Will the real Father Christmas please stand up?
"It's the presents," they chorused with scorn, turning their eyes on me with the kind of moral force reserved for utter reprobates.
Rita, Alice and Pansy all nodded. "It's very exciting," they explained, as if to one who had lived her entire life on another planet. "Doesn't Jake like presents?" they asked, apparently concerned that the son of one so clearly demented as to ask this mad question must be really missing out.
Already, by the age of seven, the five girls sitting around my dinner table seemed ages older than my son. They discussed getting up on Christmas morning. Millie and Yvette, whose father died when they were small, can open their stockings but absolutely cannot get up before eight o'clock, because their mum gets very tired and needs her rest. Alice knocks on her mum's door and asks to come in and they open the presents together. Rita goes down and makes her breakfast because "it's not a good idea to eat anything before you have your breakfast". And Pansy and her brothers and sisters always open the stockings together.
"What do you do, Jake?" Jake was unashamed. "I just run in to my mum and open all the stocking things on her bed."
The girls were scandalised. "What, even if you wake her up?" Jake stared at them, perplexed. "So?" Millie asked a trick question. "What do you think is the first thing I do when I get up in the morning?" None of us knew.
"I say my prayers," she said with triumph. "And then," she paused for effect, "I have my breakfast."
Pansy perked up. She's rather quiet in the presence of adults. "I go to catechism," she announced.
Alice, whose parents are fierce vegetarians but who always eats meat at my house, said her granny went to church. And Rita, who had been industriously plaiting her hair, said, "I don't think my mummy knows about the baby Jesus. Anyhow, she doesn't believe in him. And nor do I."
When pressed as to the grounds of her disbelief, she explained that as there were those things like fairies - angels - in the Christmas story, which were like girls with wings, and they aren't true, no one could really believe in fairies, so you couldn't believe in the baby Jesus either.
We went through the story and established that there were variants, such as: there was someone who wanted to be the king of all the world before baby Jesus, but he couldn't; the kings were carrying treasure, Frankenstein and ointment; rabbits, donkeys and an ox all came to look at the crib because it was smelly in the stable; Jesus never got married because he had a mother.
Then we got on to Father Christmas, a touchy subject. What did they think? I asked, carefully keeping my own knowledge or belief hidden.
There was a majority for the centrist line that,"There is a Father Christmas but we haven't seen the real one," as Pansy put it. Alice was firmer. "There used to be a good person called St Nicholas who gave children presents and that's why we talk about Father Christmas."
Rita was dreamily eating ice-cream. "What do you think about Father Christmas, Rita?" "My mum wants me to believe in him," she said, "so I do."