Twenty of us are gathered in the management suite of a shopping centre to learn about benchmarking grotto deliverables, exceeding customer expectations and, inevitably, Elf-and-Safety. Most are tiny teenage girls; they will be the elves. I gravitate to the only other middle-aged man. ‘Santa?’ he asks, nodding in the direction of my stomach. I nod back towards his.
It’s 1 November. It couldn’t have been any earlier, as some of the elves have been engaged as scary monsters until Hallowe’en. Not all of them — department store ghouls don’t drive sales quite like Father Christmas — although my fellow Santa had been a Cannibal Killer at a farm shop.
He’s been a Santa for 15 years. This is my first time — apart from the role-play section of the interview, when a middle-aged manager had, with some enthusiasm, pretended to be a seven-year-old girl. ‘You’ll enjoy it,’ he tells me, ‘but it’s weird. The moment the beard goes on, you become Santa…’
I am a comedian, and it’s quite common in my profession to ‘do Santa’ as an antidote to the horrible office parties we have to do at Christmas. I saw an advert on a comics’ website: ‘The greatest job you’ll ever have. If you think audience applause feels good, wait till you hear a five-year-old say he loves you.’
A good beard is vital: much of the training is devoted to combing and backcombing, tying knots in the elastic to avoid slippage and placing sponges under the knots to avoid headaches. But Santa cannot live by beard alone; most of the training is logistical. The swapping of Santas, for example, at the end of each shift, is a delicate operation. One Santa hangs about unseen in a service corridor behind Paperchase until an elf leads the other Santa out; then, like a prisoner exchange in a spy movie, one Santa walks past the other, with the curtest of nods.
We are taught the answers to various questions — the names of Santa’s reindeer is the only one to be learnt by heart; we can improvise answers to the others, or use the all-purpose fallback of ‘magic dust’ — and modern grotto etiquette. No child should be lifted onto Santa’s lap nowadays, although it is fine if they jump up themselves, or if their parents place them there. Likewise, the elf on the door must ensure that Santa is never left alone with a child. ‘Or an adult with special needs,’ interjects the director of the training company from the back of the room, adding mysteriously: ‘There was an Incident.’
Then there is the management structure: the elves report to the Number One Elf, who reports to the Chief Elf, who reports to the Elf Supervisor. I am still unsure where Santa fits in. I am allowed to ask any elf to bring me a glass of water, or to write a child’s name on the Nice List, but I have received a ticking-off from the Chief Elf for being ‘insufficiently magical’ in my explanation of why a child’s stocking was unlikely to hold an iPad. Does that mean I am a subordinate Claus?
Perhaps it’s like a good regiment, where the NCOs run the show, and officers smile and keep up morale. Father Christmas sits in the grotto, while the elves do all the work: taking and selling photographs, ejecting any teenager who tries to pull off Santa’s beard, collecting the postcode of every visiting family (a requirement of the shopping centre marketing department: the cover story is that the sleigh now has a satnav).
Father Christmas must never make assumptions: we shouldn’t ask about Mummy or Daddy when a child might have just a Mummy, no Mummy, or two Mummies; likewise, we shouldn’t try to guess the identity of any accompanying adult. ‘There’s no place for prejudice in a grotto situation,’ we are told. ‘Everyone is treated the same.’ And no one gets special treatment either — we are to act just the same if a celebrity visits Father Christmas. My fellow Santa’s top grotto moment was meeting Suzi Quatro; she sat herself on his knee, wriggled, and asked him whether it was true he only came once a year.
In fact, as I realise when I start my first shift in the grotto, there’s only one celebrity when Santa is in town. Stepping out from behind Paperchase, I am photographed, waved at, and my bottom is pinched for the first time in my life. Women giggle and ask if they can sit on my knee. It’s no better for the elves: Snowdrop tells me, ‘If one more man comes up and tells me he’s been naughty…’ I start doing that Bill Clinton thing of pointing at random people and waving: they almost invariably wave back. Under-tens and over-60s, always; young teenagers occasionally; older teenagers more often, but only if the Alpha Teenager of the group waves first. The most enthusiastic wavers are middle-aged Jewish women — the frisson of transgression? — who will carry on waving from the clothes racks in Banana Republic.
The shopping centre to which I’m assigned is in north London, and favoured by Jewish women. The busiest time is Friday afternoons, when schools finish early for the Sabbath and boys in yarmulkes visit the grotto. (Everyone visits Santa: women in burkas bring their children too.) They are delighted if I remember to say ‘Shabbat Shalom’: I am a philosemitic Santa.
It is conceivable to be an anti-Semitic Santa: my father grew up near where Sir Oswald Mosley lived, and every year he would, very properly, invite the children from the village to the big house for a Christmas party. Mosley himself would dress as Father Christmas, but — for this was before the Coca-Cola corporation standardised red livery — his fur-trimmed suit was black.
Most of the week it’s pre-school children, of course, 90 per cent of whom cry. My favourite are babies, who are transfixed by the lights in the grotto and giggle when I say ‘Ho, ho, ho’. Their grip on my beard can be surprisingly strong; they have to be gently prised off by an elf. My least favourite visitors are overindulged children and underindulgent parents: little shits who refuse to leave a carrot for Rudolph (my favourite part of the Santa mythos, since it began with leaving food for Odin’s horse Sleipnir during the Wild Hunt of Yule, the Norsemen’s Boxing Day meet) and parents who micromanage their children’s social interactions. The only time I’ve lost my temper was when the parents of a very sweet little girl, who had meekly whispered thanks in my ear, bellowed ‘What do you say?’ at the poor child.
It’s quite easy to stay in character when you’ve known that character all your life. Of course, we’ll put our own spin on it: I have become my own version of Santa. A little girl burst into tears when I asked her to write me a list of presents, as she’d already sent one up the chimney; my little helper Glitter, seeing my confusion, jumped in and said, ‘It came this morning, Santa!’, so I told her to place it in the in-tray marked ‘Specially Nice Little Girls’ on my desk in the North Pole. I don’t know where this image of Santa as a paper-shuffling middle-manager in a logistics firm came from, but I’ve stuck with it.