It is Santa time. My five-year-old has met him twice, and I have been him twice so far (only because the real one was so busy, of course).

My second visit was to a play group in a residential area with limited parking. I decided it was best to put on my full costume with beard and wig before arriving. If the children had seen me with Santa’s outfit but without the wig and beard then they would have realised I was not the real McCoy.

So I walked along the street in the full Santa outfit. A workman digging up the road waved to me, and a woman passed me by and said “hello Santa”. Then a car stopped for me and let me cross the road. When I arrived, the staff at the centre greeted me with big smiles and offered me a seat and a hot drink.

“You must be tired Santa, thank you for coming,” she said. This wasn’t for the benefit of the children, as they were in another room. Santa, it seems, allows adults to re-enter a magical realm of make-believe as well.

And the children, of course, knew immediately who I was. They had looked forward to my arrival, and their excited singing and the chorus of “hiya Santa” made me feel very appreciated. I didn’t really do much, just turn up, hand out presents that were given to me, and then make my farewells. But it was my presence, or rather Santa’s, that was the important thing, even more so than the presents. Santa had made an effort, he’d come out of his busy schedule to be with the children, and his effort, although simple, was what made the moment treasured.

As I headed back to my car (yes, car, sorry, no reindeer) I remained in costume, in case a child saw me take my beard and wig off and I destroyed their Christmas. I got the same friendly reception from passers-by, then a toddler with his mum saw me and I was glad I remained in full costume. He waved and smiled.

When I got into the car I sat for a moment and reflected on the Santa thing. You probably know the history of Santa so won’t go over it, but what I will say is that, although Santa has ancient origins, there is no denying the current Santa character is very much a commercial icon.

Yet, despite this, that’s not what seems to matter to the children, or even the adults. What’s important is his presence makes a moment special, even magical. And his effort in thinking about everyone is what makes him a loveable character. He’s kind and thoughtful, knows what people want and deserve, and asks for little in return except for a wee snack for himself and his reindeer.

As I sat there in my car, slyly taking off the beard and wig, I felt a twinge of sadness that I would no longer be recognised as this wonderful character. And that night the storytelling with my five-year-old included a tale about Santa.

Then she said something that made me think and wonder. “Do you think,” she asked me, “that Santa is maybe a brownie?” It was an insightful question that made me think of the connection.

Let me explain, just in case there is confusion here. She didn’t mean a biscuit or a younger girl guide. She meant a brownie as in folklore tradition. I have told her many brownie tales but had never before made any connection with Santa. But I could see what she meant.

A brownie is a magical bearded wee kindly man, with simple needs. He would live in a corner of the house not usually occupied. He did simple tasks, such as looking after livestock, a wee bit of cleaning, making or fixing things and keeping the household safe. He was generally unseen and performed his tasks uncomplainingly. He did, however, appreciate gratitude from the members of the household and simple recognition of his work by the provision of porridge with a little honey.

He would, it was believed, sit by the fire late at night, blowing the embers to warm himself, sipping on his porridge. Some folk would leave a space for him by the fireside, or a small bowl. Children would be encouraged to get to bed so to allow the brownie to sit by the fire.

My daughter was spot on as he was in many ways a Santa-like character – his life devoted to serving others for little reward, performing tasks in secrecy and leaving a sense of unseen but magical presence.

And it was wintertime that the brownie’s presence was most keenly felt. The tasks of harvest time having been completed, he now huddled indoors to catch some of the warmth of the family home. But while he would warm himself by the embers of the fire he still had tasks. And one of them was to keep an eye on the livestock. He was an animal lover, and hated cruelty.

So the brownie would creep out in the dead of night making sure all was well, warding off foxes and keeping an eye out for intruders. Small unidentified footprints in the snow would be seen as evidence of the brownie. Crumbs and ash by the fireside was likewise a sign he had been in the house.

Sometimes in gratitude, the family might want to leave something more substantial for their brownie. But care was needed here, for if the brownie was given anything that could be seen as payment, then he would take offence and leave. Small wee extras were fine, however, such as small cakes fresh from the mill. And brownies loved honey. One of their jobs was to keep an eye on the bees, so honey seemed an appropriate gratuity.

But the brownie’s main gift was not the practical tasks he performed, but something more significant. He provided that sense of a magical and kindly presence that children feel at Christmas time when Santa comes.

So yes, Santa does have the character of a brownie, except he doesn’t live in the North Pole, but rather quietly in your house or outbuildings. He even looks a bit like a brownie. And unlike Santa, brownies are most definitely an ancient part of traditional Scottish folk tradition.

This can be seen in the writings of East Lothian’s philosopher and writer John Mair (or Major). He was born in 1467 near North Berwick. His early education in Haddington paved the way for an international reputation. He studied in Paris, became a prominent philosopher and writer and, after his return to Scotland, he became principal of Glasgow University in 1518.

It was in this year that he wrote something very important. It probably didn’t seem important at the time, as Mair was merely stating a simple matter of fact. He wrote: “Those fauns called brownies can perform a multiplicity of tasks in the course of a single night.” This simple statement, contained in his work ‘Commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew’, is important because it illuminates the fact that he felt it natural to mention this folklore belief in a tract about Christianity. It was simple common sense: brownies exist.

If Mair can drop such a casual statement into one of his writings like this, without further comment, then it seems to indicate that the belief in brownies was widespread and generally accepted in his day.

So where have the brownies gone? Mair was writing before the Reformation. And it seems this is significant, for the Reformation brought in a new attitude to such beliefs. Creatures such as brownies and fairies, elves and other inhabitants of our folklore tradition became seen as sinister creations allied to the Devil. It became dangerous to talk about them or have a relationship with them.

East Lothian was particularly affected by this transformation. And so the brownies and faeries went into hiding. A county once steeped in such tales lost much of its folk tradition. People stopped talking about them, or leaving them gifts. Even Christmas Day itself was put into this bag. It’s difficult to imagine now, but not so long ago, in the generations after the Reformation, celebrating Christmas was a punishable offence.

We now have Christmas back, but how do we find the brownies? It may be no coincidence that the surviving brownie tales in East Lothian now have them living in woods like refugees. The Brownie of Butterdean is hiding from cruel humans whom it saw beat animals, while the Brownie of Wood Dean was castigated as an evil presence because people didn’t know him and he was different.

Yet, originally they inhabited homes and outhouses, especially on farms, where agricultural tasks where performed. Times have changed and brownies today would likely be just as at home in a housing estate. It’s the warmth of the welcome, the spirit of kindness, the family atmosphere that matters to a brownie.

John Mair was from Gleghornie. It’s just south of North Berwick, and off the main road. It still has some old woodland and I’m sure the brownie once known by Mair lurks there, unloved and ignored.

But if we search for them with our children we will find them. If we leave a wee bit of porridge they may realise we need them once again, because that magical presence felt at Christmas can be something to make childhood magical every day, just as Santa makes Christmas so special.

And in that sense, Santa is very much like a brownie. His reward is your happiness and appreciation of his tasks, and he shares your life without encroaching upon it. He is, in many ways, a reflection of your own ability to share, empathise and think creatively. And a brownie has one thing Santa doesn’t: he is not connected to commercialised multi-national profits.

Yet let’s not be too hard on Santa. Since I was Santa for a few moments I can say that his fame is maybe connected to commercialism, yet there is also a wonderful irony; what makes him special is not the commercialism of his purpose but the magical possibilities his presence conveys. He conveys the possibility that there is a simple, and better way of being: lovingly serving others who also think of you and share simple things with you.

The problem is Santa leaves our thoughts on Boxing Day. A brownie is for all the year, as long as you don’t offend him, and the simple values he can promote are worth more than anything you have wrapped up this Christmas.

Maybe after Christmas you can go search with your children for that frightened homeless brownie and offer him kindness that will tempt him back into his traditional role. To find your brownie you don’t have to look too far. He will be hiding just round the corner of your imagination.

If you have a loving and compassionate God in your life then a brownie is less needed; but, as Mair’s writings revealed, there is no contradiction in having both.