Shalom, I'm Santa — how to be Father Christmas in diverse North London 

'There's no place for prejudice in a grotto situation,' I was told. I couldn't ask kids about Mummy and Daddy, since a child might have just a Mummy or two Mummies

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

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.

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  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Muslims never have a drink. Not even at Christmas.

    • Treebrain

      Why would Muslims or Jews celebrate Christmas?

      • Eddie

        Because it’s a cultural festival which takes most of its traditions and symbols from pre-Christian times and is thus only a religious as you want to make it.
        Also, because they may be polite and want to integrate into our culture which has that heritage.

      • Eddie

        Because it’s a cultural festival which takes most of its traditions and symbols from pre-Christian times and is thus only a religious as you want to make it.
        Also, because they may be polite and want to integrate into our culture which has that heritage.

        • Treebrain

          Christmas is not a cultural festival, it is a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Christ.

          • Eddie

            What a load of Christmas Cobblers!
            Christmas is the Christian name for a mid-winter festival that the church appropriated and claimed to have invented.
            Ever heard of Yule? Want to argue that anything about Christmas is from Christianity? Holly and mistletoe? Nope. decoration. Nope again. Christmas carols? Well, the Church was against them and tried to ban them.
            The only thing Christian about Christmas is the name – but the religious and free to consider it a religious festival as others are free not to.

          • Treebrain

            Christmas = ‘Christ’s Mass’

            Yule is an entirely different matter and if you want to celebrate a pagan festival called Yule then feel free to do so just do not confuse it with the Christian aspects of Christmas.

            As for holly and mistletoe, they may be used as decorations but have no place in the Christian religious domain.

          • Eddie

            Yes, churchie, and as I correctly stated the ONLY thing Christian about Christmas is the name.
            Of course, Christ was born in March yet the early Church in the most blatant display of ‘if you can’t beat em join em’ in history, realised they’d never stop people having their Winter festival (Yule, Saturnalia et al) so appropriated those festivals and then pretended they invented them!
            Most symbols of Christmas are not Chistian – Father Christmas and his sleigh and reindeer are based on Odin flying through the sky on his chariot.
            Christmas is a cultural festival and was not created by Christians.
            You are of course free to appropriate others’ festivals – or you could celebrate Christ’s birthday in March, as the church did for 4 centuries.
            Oh and Christmas carols were created by the people for the people from folk tunes and so really have nothing to do with Christianity either – the church did try to ban them for centuries.

          • Rocksy

            What year is this?

          • Treebrain

            “Christmas is a cultural festival and was not created by Christians.”

            Er, actually, it is not, as the name makes clear.

            By all means celebrate Yule, Saturnalia, Odin and anything else you like but do not pretend that they are Christmas because they are not!

          • Eddie

            Nope – the ONLY thing ‘Christian’ about Christmas is the name – the Christians appropriated the winter festival that existed anyway and moved the annual celebration of their Messiah’s birth from March to December 25th (traditionally Yule) because ‘if you can’t beat em join em’.

            Practically no symbols and traditions that happen at Christmas time are Christian – the nativity scene is it really, and the name.

            However, you dumb Christians really are showing yourself to be ignorant bigots by claiming the winter festival now known as Christmas is a creation of Christians. Utter piffle! Read some history! Learn about how the Church banned Christmas carols. Realise that most modern Christmas songs were written by Jews anyway…

          • Treebrain


            “However, you dumb Christians really are showing yourself to be ignorant bigots…”

            Oh, are you not a Christian sir?

            Do you follow another religion, perchance?

            Why on earth you are claiming that Christmas is not about Christ is beyond me, you do seem very, very confused indeed.

            Christmas = Christs’ Mass.

            The fact that there are other ancient ceremonies called Yule, Saturnalia or anything else is hardly surprising given the number of ancient religious and social rites that humans have indulged in over the millennia and these occur throughout the calendar so by the time Christmas arrived the calendar was crowded.

            What is that at the end of your post, a claim that Jews wrote some Christmas songs?

            Well, what of it, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas, it is not about all the associated commercial activities.

            Why the need to try and denigrate Christianity and besmirch Christmas, Eddie?

            Are you not satisfied with your own traditions?

          • Eddie

            I think you should read some history and get an education.
            Start with a dictionary and look up ‘appropriate’ – coz that is precisely what the church did when it decided in the 5th century to move the date of Christ’s birthday from March to December 25th, the day already celebrated by pagans and others.
            The only thing about Christmas is the name. If YOU want to impose your Christ Birthday fantasy on it, then fine. No problem at all – Christmas can be anything to anyone, which is why I am SO against any Muslim, Hindu, Atheist objecting to it. It’s an inclusive winter festival.
            But really, you Christians should learn to accept historical fact and accept that the festical now known as Christmas was NOT started by Christians and most traditions in it are not Christian either.
            The Church tried to ban carols, y’know, because they were the people’s folk dance and songs, and it wanted total power over the sheep it so wanted to entrap and exploit and rob.

          • Treebrain

            Actually, Eddie, it is YOU who needs to get an education!

            It is the Germanic influence on Christmas that is spreading like wildfire, after all it was Prince Albert who introduced the Christmas tree and all the trimmings to the UK!

            It is the amazing increase in German Christmas markets that is continuing this trend and so are the festive delights available from Aldi and Lidl, both German, that are proving so popular!

            Feel free to continue raging against the world just like King Lear, but the reality in the UK is that the ever-increasing popularity of German ideas and products (and supermarkets) means that Christians can enjoy both the spiritual experience of celebrating the birth of Jesus and the festive delights of German origin!

          • Rocksy

            Eddie, Whys so angry? Maybe we Christians are all a befuddled lot but we’re not asking you to believe. Try to be happy. Life is so short.

          • George Smiley

            Atheist bunkum!

          • Eddie

            Historical fact, in other words. read some history, grumpy pants.

          • George Smiley

            Source? The Winter Solstice certainly was not started by atheists; and Christians certainly did a good job of preserving the old traditions. Carols are intrinsically linked with songs sung in Anglican and Lutheran service.

            Learn from your old poster boy, A. N. Wilson. Atheism is essentially a mad philosophy that teaches that literally everything can possibly be created out of literally nothing without an external source of intervention. I mean, how mad is that?

          • Eddie

            You clearly have some issue with atheists. Maybe one abused you as a choirboy, Oh no, that’s the err other devout lot (let’s not talk about priestly traditions eh).

            Atheism is NOT a philosophy. It is ONLY the rejection of the idea of God or gods – A-theism. Any other ‘philosophy’ is just your projection of your prejudice.

            Did I say atheists created the Winter Solstice? Errr no – that’d be your prejudice again.

            Nature created that and the shortest day of the year; 25 December was the date celebrated for centuries by Norsemen, Romans and many others in THEIR festival which the early Church appropriated, These are facts. Why are you Christians (and Muslims et al) so unwilling to accept them when the evidence is all there?

            As for the start of the universe, well you don’t know that any more than I do, But hey, why is your religion the right one? Why not worship the sun? Makes more sense really.
            Carols are folk songs and dances which the church, ever ready to oppress, wanted to ban. Read some history, sonny.

          • George Smiley

            There is no such thing as “Nature created”, as it makes no sense, unless you believe after all that Nature is somehow some form of a Goddess. It is basically deism and agnosticism, or, a theist philosophy but with all the references to God or Gods substituted.

            The Church of England tried to ban Carols? What are you on about? You should go to Westminster Abbey or a church in Scandinavia some time!

            Ironically, atheism is proved erroneous by science. The Universe is created, not eternal.

          • Rocksy

            Do you get this riled up about Diwali or Kwanza or Ramadan?
            I’m always amused at how the people who feel threatened by Christianity just can’t leave it alone. Christians don’t care what non Christians believe or celebrate, Trim a tree or stay home and say ‘Humbug’. It’s your choice.

          • Eddie

            1) I am not ‘riled up’ – just telling Christians the facts: i.e. that Christianity appropriated the festival now known as Christmas.
            2) I am not living in a Muslim country so why would I bother with Eid? For the record, yep, all their festivals too were appropriated from others, together with all their myths, stories, rules, language etc – just like with Christianity.
            3) You are so damn ignorant you even seem to think Christianity is responsible for the Christmas tree! That is a big phallic pagan fertility symbol, you utter twerp!
            Oh and I do not give a hoot what ignorant Christians think either.
            The only thing Christian about Christmas is the name – it is a festival anyone can celebrate in any way they want, one reason I am SO against all this pc ‘Winterval’ nonsense. Christmas is first and foremost a cultural and national festival – so Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Atheists can and should participate. It is not a religious festival like Eid or Diwali.
            After all the British invented a great many things about it (Charles Dickens actually). North European Germanics that we are.

          • Treebrain


            You are indeed RILED UP hence your reference to ‘dumb Christians’ and me as ‘churchie’ when I corrected you!

            You sad attempts to dent that Christmas = Christs Mass, you pathetic attempts to invoke Yule and Saturnalia, your weird claim that Christmas songs were written mainly by Jews, is it really any wonder that Rocksy pointed out your obsession with this theme of denigrating Christmas as a Christian event?

            What a spectacle you are making of yourself!

          • Treebrain

            Well said Rocksy!

            Fascinating to watch the PC brigade trying to push the BCE/CE agenda rather than accept BC/AD.

            They want the Christian time notation but do not want to acknowledge Christianity!

          • crosscop

            Odin rode an eight-legged horse. It was Thor who had the chariot… pulled by goats if I remember correctly.

      • mrsjosephinehydehartley

        Why would somebody acting as Santa ask about some kids mummy and daddy?

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          The Santa charade teaches kids one thing, adults lie.

          • Eddie

            I agree SO much. My own mum was so annoyed at being lied to as a girl that she would never do it to us re Father Christmas (though she did with many other things!).
            Never believed in Father Christmas either. Like Greg Lake, I do believe in good royalties though…

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Or Buddhists? The shops and hotels in my neck of the woods are wall-to-wall Christmas carols and decorations. Wretched, right!
        Jack, Japan Alps

        • Treebrain

          There is nothing wretched about people celebrating the birth of Christ!

      • James Lynch

        Because they have an excuse to eat and drink until they explode. Perhaps ‘explode’ isn’t the best choice of word there!

        • Treebrain

          The celebration of the birth of Christ, Christmas, is indeed a joyful occasion and if people of another religion wish to celebrate it with a feast then good luck to them!

    • Eddie

      Depends which Muslims you talk too – go to Turkey and Arab states and watch em booze! Go to nightclubs oop north and watch the tipsy Muslim lads out to pick up available white girls too.
      Remember that Mo himself drank wine too – Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol, even if they worship the literal word of the Koran, because Mo did himself (mind you he also kept slaves and had a taste for young plump chicken…)

    • Eddie

      Depends which Muslims you talk too – go to Turkey and Arab states and watch em booze! Go to nightclubs oop north and watch the tipsy Muslim lads out to pick up available white girls too.
      Remember that Mo himself drank wine too – Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol, even if they worship the literal word of the Koran, because Mo did himself (mind you he also kept slaves and had a taste for young plump chicken…)

    • George Smiley

      Obviously has never been to the Lebanon, Egypt, Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tatarstan or Central Asia.

  • Treebrain

    No mention of the religious background of Santa Klaus/Sinter Klaas/Saint Nicholas, a Christian saint and Bishop of Myra?

    Talk of yarmulkes and burkas but no mention of Christianity, now why would that be?

  • David Ashton

    I am puzzled by Mr Watts’ story of his father as a boy receiving the annual Christmas gift from Mosley in his “big house” before Coca-Cola fixed the red costume from 1931 onwards. Exactly where and when was this? Mosley was in the Labour Party and became a Minister at that time. A slightly similar tale appears in Anne de Courcy’s “Diana Mosley” (2004) but Oswald himself was not Santa. Of course, any old story will do in Mosley’s case: I remember being told in all sincerity by an “eye-witness” that he had seen blackshirts making Jews drink castor oil in the East End – in 1929.

    However, a photo on Google Images shows Father Christmas giving a Yuletide present to a grown-up Hitler who was anti-Semitic.

  • James Lynch

    Organised fun, eh? There’s nothing quite like it! Thank f….k.

  • James Lynch

    “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. …..”

    Indeed it is. I’m reminded of those charming people in the Oxford University Conservative Society. How did their take on Jingle Bells go again? Ah yes; “Dashing Through the REICH….etc etc”.

  • George Smiley

    “Now, say this to your parents, and ask them nicely, “When are we going back to our own Country?” “

  • Rillian

    I heard they were going to do a Christmas activity featuring Mohammed this year but just couldn’t find any child actors that wanted a part.

  • GFK

    I didn’t realise that Jews celebrated the birth of Christ!

  • mightymark

    Dr Murray Banks the US comedian and (I think also) psychiatrist told a story in the late 50s /early 60s about Santa at Macy’s in New York. Each of the children come to Santa. First is Mickey O’Halloran, a little catholic boy

    ” And what would you like for Christmas Mickey”

    “Well Santa – a new baseball set”

    “Here you are Mickey that is just what I have for you – and a merry Christmas

    Next up is Johnny Smith – a little protestant boy.

    ” And what would you like for Christmas Johnny”

    “Well Santa – a cowboy oufit ”

    “Here you are Johnny that is just what I have for you – and a merry Christmas”

    He is followed by Benny Schwartz – a little jewish boy.

    ” And what would you like for Christmas Benny”

    “Well Santa – a train set”

    “Here you are Benny that is just what I have for you – and tell Mother I’ll be home late tonight”

    • Treebrain

      Mighty Mark,

      How sad that a Jew would wish to impersonate a Christian saint for commercial gain!