As Christmas approaches, Santas everywhere have been working overtime to make a child’s Christmas extra magical. Former journalist Paul Phillips reports on his experiences from behind the beard…
Let’s play a little word association game. If I say ‘Father Christmas,’ which words do you think a child might come up with? I’d take a punt on things like ‘reindeer,’ ‘excitement’, perhaps – for some particularly timid little ones – a bit of ‘fear.’ And, of course, the smart money would be on ‘presents.’
One word which shouldn’t be on that list is ‘disappointment.’ Or, even worse, ‘disgust.’ I’ve experienced both of them and I’ll come to those interlopers in a moment.
All families that celebrate Christmas will have their own rituals around Santa’s expected arrival between bedtime and the next morning. They will also know that an excited child is quite capable of taking the concept of ‘morning’ as anytime after midnight. That’s assuming they’ve actually gone to sleep in the first place.
I guess the build up to bedtime doesn’t help. None of it is designed to bring the excitement levels down one jot. Our family tradition was to let the children hang their Christmas stockings on hooks near the fireplace. They’d leave carrots and water for the reindeer and a mince pie for Santa along with a drink. I’d assure them that Santa definitely preferred a fine malt whisky to a glass of sherry. The glass was always empty in the morning, so I must have been on to something.
I also found I was on to something when I was editing Sky News one Christmas Eve in the 90s. I decided to have Santa in the studio taking phone calls from children, not just from the UK but also from any country that Sky News was broadcast to. We didn’t cut any corners; Santa arrived from his day job at Harrods and we hired a company to set up a special phone line to handle the calls. We’d promoted the whole thing for several days and we received thousands of calls.
I was given a list of the callers, the countries they were from and the questions they wanted to ask. I selected who got through to Santa. The first two callers were James and Bethan from Norfolk. Oddly enough they had the same names and were from the same location as my two youngest children. Funny, that.
A few weeks earlier I had seen close up the reaction of a 4-year-old meeting Santa face to face. My daughter (yep, Bethan) attended what was billed as a ‘pre-school’ with uniforms and classrooms designed to prepare children for primary school. I was gently persuaded to be the school’s Father Christmas on the last day of term. I was given the full uniform, white beard and obviously a fair bit of padding to complete the look of a suitably sized Santa. Who said the padding was unnecessary? How very dare you.
All the children lined up to see Santa and were given a present. I changed and joined the other parents waiting to pick up their children. Bethan ran out to me shouting about her meeting with Santa and showing me her present. I asked her what Santa was like and she described him as big and fat and jolly. So the padding must have worked then.
So far, so magical. But let’s move on to those interlopers I mentioned earlier.
When my youngest were still at an age where they believed with utter conviction that Santa was not only real but also the one and only point of Christmas, I took them to a local department store to visit him in his grotto. I could feel their excitement as we rode the escalator to the part of the store where Santa had set up shop. And then it was as if they’d hit a brick wall of disappointment. The grotto was closed. Spurred on by my children’s sad little faces, I found a member of staff and asked why the grotto wasn’t open. “It’s Santa’s day off,” I was told.
Now, I don’t know what your reaction would be but mine was one of utter astonishment. It was 10 days before Christmas and Santa had taken a day off? At what other time of year did he ‘work?’ I had to make up a convoluted story for my children along the lines of Santa needing to rest so he could be sure to be fit enough for Christmas Eve. As we went down the escalator I saw other parents with bouncing children going up. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what awaited them.
A few years later and Bethan was way past the age of faith in a rotund bearded man squeezing down the chimney in the dead of night, so she joined me in my next outing as Father Christmas. The local primary school had organised a Christmas Fare and a neighbour, who happened to be the chair of the PTA, bribed me with fine wine and dinner (easily done) to don the Father Christmas outfit again. Bethan volunteered to be Santa’s little helper and was dressed as an elf.
With the benefit of hindsight I perhaps should have asked for greater detail about the school’s plans for Santa. It didn’t go well, to say the least.
A ‘grotto’ had been created in a broom cupboard. It might have been an idea to take the brooms out first. The children lined up to meet Santa and were guided into the cupb…. sorry, ‘grotto’… by Bethan who introduced them to me.
“So, Isobel, have you been a good girl? What would you like for Christmas?” You get the idea. I’d then give ‘Isobel’ a present from the sack beside me. Now, unbeknown to me, it had been decided that all the children would be given the same present; a small brown envelope containing three small daffodil bulbs.
Here, disappointment and disgust reared their ugly heads. As the children left the grotto they opened their presents. I could hear the cries of “what’s this?!” from the corridor. A few children had tried eating what they thought were sweets and ‘eyuuckkk’ was a common reaction. One parent, accompanied by a sobbing child, pushed past Bethan and threw a half chewed daffodil bulb at me.
Another parent loudly demanded to see who was responsible for organising what they described as ‘this shambles.’ I continued to give children their presents, now without the pre-amble but with a determination to get it all over and done with as quickly as possible.
As Bethan and I left we saw the chair of the PTA surrounded by parents fielding their complaints. I’m not sure the event had gone as planned, or what it says about the meaning of Christmas.
In the car on the way home, Bethan said to me: “Dad, when I was little Father Christmas came to my school. It wasn’t like tonight though.”
“Did he, Beth?” I replied.
“Yes, he gave me a present but I can’t remember what it was. I just remember looking at him and thinking I’d met Santa.”
“You certainly did, Beth. By the way, was he a fat Santa?”
Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.