Confessions from Santa’s grotto – why I loved being Father Christmas

The one thing that all the families had in common was that they absolutely loved visiting Santa – and prob­ably the parents more than the kids. They often crouched down beside their little ones, faces just inches apart, doting on the tiniest utterance or reaction. I was reminded of the strength of love we have for our children: how they’re the most precious thing in the world. With such an attentive audience, spreading Christmas magic was easy. I’d never been more the centre of attention, and who doesn’t like that?

There were some golden moments. Beaming, a girl declared at the end of my spiel: “I love you!” A granny came up to me as her family were leaving and said: “You’re the best Santa I’ve ever met.” She made my day.

The job was hard work and relentless. I used to hit the wall, in marathon-speak, at about 4.30pm, still with three hours to go. During occasional longer gaps between families, I paced up and down my grotto as if imprisoned in a cell. Driving Home for Christmas looped round to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I would hear an elf leading a family to the door, took to my armchair, awaited the knock and then was off on Santa autopilot again, sometimes with fabricated zeal to get me going once more. When you’re Santa, you sometimes have to fake it to make it. At the end of breaks, waiting to be ­summoned by an elf back into the grotto, I took my last gasps of fresh air outside the changing room. Over the fence I could see the illuminations from the enchanted forest and, in the still winter air, heard distant calls of children.

My last customer arrived at 5.40pm on Christmas Eve and was… a crying baby. It wasn’t the finale I’d hoped for. Afterwards, I quickly changed, hastily said my farewells and departed. The lights and music in the gazebo tunnel leading away from the grotto had been switched off, an icy wind blew, the park was quiet, and the only people at the concourse were security men on walkie-talkies. Feeling conspicuous, Polly and I grabbed a selfie beneath the advent tree. Our marathon was complete and Christmas delivered. It was one of the most extraordinary and memorable episodes of my life.

We’re back in the grotto again this year. Since last time, I’ve decided to semi-retire and focus on freelance journalism. A day in the grotto pays roughly the same as a feature in a regional magazine. For me, it’s a new sort of business as usual.

What I have learnt in the grotto

⇒ Children love showing off novelty Christmas jumpers

⇒ Elsa is not a lion from a 1960s film about Africa, these days, but a character from Frozen that’s popular as a doll

⇒ Kids delight in the “ho, ho, ho!” – Santas need never be ashamed of laughing at their own jokes

⇒ Small boys still like dinosaurs and Lego

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