My favourite Christmas tradition is, and has always been, counting down the days till Christmas with an Advent Calendar.
(My older sisters and I posing with our Advent Calendars in 1986. I'd write 'a rosebud between two thorns', but then they might not give me any Christmas presents this year).
Every year, on the last day of November, she would hang our Advent Calendars on the wall of the family room. Each contained twenty-four eagerly anticipated sweets, which she tied on with string using (for what seemed to my little fingers) untieable knots, to ensure we couldn't easily sneak a sweet off before the exact day it was supposed to be consumed.
Also on the family room wall hung a portrait of Father Christmas (that's what we grew up calling Santa in Australia), which my grandmother had hand painted (there he is, just above my oldest sister's head). He had eyes that seemed to follow me no matter where I was in the room. When I did something that featured somewhere on the naughty spectrum, my mother would always say "You'd better be careful, Father Christmas is watching you, you know". If I was particularly naughty, I would have to forego the corresponding sweet on the Calendar for that day. Underneath Father Christmas' gaze, I made sure I never spoke with food in my mouth, never interrupted and was almost always nice to my next-in-line sister. As a result of behaving angelically, I always got several wonderful presents in my Christmas stocking on Christmas morning.
For twenty-four days of the year, that guy with his sack full of gifts and his huge white beard watched over me, and I believed in him completely, devotedly and whole-hearted three hundred and sixty-five days of the year every year until I was nine years old. Yep, you read that right. I still believed in him when I was nine. He had a kind of God-like significance in my young life - like he was some sort of omnipresent spiritual being. I knew not everybody believed in him, but I knew not everybody believed in God either. I was a loyal devotee. I was one of the faithful ones who kept believing when almost everyone else at school had stopped. Advent and that hugely anticipated lead-up to Christmas morning punctuated each year of my little life. I don't think I've ever really felt as excited about anything ever again since I found out that Father Christmas wasn't real.
It was my dad who told me. I was dancing around the family room as my mum tied the sweets onto my Advent Calendar wondering out loud about what gifts FC would bring me that year. When dad first said those words, I didn't believe him. They seemed sacrilegious. They went against everything I'd been taught to believe.
"What about the snowy footprints on the dining room floor?" I asked him.
"Your mother does that with icing sugar and the sole of one of my boots".
My mum kept tying sweets onto the Advent Calender but said nothing.
"What about the letter he writes me every year?" I asked again.
"Your mother does that too", he replied.
"But how can she, that's not her handwriting!" I protested.
"She uses her left hand to make it look shaky like an old man's handwriting", he said apologetically.
When I realised he wasn't joking, I burst into tears. I was so distraught that even my next-in-line sister took pity on me and came and hugged me.
My dad was sympathetic, but philosophical about the whole thing: it was high time, in his opinion, that I stopped believing in such "consumer-contrived nonsense".
But I've always had the sense that my mother was a little bit sad herself that day. Not so much because the magic of Christmas had been ruined for her little girl, but for a reason far more important: she had just lost, eternally, her annual twenty-four-day foolproof behaviour management strategy.
Needless to say, my son has an Advent Calendar.