Christmas has been brightened for me this year by my two-year-old son, who somehow got the idea that Santa/Ježiško would be bringing him a toy police car. As December waxed full, the extras this car would have multiplied like fatigue. At latest telling it's an off-road remote control red monster truck police car with a real siren. He has been looking forward to it with the savage enthusiasm Kingsley Amis used to reserve for drink. I hear about it first thing in the morning, as he strains from his crib to describe it to me in dream-enhanced detail. It's the first thing I'm informed of when picking him up from nursery school. It's the topic of choice during our nightly baths, and has even eclipsed balloons, lego and chocolate yogurt in the fabric of our days together. My only concern is where in the real world of Tesco stores I'll be able to find an acceptable substitute.
Unless I get lucky or inspired, Dominik is about to get his first lesson in a course none of us seem to have passed - that expectations are rarely met, and that the secret to being happy lies in taming one's wilder hopes.
My days at the office are bracketed by time with my son, and in reading through this year's news summary tonight with his gift in mind, I was struck by the many depressing entries. A year, like many others, in which few of us seem to have got what we wanted from public life, in which so many shiny police cars turned out to be car dealer ripoffs.
Adult sophistry leaves me with an out for my son - if the car isn't the right one, perhaps he wasn't as good as he should have been. If he stops throwing tantrums every morning, or learns to use the potty, maybe Santa will relent in good time.
The same logic could be applied to our own disappointments, however. The Hungarians in Slovakia, for example, are in the Slough of Despond because their candidates in December regional elections were defeated by the evil HZDS. But had more than a third of Hungarian voters turned out to vote, their men might have stood a better chance of election.
I would feel like a churl keeping Dominik from his police car in order to coax better behaviour. But in the company of adults who despair of their country's future but aren't willing to attend an election, who complain of being ill-informed but aren't prepared to seek information, I think a little reminder of the link between gifts and civic goodness is not out of place.
Our home lives, and the small people who colour them, are a welcome respite from the year's news. But in the fun of our childrens' Christmases, and meeting their frantic expectations, many of us have forgotten how to go about getting what we want from the world. It's about letters to Santa sent up chimneys, meals left that are magically eaten when we awake, weeks of being on our best behaviour, submission to a holiday regime that forbids selfish conduct.
The adult equivalents of these childhood rituals are the only way to ensure that the future in Slovakia meets at least some of our civic expectations.
Tom Nicholson, Editor in chief
22. Dec 2001 at 0:00