Ian McMillan: How I put damper on the feast of Stephen

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This is a Christmas story, a true Christmas story. I know it’s a bit early for a Christmas story, even a true one, but bear with me.

My true Christmas story begins at this time of year, mid-November, decades ago in the mid-1960s when I was a young boy. I was feeling brave and grown-up because I was walking home in the dark from my Auntie’s house on North Street to our house on Barnsley Road. It’s not far, probably less than half a mile, but I was young and it was dark and the Daleks had only recently appeared on Doctor Who so I was slightly nervous but I was determined to do it.

As I got to the end of North Street and prepared to run for home something caught my eye on the floor; I thought it was a £10 note, so I darted to pick it up because in those days £10 was a fortune. What am I talking about? It’s a fortune now. I’d still pick it up, wouldn’t you?

Anyway, as I scooped it up like a wading bird grabbing a worm from a beach I noticed that, of course, it wasn’t a ten pound note. It wasn’t even a five pound note. It was a note, though: wonderfully, it was a note to Father Christmas, folded with the word SANTA written on it in a childish hand. I opened it and read, ‘Dear Santa, I hav been a good boy and this year I would like a football and a pare of goalkeeping gloves and a pen that lights up. Thank you, your friend Stephen.’

My first thought was: who is Stephen? I didn’t know any Stephens. There were no Stephens in our class at school and I couldn’t think that there were any Stephens on our street. My second thought was: His spelling’s not very good. My third thought was: what should I do with it?

I’d written notes to Father Christmas myself (in the Father Christmas/Santa divide our house came down firmly on the side of Father Christmas) and shoved them up the chimney. I wasn’t sure if I believed in him but it didn’t hurt to behave as if you did.

Some people at school posted them in the post-box near the butcher’s and some people gave them to their parents to post which, even at that early age, I knew was a bit of a risk, especially if your parents didn’t believe in him. This felt like about the right time of year to write to him, too, to get his elves busy on pumping up the football and making sure that the pen lit up properly and didn’t stop lighting up on Boxing Day afternoon.

How had the note ended up on the pavement on North Street? Had Stephen been rushing eagerly to the post-box down by Ennis’s shop and it had fallen out of his pocket? Had his brother or sister torn it from his weeping grasp and chucked it out of the window of the Ford Anglia? It was a mystery. I took it home and read it re-read it. I imagined poor old Stephen patrolling North Street, trying to find it again.

So I decided to do a kind thing, a really kind thing. I would reply to Stephen, and fold the note up and leave it on the pavement. And this is what I wrote and left by the lamp-post: 
‘No chance, Stephen. You’ll be lucky to get a balloon. Merry Christmas.’