John-Paul Flintoff

The man in red

My stint at Father Christmas

Welcome to Allders. I’ve come to Croydon to be Father Christmas at Britain’s fifth-largest department store, and before I start I need to see how it’s done. That’s why I’m loitering with my notebook in the basement grotto, hiding between a Christmas tree and a luminous reindeer, spying on Father Christmas in his leather armchair.

He looks ready to nod off, but then a little girl enters, trailing reluctantly behind her mother.

“Hello young lady. What a pretty young lady. Who have you brought with you?”

“Naw!” She looks away, terrified. Her mother picks her up and rests her on a hip.

“Does she not like me? Some people don’t.”

“Her name’s Samantha.”

“Ah – Samantha!”

“Will you tell Santa what you want?”

“Naw!” She starts climbing over her mother’s shoulder.

The photographer steps through a curtain and asks if Samantha would like her picture taken. The answer is easy to predict: “Naw!!!”

One in four visits go like this, Santa tells me later, but thankfully most children don’t want to leave. If there’s a queue outside, they get two or three minutes, but if it’s quiet they might get ten – which certainly gives them something nice to say about Allders when they return to the playground.

Outside, in a cluttered annex, the photographer explains his prices. A 7”x5” print, costing £5.65, is sent within ten days in a frame bearing the Allders logo (smaller prints are also available). How does he know when to step in? “I blay it by ear,” he says thickly, suffering from a cold he has caught from a customer, “Father Christmas is helbful. He says to the gids, ‘Do you want a photograph?’”

Grottoes don’t come cheap. Some Santas work for nothing, but most require the minimum wage, or more. (“To be frank,” says the one at Allders, “I don’t do it for the money… It’s fun.”) Allders has sacrificed 576 square feet of selling space – out of 500,000 – and hired extra staff. There are no presents, but each child gets a balloon and a paper crown. “It’s free,” says merchandise manager Sharon Van Den Bos, “so the only return we get is good public relations.” But a recent survey by Deloitte & Touche suggests that one in 20 customers are attracted to a store by the presence of Santa – a significant number which helps explain why the giants such as Selfridges and Harrods continue to spend so much on grottoes. (One major exception is Peter Jones, whose spokesman has sniffily explained: “We steer away from gimmicks and jamborees… no singing and dancing.”)

You needn’t be especially cynical to regard Father Christmas as essentially a salesman in disguise. Even the disguise derives from a commercial imperative: until 1932 Santa dressed in all sorts of hues, but then Coca Cola launched an ad campaign which somehow established its own shade of red as the only suitable colour.

Father Christmas has worked at Allders since November 20, and expects to see 20,000 children by Christmas Day. Four men share the job. The one I met in the grotto is semi-retired, dabbles in amateur dramatics. Another, Martin, has worked as stunt double for the sizeable actor Richard Griffiths. “We try to hire people with children – family men – but we would happily give someone like you a try,” says Sharon. (I have no children.)

Organisations less confident than Allders might turn for help to Weston College in Weston-Super-Mare, which last year established an eight-week Diploma in Father Christmas Studies for would-be Santas (it costs just £45 for 16 hours). Ask what prompted this and you get a silly answer in a serious voice: “Father Christmas rang me,” explains Kath Panes, head of adult education at the college, “and said he was sick of people pretending to be him and not behaving in a manner that he likes.”

One trainee was sent from a Bristol shopping centre. Another, a part-time lecturer, used his diploma to secure work as Santa at a local garden centre. The college, which is talking with Asda about next year’s training requirements, hopes eventually to supply suitable Father Christmases to employers across the country; and to provide Santas with insurance and legal cover in case employers take action against them. (The college requires confirmation from the police of candidates’ fitness to work with children, but insurance remains problematic: last year Norwich Union, overcome by seasonal good-humour, declared Father Christmas a non-standard risk, what with his unusual vehicle, high-value cargo, high mileage and record-breaking speeds while driving under the influence of sherry.)

Before starting at Allders, I called the college for advice. This was as follows. Grow your own beard, because children like to tug it. Don’t mumble. Don’t wear jeans under your red coat. Make sure you’re up to speed on new toys, and TV programmes.

Be ready for tricky conversations. What do you say to a boy who complains that his parents are too poor to buy a computer? Or to a girl who says her parents have divorced (or, worse, died)? Not Ho, Ho, Ho, that’s for sure. “These are some of the secrets of our course,” says Weston’s Father Christmas. Can he really not tell me? “There are no stock answers.”

When I turn up at Allders, Sharon and her colleague, training manager Debbie O’Mahony, offer further tips: “You mustn’t swear,” says Debbie. “Do you know Just William ? That’s where we’re coming from. Think how your grandfather talked: very lashings-of-ginger-beer. Treat each child as if they’re the first one you’ve seen. Remember, you’re Father Christmas , the repository of all their dreams.” (As she says this, Debbie spins her hands around her temples like some TV evangelist.)

Also present is Keith Marsh, grotto designer at Allders for 36 years. Most memorable was 1974, he says, when the grotto featured a 36ft Gulliver which breathed and waggled its eyebrows as tiny figures crawled over it. The cost was £30,000: a huge sum back then. Almost as good was a Beatrix Potter theme, despite tremendous difficulties with copyright. Less successful was a waterfall that leaked into Soft Furnishing.

This year’s theme, Aladdin, was planned in April to tie in with the pantomime at the local theatre. Children are admitted in groups of no more than ten at a time, so their wait rarely exceeds 20 minutes – on a midweek afternoon they can toddle straight through – so Keith’s animated figures in turbans and flowing robes, standing among trees hung with twinkling jewels, serve to build anticipation. Then there’s Santa’s helper, a young woman who gently quizzes visitors so that Father Christmas can be reminded of children’s names as they enter.

To familiarise myself with the stuff the children might request, I visit the third-floor toy department. (“We used to have the grotto up here,” says Sharon, “but it could get a bit frantic.”) This constituency is fronted by teddies: “Soft toys are very much an impulse buy,” Sharon explains, “we put them forward to bring people in.” Debbie picks up one such item, the Tweaks 2000, and waves it before me. “It’s available exclusively through Allders.” It costs £10, of which a pound goes to charity.

At the back is technical stuff – Scalextric racetracks, Hornby train sets, and a PC for toddlers, the IQ Desktop, costing £87. “We will price match as far away as Kingston,” boasts Sharon.

Already staff are putting in long hours. The job starts at 7.30. Nearer Christmas they’ll work overnight to replenish stocks. “We have some real opportunities this year, because the Early Learning Centre is closing.” The best-selling lines are likely to be Furbies, Star Wars products, and old-fashioned toys such as doll’s furniture.

At lunch, with Debbie and my photographer, Philip Sinden, we all choose the £10.95 Roast Norfolk Turkey, obviously, and I inject a bit of Yuletide cheer by insisting we pull our crackers and wear paper hats. Debbie’s delighted: “If you don’t like Christmas and you’re in retail, you’re in the wrong job.” She always brings her own children to the grotto: “I say, ‘Don’t forget that Santa is going to visit Mummy’s store’, and get them to write letters saying where we’ll be on Christmas day.” Simon is less keen: “I don’t have a kid, so I find Christmas awful,” he says grimly. I’m not sure I’ll be able to look him in the eye when the work begins.

After lunch we rejoin Sharon in her office. She’s pacing about, anxious that my article will destroy children’s belief in Father Christmas. Allders will be blamed. I assure her that few young children read the Financial Times , but this doesn’t help. In fact, her nervousness spreads to Debbie too, and they both plead with me (“as mothers”) to think hard about the kiddies.

So we trudge with foreboding to the basement, past red footprints leading to the grotto. In the Large Electrical office, behind the fridges and washing machines, Keith helps me dress. The hooded, fur-lined St Nicholas cape successfully conceals my scrawny frame: it wouldn’t do for Father Christmas to look hungry. Nor too young: Keith also paints my eyebrows white.

My predecessor, Martin, arrives sweating from the grotto. (“We tell the children Santa’s gone to feed the reindeer,” says Sharon.) As Martin pulls off his boots, Simon tries to frame a photo with both Father Christmases in it, but Sharon, determined to protect children’s fantasies, manages to prevent this. So Simon requests a picture of me walking past the fridges towards the grotto’s back-door. This makes her more nervous than ever.

It isn’t easy, chatting to children while I’m watched by so many people: parents and teachers, Sharon, Debbie, the manager of the grotto, the photographer from the shop – not to mention the drily cynical Simon. Conscious of that audience, I find myself speaking like the queen: I keep asking visitors if they’ve come a long way.

The party from the school consists of seven boys – a blur of Jameses, Alexanders, Samuels and Thomases – and one girl. One teacher stays outside while a second squats before me taking photographs. Talking politely, each boy nervously scrunches his black-and-orange school-cap in his hands. Only now, faced with the innocent excitement Sharon’s so keen to protect, do I realise there is more to Christmas than a cynical marketing exercise. I suddenly feel terribly responsible .

One boy claims to like tigers, so I point out that his cap is in the same colours as a tiger and invite him to join me in a rendition of roaring and snarling – but this proves a bit much, and he comes over all nervous and shy.

Another tells me he’ll be seeing me again on Friday in Lapland, so I ask what time I should expect him. (Throughout my stint, several children claim to have met me before, so I have to pretend I’ve a hazy recollection of the occasion.)

Three boys ask for an Action Man. One requests a lorry (“Which colour?” “Green.” “I’ll see what I can do.” “And also a soldier’s gun.”) A third has his heart set on a remote control fire engine. The girl, Chloe, is brilliant – cheerful and full of chat. She never gets round to asking for a present, but generously offers to put out something for me on the big night: “A chocolate.” Which kind? “A triangle.” My favourite.

After the school party come two brothers, accompanied by mummy and nanny. The older boy can talk, but won’t, whereas the younger, who can’t, looks perfectly happy tearing a cardboard hat to pieces.

Next, a family appears tentatively at the entrance. Sharon pops behind the curtain to have a preliminary chat, then they go away again to buy their own camera rather than pay for a photo. Letting them do this initially strikes me as generous – saving all that expense on a single snap – but then I realise that Sharon has actually done a brilliant job of selling them a camera.

A couple of teenagers bring in their baby son. Aaron is too young to talk but sits contentedly beside me while I address my thoughts to the three of them. (Sharon had warned me about babies: “The visit is mostly for the parents. A baby’s first Christmas can be a bit of a let down – you give them all these presents and they just gurgle.”)

Some children hang back nervously, others lead the grown-ups. A tall boy with fair hair – Thomas must have been at least seven – charges into my grotto to gaze and beam as if in the presence of, well, Father Christmas. This is disarming, and provokes my most irresponsible act: as we chat I agree with Thomas that cabbage is horrible stuff – which might, theoretically, cause problems at home.

Only one visitor becomes tearful – a girl called Jordan – but thankfully that occurs only at the end of my stint.

After a while, I develop a trick to get rid of visitors if somebody’s waiting outside, or I just can’t think of anything else to talk about. I say, “Would you like a crown?” Then I reach for a headpiece from the basket beside me and place it on the child’s head with the utmost gravity – no longer playing the Queen but the Archbishop of Canterbury. Just one thing diminishes the pomp of this coronation: the crown. It’s not the size I object to – though most of the crowns are too big, falling over the child’s eyes like a blindfold. No, what bothers me is the printed pattern: an advertisement in red-and-white for the Tweaks 2000. Available, you’ll recall, exclusively from Allders. Ho, ho, ho.

Too many Santas

Each year, around 200,000 extra staff are hired to work in catering, hotels and retail in the run up to Christmas. Many will be employed to play Father Christmas: in recent years, he’s been found at grottoes located inside abandoned mines, disused bomb shelters, at stately homes, airports, hotels, zoos, and on trams, barges and steam railways.

It’s become increasingly difficult for children to sustain belief in a figure so widely available. “You can have problems,” says one father of young children, “if Santa goes to school and doesn’t look the same as he did at Selfridges – and if a third Santa turns up to pack your bags at the supermarket.”

If children do rumble Father Christmas, they don’t always let on. This man’s infant daughter, having visited a Caucasian Santa in his department-store grotto, seemed unfazed by the spectacle of a black-skinned Father Christmas performing a “Santa Rap” at her school. Older punters aren’t always so accepting: a Santa parading round Witham in Essex last year was actually stoned by children wandering the streets.

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