It started as a desire to follow the simple tradition of leaving out a mince pie and a glass of sherry for our hard-working visitors from the North Pole. The following year, feeling that perhaps the Christmas morning discovery of a half-eaten yuletide snack was not sufficient to convince the children of Santa's very real presence among us, we took Rudolph's dietary requirements into account and added a side-order of carrot. \nBut still it didn't seem enough, and the children were growing skeptical. Who was to say that we ourselves had not snaffled the feast? All it would take to blow the Father Christmas story sky high would be a simple DNA saliva procedure and a forensic sweep of the area, and then all the children's carefully constructed hopes and dreams would come crashing down around them. \nAll right, they were only four and seven at the time, but they watched The Bill like anyone else, and we didn't want to get caught out. \nClearly, more concrete evidence of Santa's actual physical presence in the house the previous night was needed. What was a little extra effort if the magic of Christmas was to remain intact? \nThe next year, we redoubled our efforts and, in addition to pie crumbs, sherry dregs and a semi-gnawed vegetable, we introduced a scattering of soot in and around the chimney area and some muddy footprints (using neighbor's wellington boots, mind. We're not stupid. We didn't want the children asking difficult questions about shoe-tread matches) leading from the fireplace out through the front door. God, we were pleased with ourselves, even if it was gone 3am when we finally got to bed. This was slick, this was well thought out. This was what it was like to get inside the head of a seasoned criminal mastermind, plotting heists and stings and track-covering jailbreaks. \nThe year after that, by now aged five and eight, doubts had started to form in their minds. Perfectly reasonable queries concerning stomach girth and chimney width ratio begged to be answered. This time, they were going to take some convincing. This time, the whole mock-visitation exercise would be further elaborated upon by scattering reindeer faeces in the hallway (chocolate truffles worked quite well) and setting out lengthy, handwritten thank-you notes from Santa and a whole host of elf helpers, and not forgetting a deer print -- taking care to remember, with the help of the I-Spy book of animal tracks, that the configuration of a deer's hoof is entirely different from any other common or garden animal paw you might have daubed before. \nThe next year, as we were debating whose turn it was to stand outside in the freezing cold for an hour to recreate, using a \nset of Early Learning Center handbells, the aural effect of a sleigh traveling at some speed somewhere in the middle distance, we were wondering if we hadn't made rather a lot of extra work for ourselves. \nNevertheless, it was a fleeting thought -- as fleeting, in fact, as a pixie's featherlight tread on a snowy rooftop -- and we pressed on with ever more extravagant plans for sleigh-runner marks on the gravel, some deer fur scattered around the front door and, to bring it all up to date a bit, perhaps a text message from the man himself saying he's running 20 minutes late, so don't be tempted to put the mince pies in the oven to warm up just yet. \nSure, there have been some mistakes along the way, the kind of loopholes and strategic slip-ups that would set serious alarm bells ringing if you were a member of the CSI homicide squad. \nThere was the time, for instance, when one of the children appeared at the top of the stairs and witnessed the disturbing sight of me biting into reindeer excrement -- and visibly enjoying it. And I can't say I'm proud of the occasion when I was caught red-handed shredding the inside of one of my son's favourite fleece-lined slippers for use in recreating the effect of Santa's beard snagging on the fire grate. \nBut, so far, we congratulate ourselves on having made a pretty good fist of Christmas. \nShort of hiring a team of actors to re-enact the nativity on the front lawn, complete with live childbirth action, there is very little we wouldn't do to prolong the magic for our little ones. The fact that the sole motive behind the entire yearly charade might be our own enjoyment didn't occur to me until I overheard the children complaining about what a confounded mess Santa and his incontinent entourage are wont to leave in their wake, and surely it would be more practical all round if he simply left the booty outside the front door like the glorified postman he really is. \nBut at least they stopped shy of saying he didn't exist, which at the ages of nine and 12 is heartening and encouraging. Possibly in all the wrong ways, because it means that this year, the urge to indulge in some Christmas Eve theatrics will be as strong as ever. \nAs I write, the final plans are still being fine tuned, but let's just say next week's spectacle promises to be our best yet -- the sort of stuff that will make chocolate reindeer turds and fake footprints look like the work of total \namateurs.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
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