Magazine article The Spectator

Shalom, Santa

Magazine article The Spectator

Shalom, Santa

Article excerpt

What it takes to be Father Christmas in diverse north London

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 tickingoff 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. …

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