooth Fairy and other childhood delights, the portly chap poses hazards for anyone teaching in a primary school. Or any school, come to that.
Last month, Brighton's Steiner School became the latest victim of the Curse of Santa when the local paper reported that it had "banned" him from its Christmas fair.
The story sparked outrage and a flaming, abusive row on the Brighton Argus website that continued unabated, even when the school told the paper that there was no ban and the story was changed. They had never had Father Christmas at the fair and "tried to take a slightly different approach to Christmas each year".
"The comments made on the website were personal and defamatory," said a spokesman for the paper. "We made sure that the story was fair when the school contacted us, but the abuse carried on regardless and so it seemed sensible to remove all the comments. It just shows you how strongly people feel about Santa."
The Brighton row is merely the latest instalment in a Yuletide tradition of teachers running into trouble over the existence of Father Christmas. Last year's villain of the piece was a teacher at Ladysmith Junior in Exeter, who used a worksheet that revealed (sorry, alleged) that Father Christmas is a myth and that letters addressed to him are dealt with by Royal Mail.
The pupils, aged nine and 10, had to pretend to be postal staff replying to children explaining why they weren't going to get some presents they wanted.
The Hamilton Trust, which created the worksheets, said that by the age of 10 children tended to know that Santa did not exist, but that was not enough to placate the parents. "What gives the school the right to decide when children should know the truth about such a harmless matter, when knowing the truth does take away that little bit of magic?" asked one father.
Jackie Jackson, headteacher, apologised, saying: "The choice of this worksheet was a genuine mistake by a teacher, which we are sad about. This worksheet will never be used in the school again."
Calcot Junior in Berkshire, in a similar fix, took it seriously enough to change its policies, although there was some dispute about what had actually happened.
"It's not just Father Christmas who causes problems, it is the Tooth Fairy as well. From now on, when a child asks a teacher if Father Christmas exists the teacher should say: 'I'm not sure. Go home and ask your parents'," said an unnamed governor.
Sue Cowley, TES Magazine columnist and author of The Guerilla Guide to Teaching, suggests employing a similar tactic. "I think I would duck the question and say something like: 'If you believe in Father Christmas, then he is real to you'. I might also talk to them about how you can believe some things exist (such as God and gravity) without ever seeing them. It could lead on to a fascinating discussion about the nature of faith."
But schools have been falling foul of Santa for years. The New York Times of January 5, 1896 - yes, 111 years ago - reported "a peculiar trouble between the teachers and the parents of the school children" in Muncie, Indiana.
Apparently, teachers "informed the children that their papas and mammas had been imposing on them by making them believe there is a Santa Claus, whereas he is only a mythical creation.
"The children went home with tears in their eyes, feeling that Christmas had lost its charm for them."
The indignant parents "arose in a body" to Professor Snyder, the local school superintendent, and demanded that the "heartless" pedagogues be dismissed. The superintendent was perplexed as to what to do. "The teachers intimate that a strike is not improbable should he dismiss the offenders. On the other hand, if he does not, the parents say they will compel the school board, through public sentiment, to discharge them."
But then American parents react particularly strongly to Santa-deniers. A Texan school board recently issued a statement saying that a teacher who had said Santa Claus was a myth was subsequently contacted by the old chap. The teacher was told to tell pupils that not only did he exist, but she had seen him.
But perhaps the final bit of advice on when and how to tell should come from a psychologist. "It depends on the age of the child, says Oliver James. "Our daughter, who's nearly six, would be appaled if anyone called the existence of Santa Claus into dispute. But by the end of the primary years, they do know the truth.
"The difficulty is where there are some in the class who believe and some who don't. In that case, I think teachers should try to imagine what Tony Blair would say - something suggesting, perhaps, that while Father Christmas is a vital element of this important family festival, many forward-thinking grown-ups think that Christmas can still be celebrated without him."
Ho ho, oh no
What do you do when the subject of Father Christmas arises in your classroom? We asked The TES website users (www.tes.co.uk)
"I was told by my teacher that Father Christmas wasn't real. OK, I was 11 and she thought I'd guessed, but I was devastated. Consequently, I take the job of maintaining belief very seriously at school. One November, a Year 1 child returned from break in hysterics because a Year 6 boy had said Father Christmas was really your Dad. I was so angry that I didn't really consider what was appropriate. I told the sniffing Year 1 that X was such a horrible, badly-behaved child that Father Christmas refused to visit him. I said we should feel sorry for him - his Dad had to give him presents, or no one else would. It cheered the child up no end."
"If my reception class asks me: 'Does God exist?' I always answer along the lines of: 'Well some people believe...' If they ask me about Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy, there is no hesitation, I always say yes. There aren't many times I would lie to children, but these innocent beliefs are really important for most of them. My own 13-year-old has only just realised that it has been me all along."
"I am off to Lapland to see him, as I believe it will be a truly magical experience for my two kids (and me). I intend to do loads on Father Christmas when I come back and show kids in my class a true winter wonderland. Kids grow up far too quick these days - let them be children and believe for as long as possible."
"I have never understood the need to keep this fantasy alive. It just seems crazy, why should children trust adults who tell them such utter dribble? I only comply out of respect to parents. My response would always be: 'Ask your Mummy or Daddy.'"
"I don't think it's the place of school staff to confirm existence of FC (or baby Jesus come to that) and would be mighty p'd off if my six-year-old was told by adults in school that FC exists. I always respond 'you need to talk to your family about thatask your family what they think'. Such discussionsindoctrination have no place in school in my opinion."
Resources yule love
The TES resource bank: www.tes.co.uk2457384
Festive work and play, courtesy of a Kent junior school at www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.ukteacherchristmas.html
Santa's village: www.northpole.com
Just One Father Christmas? Science lesson for 11 to 14-year-olds at www.upd8.org.ukactivityjust-one-father-christmas.html