(Not for the eyes of those who still believe!)
My first confession is that I wasn’t the real Santa, although I did a pretty fair impression. Mind you, I had plenty of practice! Five days a week, for seven weeks, every year for 12 years, I was the ultimate toy boy… well, one of them. Can you believe there were four of us being the man in red all at the same time? The elves had to make sure that they didn’t let families out of the grottos simultaneously, otherwise the kids might have become suspicious. I must have seen about 44,000 kids over those 12 years. Even I find that hard to believe, and I was there! At the busiest times, we were expected to see 20 an hour. (I’ll explain how that worked later.) That’s up to 20 an hour for seven hours a day, five days a week, for seven weeks, for 12 years. It actually comes to 58,800, but I’ve made allowances for the days when things were a bit quieter.
For the first two years, I’d have happily done it all year round (if such a job existed) if it weren’t for the wig, beard and very warm costume. (I used to wait for a grownup to say “Santa’s hot” so I could comment in my slightly doddery character “Well, some of the nanas think so!” I said it in an innocent, non-purvey way, so it always got a good reaction.) Being Santa was an opportunity to interact with families in a loving way, and to be creative; but the conveyor-belt aspect of the job took its toll – no wonder my login password was Hobloodyho! Every Christmas Eve, as I hung up my wig and my beard, I’d say to myself “Never again”, but I always did… until I didn’t!
I’d always did my best at all times, no matter how jaded or unwell I felt. (Some years, there were a lot of colds and flu around.) I took the role very seriously, and being Santa for so long allowed me to build up quite a store of humorous lines. I always respected the kids, most of whom were lovely; and the way I spoke helped to engage the adults who came along too. And, getting the occasional laugh gave me a bit of a buzz, helping to keep me energised.
An example would be the little lad who came into the grotto wearing a Newcastle United football shirt (we had a lot of people visiting us from the North East). I said hello to the family, and then asked the boy his name. Shyly, he said “Shay”. As a football fan, I knew that the Newcastle goalkeeper at the time was called Shay Given. So, I said “Ah, Shay. Is that your given name?” His dad, obviously a big Newcastle fan, was chuckling, and it got the visit off to a warm start.
I used football references quite a lot because I’d get lots of kids turning up wearing club shirts. I’d tell them that I used to play when I was younger, and that my position was Santa forward. One time, a family came in with one of the girls wearing an Everton shirt. Her parents and grandparents were with her. I remembered the prolific Everton and England striker of the 1920s, and 30s, Dixie Dean. I told them about me being Santa forward – and that I’d played two-up-front with Pixie Dean. The grandad, particularly, thought that was funny.
How did I manage 20 children per hour? With difficulty! Part of the skill was to engage each child quietly and really focus on them, so they felt they were special and being heard. I always hoped that we’d get more than one child in at a time, because that meant that the things that I always said to each family group didn’t have to be said 20 times in the hour… maybe only, say, eight times. So, if I had a family with four kids, I could spend a lot longer talking to them, and often having fun.
I was glad of the voice training I had when I was younger. Because I learned how to speak well, without straining my voice, I didn’t even have to think about how I’d manage all those hours of almost constant talking!
One of my favourite visits was with eight children! I hardly ever got that many, and never again all from one family. Every one of them was blonde, lovely looking, and very well behaved. The parents were blonde, too! All 10 of them sat cross-legged in a semi-circle, looking like a gathering of angels. It was a beautiful, almost spiritual experience. As they were about to leave, I told the parents how much I’d enjoyed their visit. The mum said “You’ll never guess what our surname is… Angel!” They truly were like a heavenly host!
A challenge that the Santas experienced all too often was to do with the parents. Some of the dads, in particular, were completely disinterested in what was going on, and that spoiled the atmosphere. If the adults were into it, things went much better. Something else I never got used to was how some parents weren’t attuned to their young children. Rule of thumb, most babies up to eight or nine months old aren’t scared if Santa’s gentle. Psychological changes happen at about this age, where children are easily spooked by strangers. And what could be stranger than a white-haired old bloke with a big beard, dressed totally in red?
I wish I had a fiver for every time a parent would march right up to me with, say, a 15-month-old. The child would be terrified, trembling, screaming… yet the parent would continue to dangle their child in front of me saying “It’s Santa, he’s lovely, he’s going to bring you presents. You sat on his knee last year.” Well, of course he did. He was three months old, and now he’s a year older, and couldn’t the parents sense that he was petrified. I’d insist that they stepped back, for the child’s sake. And yet they’d still want to plonk them on my knee. If they’d been attuned to the child, they’d have kept their distance and maybe edged forward if the little one started to get used to me. Often, I felt that the visit was more about the parents’ expectations and their desperation to get a photo than the child’s needs.
The worst example of that (and my least favourite few minutes as Santa) was when a mother came through the door and ran up to me so fast, I couldn’t stop her. The 18-month-old in her arms was terrified. He lashed out, kicking me in the teeth! I was in pain, and furious! It was the only time in the 12 years as Santa that I lost my equilibrium. I wanted to give the woman a right bollocking! I breathed deeply for what seemed like two minutes – it was probably 10 seconds – before I could continue, with a sore jaw.
But the next magical visit or chance to have some fun was never too far away. Probably my favourite of the whole lot was a huge family group. Giggles, our youngest elf, showed in five kids. “Good”, I thought, “a chance to take my time”. They were followed in by what seemed like an endless stream of adults. A dozen of them squeezed in, and right at the back, there was a lovely looking guy in his early 20s. He looked a lot like the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I called to him “Elvis, I thought you were dead.” There was a big laugh from all the adults – slightly louder than I expected.
I felt that I was onto something, so I told them “I used to have a cat at the North Pole called Elvis, and one day I put him out of the cat door and said to the elves ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.’ The elves had no idea what the joke was, but once I’d explained it, they insisted that I did it again… and again… and again. Poor old Elvis! He was a lovely cat, and he loved the King’s music. His favourite song was Suspicious Mice”
That got a big reaction, and as the laughter began to fade, I sang “We’re caught in a trap… We can’t get out.” That got a huge laugh. After that, I got down to business with the five kids to see what they’d like for Christmas. At the end, as everybody was filing out, I called to them “I’m sorry, I lied about my Elvis’s favourite song being Suspicious Mice… it was Blue Suede Shrews!” Giggles showed them all out, and when she came back into the grotto, she told me that the young guy was an Elvis impersonator, and that he’d said he was going to use my Elvis material in his act! That visit kept me buzzing for the rest of the day!
Another of the challenges, for me, anyway, was that some parents would say to their children “And you’ve got to be good. Santa’s watching.” That goes right against my grain. There’s more than enough real surveillance in our society without kids having to worry about a peeping Santa. I couldn’t really say “No I don’t watch you,” without risking brassing off the parents, so I’d say something like “Yes, but only in a loving way.” It’s the same with the elf-on-the-shelf thing. I hate the thought of the kids thinking they’re being spied on!
My second-favourite visit was another fairly crowded one. Four children, two parents, and four grandparents! It didn’t take me long, when I started as Santa, to work out that in general, older women tend to be less inhibited than younger ones. Most times, if there was a grandmother in the grotto, I’d say something like “And I always invite nanas to sit on my knee.” Often, they would, and the kids (and the rest of the family) loved it!
Now and then, there’d be two nanas in the room, and on one particular occasion, I made my usual invitation. Both nanas rushed onto my knees. The kids thought it was hysterical! The ladies stayed there for a couple of minutes. Then nana 1 got off. I said confidentially to nana 2 “Yesterday, I had a nana on my knee for over five minutes. She just wouldn’t get off. And I couldn’t possibly tell you what she said to me.” Nana 2 pleaded with me to tell her. After a bit of toing and froing, I gave in. Scandalised, I whispered in her ear “She asked me if I was good in the sack!”
Nana 2 shrieked and hooted, while Nana 1 looked like she was missing out. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall as they walked down the corridor with Nana 2 explaining what had been said!
I’ve mentioned that by and large, the kids were lovely. One thing I found difficult was that in nearly all cases, they hadn’t been brought up to share presents. Of course, this wasn’t their fault.
Often, they’d want expensive electronic gifts – games consoles, laptops and so on. Almost without fail, siblings would want one each. If I mentioned sharing, they were horrified. Also, I have an issue about the ever-younger age at which children first receive electronic gear with screens. 19-months old was quite common five years ago when I was still being Santa. There’s a lot of research which reveals that a child’s imagination can be seriously impacted by too much early screen time.
Whatever happened to the traditional presents? I was only asked for marbles about twice each year, which was a pity as I used to enjoy telling the kids that I’d lost most of mine.
Just a few more of my favourite Santa memories, now! After one particular visit, I’d said my goodbyes, but Crystal the elf brought our family back into the grotto because another family was leaving the next one to ours at the same time. So, I had to improvise. I said to the dad “And where do you live?” He looked me with a glint in his eye and said “I thought you’re supposed to know that, Santa?” I pondered on his accent and replied “I’m not sure if it’s Darlington or Richmond.” His eyes widened, and he said “Bloody hell, Santa. I was born in Darlington, but I live in Richmond!” Santa 1 Dad 0. That one kept me buzzing for a while, too!
Inevitably, there were a lot of less-than-stimulating times. The job was extremely repetitive, and I felt sorry for the elves, hearing the same things day after day. At least I tried to be creative in what I said and did. Towards Christmas we’d get a handful of university students on their winter break joining the elf team. That usually freshened things up a bit. There was one year when we had a rather uninspiring crop of elves. They were clearly bored out of their brains long before the uni students turned up. One of the newbies was fabulous… full of energy and personality. The Santas loved her, but the bored elves hated her because she was showing them up. I know she hadn’t been doing the job day in, day out like the others, but she had the sort of personality where she’d still be bright if she’d been doing it all year.
I don’t miss being the man in red, but you may have noticed that I’ve many fond memories. There’s a lot that I haven’t shared. I’ll leave you with this one: Only once over the 12 years did an unaccompanied adult visit me in the grotto. She was from – and I’m not making this up – Lapland! This woman had an engaging personality, and she moved like a dancer. We chatted for a couple of minutes (just to be clear, me, still in character), and Snowdrop the elf joined in, too. I asked our visitor if she was a dancer. She smiled, and said yes. Then I said something which could have led to the end of my Santa stint. Because of her personality, and my rather doddery, innocent characterisation, I had a feeling that I could get away it. I said “I can’t make my mind up whether you’re a Lapland dancer or a North Pole dancer.” She laughed and laughed (thank goodness), thanked me, wished me a merry Christmas, and went on her way.
I hope you have a good one, too. Merry Christmas from me and Santa Claws!
I shared this blog about a year ago. In a few days I’ll put up another one with some other of my Santa stories.