It’s an elf I see first.
He’s bigger than me.
Tall and heavyset, dressed in garish green and red. Fake plastic ears. His beer-belly alone must weigh more than my son.
There’s a little bit of tension around, crackling in the air like static on a woolly jumper.
It’s the sort of tension that only parents giving their children a special day out can bring.
We’re in a queue waiting for the Polar Express, a little train that will bring us to visit Santa. Well, that’s the plan anyway. This evening, after looking forward to the event for weeks, my son has decided he doesn’t want to see Santa.
Mummy and I exchange quick, worried glances. Eyes which seem to say why do we keep putting ourselves through it. We’ve had tantrums at the theatre, petulance at the pantomime and now suffering at Santa’s grotto.
I’ve made sure to get us here early so we can be first in the queue. But small children keep jumping in front. I look for their parents but they’re indifferent and oblivious and I’m not sure what else to do about the injustice. It strikes me that if I start a row with a toddler about pushing in I might not come out of it very well.
On one side a little girl is trying to push me over the chain which separates us from the road. On the other a mother is holding her infant boy at the level of my ear and he screams relentlessly. I stare into the night.
The creaking train begins to approach. It’s actually has wheels and runs on the road rather than rails but I’m in no mood for pedantry. My son is both excited and horrified, alternating between yelling ‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’ and ‘I don’t want to see Santa!’
I take him into my arms to reassure him. The only way I can get him to see Santa is by telling him he doesn’t have to see Santa.
‘We’ll just go on the train buddy, you don’t have to see Santa. You don’t have to see Santa.’
Another oversized elf addresses my son as we board.
‘Are you looking forward to seeing Santa?’
I cut off his whimpering protests and meet his alarmed eyes with more whispers.
‘She’s just joking son. You really don’t have to see Santa.’
The train pulls away.
The driver yells: ‘Who’s excited about seeing Santa?’
And the thing is I know my son is excited. Really excited. He’s been talking about this evening since we booked it. He just gets a little spooked by the emotion and chilled by the crowd and the noise. It’s the process of finding some stabilisation between not making him do something he doesn’t want to do, but helping him to do something that he really does. It’s tricky.
But he relaxes as the train chugs and meanders around the hotel grounds. We even get a couple of stanzas of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before I feel his little body stiffen again.
The porter meets us at the hotel doors.
‘Are you looking forward to seeing Santa?’
And then another two giant elves in the foyer give us our instructions. These include skipping, holding our hands up and chanting. Parents are not excluded.
As the more excitable of the two leads us down a dimly lit corridor she shrieks: ‘Who’s looking forward to seeing Santa?’
The children yell encouragement. My boy buries his head in mummy’s shoulder.
But first we have an encounter with Mrs Claus. Or rather we don’t. We talk gently to our boy while she puts on a puppet show for the others.
Then there’s a carousel ride which my son seems to enjoy. An elf with a guitar plays Jingle Bells and I think I can see my son’s lips moving.
Now it’s time for the grotto. The elf at the black curtain senses my boy’s nervousness and talks soothingly to him. He walks in slowly grasping mummy’s hand and mine.
And now he’s face to face with Santa. There’s an awkward moment when I’m waiting for the tears.
‘And what’s your name?’ Santa asks.
I answer for him. ‘This is James.’
‘And what would you like me to bring you James?’
I’m about to answer again. But then I hear a little, clear voice.
‘I would like a Supersoaker 2000 Santa. And I also want a red light sabre out of Star Wars and a blue light sabre out of Star Wars. And I want an electric guitar, and a Paw Patroller. And some surprises.’
I realise my son is not holding my hand now. Instead he seems to be having a discussion with Santa about who is the coolest character in Star Wars.
Then he poses joyfully beside Santa for a picture.
The photographer clicks, gazes at his camera and mumbles.
‘First time. That doesn’t happen very often.’
Santa patiently and kindly talks some more to my son, giving no impression at all that he may have done this already several hundred times today.
When we do leave the grotto my son is properly skipping, as if aware that he’s accomplished something. He won’t stop talking about Santa. Mummy and I tell him that we’re very proud of him.
He decorates a gingerbread man and does some colouring in. He mostly stays inside the lines.
After refreshments the experience ends with a surprise. A mini rollercoaster has been erected in the hotel grounds.
As I lead my son towards it I can sense him getting afraid again. He starts to look for an excuse.
‘Daddy, I don’t think I’m big enough to go on this.’
I squeeze his hand.
‘Oh, you are buddy and you’ll love it. You’ve been so brave today. And daddy’s going to be right there with you.’
As the little car speeds around the red metal track my son howls with joy and excitement.
‘Daddy! I want to go on it again! I want to go on it again! This is the best ever!’
It’s all about ups and downs.