07 December 2000

Ho ho ho

It seemed good enough idea when I first agreed to it, back in September: to be "Father Christmas" at a fund raiser, run by a hair and beauty training school in aid of a children's health charity; who could say no?
So, I present myself at my "grotto" – the reception room of the school, with small amounts of foam polystyrene granules amongst the cosmetics in the display cabinets, and a small artificial tree. My costume: red felt jacket and trousers, hat and a hooded cape, all worn over my own clothes. No boots, so I became a Santa in trainers, but nobody seemed to mind. A sort of triangle of white nylon fake fur for a beard, with cotton wool on top for the moustache. There is no obvious fastening for the jacket or cape, so I steal a length of gold tinsel from the tree and tie it around my waist.
I sit myself in my chair. There is no briefing (I am to gradually discover that they have never had a Santa Claus before – I am not the only one learning on the job) but the duties seem simple enough. Child enters, having paid outside. I make avuncular noises, dish out a random parcel from the sack beside me, wish her/him a Merry Xmas, and s/he departs.
A sixteen year old, presumably a hair and beauty trainee, comes in. She is wearing a strange costume: a pink body stocking, with pink two-piece swimsuit over the top, quantities of purple tinsel dangling here and there, and a large pair of gauze wings on her back. "'Ello, Santa," she says, "I'm your little 'elper."
"Oh," I say, and then (since more seems to be required) "that's nice – thank you."
"There's two of us." she says, and goes out again, shutting the door behind her.
I sit in the empty grotto for about an hour, waiting for something to happen. Then it does: the door opens, and the little 'elper comes in with a small boy of about six. He looks at me, and says "hullo, Santa-with-your-moustache-falling-off." I poke ineptly at my moustache, and reply with a jovial "Hello, little fellow, what's your name?" He is Robert. I ask what he wants for Christmas, and he asks in a scandalised voice: "Haven't you read my letter?" I make some sort of excuse about bad memory; he takes his parcel and departs. The door is closed again and I am alone once more in my grotto.
The grotto is exceedingly warm. I have a felt costume over my normal sweatshirt and jeans, and two vents are belching hot air. Sweat trickles down various bits of me ... and there are five more hours to go. I decide to locate and turn down the heating controls. The felt cape, ankle length, encumbers me as I climb onto the reception desk to investigate what looks like a thermostat... "Why is Santa standing on the table?" pipes a high-pitched voice from behind and below me. I jump, startled; red felt pins my legs together; I fall, arms flailing, and lie winded on the carpet under the curious gaze of a little girl and a little 'elper.
A pattern establishes itself. A child (or family group of children) appears in the company of a little 'elper at roughly five minute intervals, on average, although there are busy periods and slack ones. I have a book with me (Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man) and I read this in the lulls. I read head-up, one eye on the door, ready to stash the book behind me in the chair if the door handle turns. I greet each arrival with a fixed routine: "Hullo; what's your name? How old are you? Are you looking forward to Christmas? Here you are; a little extra present to enjoy until then. Goodbye; nice to meet you." Some children cheerily play the game. Some stare at me gravely, unsmiling, clearly doubting my sanity. A few take one look at me, scream (who can blame them?), and have to be hustled out again; on these occasions, a little 'elper will come in, apologise to me, and take the parcel out to the child.
One little boy asks where my Mummy is. "Back home at the North Pole" I say. He refuses the parcel, when I offer it to him. He points at the tree, and asks "where's the tree's Mummy?" Another looks around and says "it doesn't look like a grotto; it looks like a beauty parlour!" The first visitor, Robert, returns four more times and leaves with a parcel on each occasion.
Sometimes a parent wants to take a photograph. Mothers, I discover, favour photographs of their little darlings being bounced on my knee; couples tend to stand them beside me; unaccompanied fathers prefer to leave Santa out altogether and photograph their offspring with the little 'elpers.
One couple try repeatedly to take a photograph, without success. They replace the batteries in their camera, without success. Eventually, I offer my own camera which they manage to switch off before eventually getting their picture. Santa promises to send a print back by reindeer post to the training school for their collection within a week. The children ask if, while he's at it, he can send their Christmas presents early as well?
I don't mind the gaps on my own; I've always been easy in my own company. Sometimes, though, during the longer lulls, the door opens and in comes a little 'elper – they feel sorry for me, and have decided to take turns keeping me company. This is embarrassing; we can find nothing to talk about, and it seems rude to read my book, so we sit in uneasy silence and examine the surroundings until a child arrives.
Since I turned down the thermostat, the temperature has been dropping and I am now only slightly overheated. During one of the longer quiet spells, the little 'elper who is currently babysitting me suddenly says "Fuck me, it's bleedin' cold in 'ere, innit? I'm going to get changed." With that, she goes out. I hear her conferring with her companion, then the sound of a note being scotchtaped to the door, and finally the turning of a key as I am locked in.
They are gone for half an hour. Plaintive children outside the door are reassured by their parents that "the note says Santa will be back in five minutes; just be patient, now." I read my book in peace, and push my beard aside to eat my hasty sandwich lunch.
They return, the pink swimsuits replaced by pink skirts, teeshirts and shoes - all trimmed with the purple tinsel. The wings have gone, and antennae have appeared on their heads. The door is unlocked, and I am engulfed in a small surge of small customers. I notice, from this point on, that mothers start to include the little 'elpers in their photographs while fathers move in the opposite direction.
The day moves on. Children come and go, variously wondering or laughing or screaming in between. The level of the parcels in the present sack declines, and the takings for the Wallace and Grommet charity appeal rise.
The intervals between children increase. After an interval has stretched to the point where both little 'elpers have taken it in turns to babysit me, the event's organiser appears to suggest that "this seems like the time to knock it on the head". The little 'elpers say "thanks, Santa" and trot off into the darkness of the outside world. I return my red felt costume to the store cupboard from whence it came and return, much cooler, in everyday clothes.
On my way to the exit, trying hard to be inconspicuous (who wants to meet an off duty Santa in blue jeans and windcheater?) , I pass the organiser, pulling raffle tickets from a hat before a crowd of parents and children. She sees me, and shouts cheerfully: "hullo, Santa - would you like to pick a raffle ticket for us?" Dozens of outraged young eyes swivel and fix accusingly on me. Dozens of outraged little voices shout, in ragged near-unison, "He's not Santa!" the organiser looks horrified at what she's done.
"No", I say, "Jacquie was joking – I'm just a maths teacher."
Dozens of little heads nod, satisfied, and dutifully laugh at the joke of a maths teacher mistaken for Father Christmas. I slip past, out into the rain and the dark, feeling curiously like someone who's just done a good day's work.

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