MY heart goes out to children who are dragged around shops at this time of year. Apart from the mind-numbing boredom of shopping when you’re a child, the sight of so much present-buying must kill some of the magic of Christmas for them. Surely it’s Santa who’s meant to be sorting the presents...

But of course Santa is never far away in a shopping centre. You’ll find him at the end of the queue in a glittery grotto. Or at least someone who resembles him. I never bought into the Santa’s grotto thing; it confused me, as a child, to see him in so many shops/church halls/community centres. And looking like a different person each time. Whenever I questioned it I was told Santa was far too busy so his helpers stood in for him at grottos. It kind of made sense, but the grotto experience lost its shine.

For some children, it can be a terrifying place. I recently shared some old photos of Bradford’s much-loved Busbys department store on social media; prompting lots of cherished memories of visiting the lavish Santa’s grotto there. But among the fond recollections was this comment: “I used to hate going. I was terrified of him. When I went round that last corner into his grotto and saw him, I could hear chords like those in Psycho in my head.”

It made me smile. Not all children enjoy the Santa experience. My sister was scared of him too and refused to sit on his knee, even at the church fair when everyone knew the Father Christmas was just one of our neighbours in a cotton wool beard.

Sometimes Santa, or whichever helper is standing in for him, doesn’t make an effort. I still recall the pitiful sight of a rather scrawny Santa standing on a street corner, he looked about 18 and was wearing scruffy trainers and smoking a fag.

And I once heard about a little boy who was given a present in Santa’s grotto and saved it until Christmas Day to open - only to discover it was a bottle of brown sauce.

On the other end of the scale, the extravagant Lapland experience that some children have must also be a bit of a let-down. As a child I had my own idea of what Santa’s North Pole home looked like, and being in my imagination made it even more wondrous. To actually visit it would have killed that stone dead. Someone I know paid a small fortune to fly her children to Lapland, and posted endless photos of the trip on Facebook. It seemed to be more about her showing it all off than anything else.

It’s a sad time when we finally accept our nagging doubts about Father Christmas. It’s possibly sadder for parents - a friend of mine was bereft when her youngest child stopped believing. It doesn’t happen overnight; it just creeps up. I started to wonder how Santa could possibly get round the world in one night, and by the time that logic sets in the magic has already started to disappear. Of course you cling on for a year or two because you never know...and you still want presents.

Once we finally stopped believing, my brother and I had to keep up the pretence for our little sister. What finally did it for her was waking up on Christmas Eve to the sight of our mum, half cut on Harveys Bristol Cream, shuffling backwards into her bedroom, dragging a pillowcase full of presents. Santa was no more - which probably came as a blessed relief to my sister since she didn’t like him much anyway.

This year the Santa experience is a scaled down, Covid-safe affair. But, for the believers, it will be magical nonetheless. Cling on for as long as you can, because once you stop believing, Christmas will never be the same again...