TWENTY-FIVE years ago, the prospect of hearing Santa Claus was a fake would have left millions of children totally disillusioned. Today, I'm not so sure. As an impressionable six-year-old, I was a believer. But, now, when I confront my formidable 10-year-old niece, there is no question where many children's beliefs lie: 'Santa Claus? He's for little kids; he doesn't really exist,' she says, and not without a little bit of a sneer. The girl has all the answers. Presents? Mum and Dad buy them, then they wrap them, and sign them from Santa. Reindeer? They can't fly and, even if they could, where would they park? And there aren't too many chimneys in Hong Kong. What about the milk and biscuits left for the reindeer on Christmas Eve and the empty glass and plate of crumbs in their places on Christmas morning? Easy - Mum eats the biscuits and drinks the milk. And the brandy for Santa? Dad whips it down, of course. The little cynic. But she hasn't quite worked out who belongs to the strip of red felt caught in the window sill, but the disbelief in her eyes is clear; Santa Claus? No way. Has Christmas changed that much? Its memories are certainly clear to me. High on the list is food, right up there with the chubby red-faced, bearded character with the sackful of goodies. Eating is a serious business for the Hong Kong Portuguese. You may be able to talk politics with them without too much pain, perhaps argue about religion and pull through in reasonable shape - but make fun of their food and there will be trouble. Pregnant with wines and spices, Christmas food was a rich mix of Macau cuisine and local Chinese ingredients. The sweets were made in heaven. Diabo was a particular favourite of Mum. It was a concoction that was supposed to be made from Christmas leftovers. The dish was so potent (its name means devil in patois), it would cleave your tongue to the roof of your mouth. And why not? It had some serious ingredients: siu ap, Cantonese roast duck; roast wild duck; roast pheasant; roast chicken; roast pork, siu yuk: Portuguese stewed beef, vaca stoffado, and its gravy; porco vinho arlio, Portuguese pork spiced with wine; Lea and Perrins sauce; Cantonese pickled onions; chow-chow pickles; Coleman's mustard; hard-boiled eggs; tomato paste; and large onions. Then, just for that extra zing, add salt and pepper to taste. Each family had its own special way of making the dish. Grandma slipped in her own special ingredient. It was so richly enjoyed that she spent weeks before Christmas making the ingredient dishes so diabo would grace our table on the day. On the night before Christmas, after midnight mass, empada went down very nicely. A light supper, it was a fish pie folded in a sweetish pastry. It was accompanied by aluar, a solid block of almond-based cake, surely an alchemist's answer for gastronomes. We would wrestle slices from the block and savour them. Cuscarao was a light, deep-fried pastry tossed in icing sugar, and, oh, the Pillows of Jesus . . . small, oblong cornstarch cakes with a heart of coconut . . . Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, ham off the shoulder, baked potato and parsnips, fruit cake, plum pudding and stollen helped push the table and our bellies to their limits of endurance. Even Hong Kong's hard-nosed journalists found time away from the news to tip a glass or two in old Saint Nick's honour. If not, they may have said a quiet prayer of thanks for the birth of Christ and perhaps for salvation from the murders, muggings, robberies, wars, famines, and every other sordid detail that kept the world in a spin. Among those journalists were five members of my family: three uncles, an aunt - and my Dad, who worked at The Star, Hong Kong's then-tabloid. When he slipped in late for lunch at my grandparents' one Christmas, the cold clung to him like an aura. It had a taste. Above the billowing perfumes of gastric indulgence there was a hint of the printer's ink, which used to hover around the newsroom of The Star's dungeon-like offices, hanging stubbornly to his coat. But in its place, when he left to catch the late edition, it was the peppers and the sugars that mingled in his coat and tingled in his nose. Has Christmas changed that dramatically? Nowadays, the vultures swoop early for your dollar. The shopping malls churn in a sea of black and blonde, tremble at the dull roar of shoppers on the trail of a bargain and bulge with the booty in their tills. There seems no respite. Christmas has become a relentless drive for money - more so than before. Then, there seemed a reverence. A veneer, yes, but that veil has long been shattered. Santa Claus now seems only to be an agent for money-grabbers, a bounty hunter for big bucks, seen in his new habitat of the glitzy shops and mirrored malls. Who could blame the likes of my 10-year-old niece for her jaded view of Christmas? But there is one small voice, at least, who whispers in defence of Father Christmas. She's only seven, but for her the chubby fellow slips in quietly on star dust, he sees to it that the reindeer drink their milk and munch their biscuits, then settles in to the nip of warming brandy. He gently settles down the presents he's chosen for her and brought in his sack and, sometimes, if he has a moment to spare, will softly place a kiss on her cheek before he must fly. And in his hurry, he's snagged a piece of his scarlet cloak on the window sill.