Sarah Payne loved Christmas more than any other time of year, and for her the enchantment never died.

Every year she would wake up in the early hours and scramble into her parents' room, desperate to know if Santa had been.

Every year she would gasp with delight when the tree lights were switched on. And every year her grin lit up the room more than Christmas lights could, so radiant the rest of the family had to smile too.

Her mother Sara smiles again now as she remembers her little girl's excitement. She said: "Sarah was Christmas. She was such a believer. She brought such magic to it.

"Once, we were still wrapping the presents at 2.30am on Christmas Day and Sarah woke up at 4.30am. She woke up as early as she thought she could, a little bit earlier every year."

This year, the house was still bare two days before Christmas. The tree and the tinsel and the baubles were ready but no one could bring themselves to do it until the last minute.

Instead, the living room of the Paynes' home in Hersham, Surrey, was filled with paintings of Sarah sent by well-wishers.

The portraits had been copied from the photograph of Sarah in her school uniform, a picture which has been burned into all our memories.

Each one is slightly different but they all capture the innocence of her heartbreaking smile.

Also on the wall is a stitched sampler which reads: "She took a lighted candle into a room we cannot find. But we know she was here because of the happiness she left behind."

Sara said for months she and Michael, 33, tried to think of the right words for their daughter's headstone. Eventually, they realised the words had been staring them in the face. In September, they had the verse from the sampler etched into the stone.

Neither of them was looking forward to the festivities of Christmas and New Year.

But they know moments of joy will break into the gloom as they celebrate the end of 2001. It is the way they have learnt to cope.

Sara said: "We will have joy and fun with the kids at Christmas. We do the best we can for them.

"We haven't celebrated our birthdays because we don't feel there is much to celebrate. It is hard to get into the mood this year but it's not about us, it's about the kids, so we have to make it happen.

"There will be flatness to it and the magic will be missing. We try not to ignore that, we try to go with it. Every now and again one of us goes into our own little world and we have to let that happen.

"Before, it was about the four kids together and we have been trying to find out what happens with that gap."

Sara has ruled out trying to ease the pain of that empty space by having another baby.

She said: "After we had Charlotte, we decided then we wouldn't have more children. I don't think it would be fair to bring another baby into the family. That gap is a Sarah-shaped gap and no one else could fill it."

Instead, Michael, Sara, Luke, Lee and Charlotte stumble through the chaos of grief their own way, as best they can.

Sara said: "What we can say is I feel really happy and I feel really sad, all at the same time, and that's the way life will have to be."

This is the second Christmas the family have spent without Sarah, who was murdered by Littlehampton paedophile Roy Whiting in July 2000.

Last year, they were at the point when every time they felt happy, every time something made them giggle or smile, they would be gripped by guilt.

Sara recalled: "Sometimes I would feel guilty for a week after any happy moment, like how can I possibly feel happy now? These days we try to see it through Sarah's eyes and through the kids' eyes."

Now when Sara remembers how her daughter would hang off the banisters and peer into the living room to make everyone giggle, or when she cried on Bonfire Night about the children who might be hurt by fireworks, she smiles wistfully with more love than pain.

As the guilt has faded, so the Paynes have also been set free from their long wait for justice.

The court case was a looming presence which dominated their lives for weeks. Even after the verdict, Press attention has kept them so busy they haven't had time to prepare for Christmas.

It could never bring back Sarah but the jailing of Roy Whiting has brought relief.

Michael said: "We feel a lot lighter now. It was like a release when the verdict came."

Sara, 32, agreed: "We can relax now in the knowledge he won't ever hurt another child and we were part of that. We put our faith in the British justice system and it worked."

Neither of them believe the jury should have been told of Whiting's previous conviction for kidnapping and assaulting a young girl because they fear it could have put the verdict in jeopardy.

It was just that fear which haunted Michael and Sara this time last year, when they realised they would have to face Sarah's killer in the dock in the knowledge he could walk free.

But it was at a Christmas dinner with senior officers from Sussex Police last year when they heard about the first big breakthrough in the investigation.

One of the senior investigating officers, Detective Superintendent Peter Kennett, took a call to say fibres from Sarah's Velcro-strapped shoe matched samples taken from a red sweatshirt in Whiting's van.

This was the first piece of positive news Sara and Michael had heard since they realised eight-year-old Sarah had gone missing.

Sara can hardly remember those terrible days of waiting to find out what had happened.

She said: "It's a bit hazy. But I do remember how kind everyone was. I especially want to say thank you to readers of The Argus for all they did. It was very important to us.

"The Argus put up reward money and I remember planes being delayed at Gatwick so the stewardesses could take posters to Europe. Everyone from Sussex was spreading the word all across the country.

"You know, people really cared and that meant a lot to us. There's more good than bad out there. That goes tenfold."

Because they have been in the limelight for so long, Sara and Michael are recognised everywhere they go. Sometimes it wears them down but more often it helps them cope.

Sara said: "There are days when I feel like I can't go on but then you see someone who tells you to keep fighting and you think, 'Okay then, I will'.

"We still have good days and bad days and it's the same for the children. We keep an eye on each other and pull each other through when it gets bad.

"When it happened, the boys lost their childhood. Lee is almost 15 now, he became a young man overnight. That's not something they can ever get back.

"Because it's the worst thing that could happen to any family, it would be easy to brush it under the carpet. But what we have tried to do is make people remember, constantly remember. We don't want to let anyone forget.

"For everyone who remembers, there will also be someone who is careful, aware of the risks, whether it's children or adults. That is what we want to achieve."

Sara has been catapulted from being an ordinary housewife and mother to a public figure whose face is as well known as the Prime Minister's.

Their campaign for Sarah's Law means Sara and Michael have remained in the spotlight even after the drama of the trial. Sometimes it hits them as strange but, in many ways, they have got used to it.

Sara said: "If you look back at our lives before it all seems weird but when you are actually doing it, it just seems normal."

Michael said: "Once we come home, we are left in peace. Even though we are in the public eye, everyone has always been respectful.

"Someone has to do what we are doing. If we hadn't done this, Sarah would just have been another statistic and nothing would have changed."

Sara cut in to agree with her husband: "Children are why we are here and they should always come first. That is why we are fighting for longer sentences."

The couple have been so strong the country has marvelled at their love and support for one another. But what about when they run out of things to fight for? Will their grief only hit with its full force then?

Michael said: "If we have got nothing to fight for, we will have achieved it, we will have got Sarah's Law.

"It may be selfish, but I want Sarah's name to be remembered by everyone forever. She deserves that.

"If that happens, it means she won't have died for nothing. She will never be just a statistic."

Sara agreed: "We had a very special little girl for eight years and we were very lucky.

"It's her beliefs and the way she was that have pushed us to do what's had to be done in the past 18 months.

"Sometimes you don't want to do something but you look at Sarah and how she always wanted to help and you know you have to carry on.

"That is how she should be remembered - for how she lived and who she was, not for how she died."