David Mitchell: my deep belief in Father Christmas has meant I’ve struggled with other forms of religion

The Upstart Crow star tells Kasia Delgado about his childhood Christmases, the anticipation, the disappointment - and how he'll try to keep it a magical time for his own daughter

David Mitchell

As a child my religion was Father Christmas-anity. My deep belief in Father Christmas then has meant that I’ve struggled with other forms of religion ever since. I count myself agnostic, not atheist but I was sincerely with the religion of Father Christmas-anity at the time. So many children’s stories are about magic, and there’s so much magic in children’s literature, but not much magic in real life – except for Father Christmas.

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When I was small, I went to see the Father Christmas in the grotto at what was then the Selfridges in Oxford, but I remember my parents saying, “It’s not really Father Christmas, it’s one of his helpers.” That was a wise thing to say because I believe that the idea that you can really see Father Christmas, is dangerous to the magic. I think we should only be able to see the evidence of him in his presents, not his presence.

I had very happy Christmases as a child. It wasn’t too huge a gathering – my parents, my grandparents and my great auntie Ethel in either our house in Oxford or my mum’s parents’ house in Swansea. It was incredibly exciting, and when it was over, I felt very, very sad, because at that age the next Christmas is just unrealistically far away – so far away, it might as well never be happening again.

I had a very strong sense that basically the best bit of the whole present-getting Christmas thing is the anticipation. And as soon as you actually open the presents, it’s sort of over. That was part of what I loved about the advent calendar, the kind of unbearable anticipation of the next day’s picture of a bell. I would wait and open my presents slowly. My brother is eight years younger than me, so by the time he was around I was quite advanced in how I was in terms of Christmas, and he would open all of his presents in a great blur, meaning that for ages he had no presents to open while I still had several. I used to keep Easter eggs for a long time, because while I liked chocolate, I was aware that possessing the chocolate was the key bit.  I would keep my Easter eggs for weeks and weeks and weeks until they went stale and had that white stuff on them and I realised I didn’t want to eat them at all any more. I was a natural miser.

My childhood Christmas meals were at lunch time – one o’clock, not three o’clock in the afternoon – in the annual vain hope that we’d be finished in time for the Queen. But inevitably everything went a bit more slowly, so the Queen would be squeezed in between the main course and pudding. There was the slight uncertainness in the family about whether watching the Queen’s broadcast is an important traditional part of Christmas, but also putting the television on is seen as a slightly lamentable, non-traditional part of Christmas. I suppose if we’d really gone old-school, we could have put the Queen on the radio.

Our daughter Barbara is three now and she was very keen on Christmas last year. The year before, I think she vaguely understood there was some extra sparkly lights but this is the first of the key years. She’s talking about it already. Victoria [Coren-Mitchell] and I are going to leave sherry and a mince pie for Father Christmas. I want her to have a magical time, I want her to be very excited and love it, and then I’ll find a way of handling her disappointment when it goes away.

As told to Kasia Delgado

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David Mitchell stars in the Upstart Crow Christmas special on Christmas Day (Tuesday 25th December) at 8:35pm on BBC2