Many things in the world seemed much simpler when I was a young child.
Christmas, for example, brought predictable delights. I knew that I would get one new toy. I knew it was the only time of the year when there would be good films on the telly. I knew there would be sweets and chocolates in the house. And I knew what I was letting myself in for when I went to see Santa.
The Santa’s grotto was a concept which began in American department stores before spreading across the Atlantic to London, then Belfast and eventually to the remote countryside where I grew up.
I have sketchy memories of my parents driving me and my brothers to the Tower Centre in Ballymena to see Santa Claus. And of being alarmed when he spoke to me in a thick Ulster Scots brogue.
But, the point is, the process was simple. You went to a shopping centre, you waited in a long queue, you were taken in to see a man wearing an ill-fitting white beard, you got a Polaroid photograph and a cheap plastic gift and then you went home again.
But, at some point between me being a kid and becoming a daddy, the simple has become complicated; what was once clear is now cloudy. People have decided that to get an edge they just have to try a lot harder.
This elaboration is best explained through some of the complicated things I’ve witnessed over the past few years at various Santa’s grottos.
I’ve seen Santa abseiling down a wall. I’ve seen Santa climbing down a custom-made chimney to make a grand entrance. I’ve seen live reindeers and working model villages. I’ve been at a Santa experience which began with a ride on a train and ended with a ride on a rollercoaster. I’ve been to another where Santa was on the train. I’ve seen winter wonderlands, ice rinks, arts and crafts, market stalls, snow slides and carousels. They are always described as a magical experience.
Some of it has worked. Some of it has not. A lot of it is based around what grown-ups think kids will like.
I don’t know, but I suspect when he’s older the only part my boy will remember will be the precious couple of moments he spent on Santa’s knee. The rest will melt away as quickly as a Christmas snowfall.
There’s a large group of us, parents and children. A woman dressed as an elf ushers us through an area which has been decorated like a Victorian shop. She tells us this is The Old Curiosity Shop. I’m minded to say that I think she’s read the wrong Dickens book, but I don’t like to draw attention to myself.
Then we’re led to a larger room, which, we are informed, is Santa’s Workshop. The brochure describes this as a ‘magical experience’. Of course.
This room has several more young women dressed as elves. None of them are elfin but they are cheerful and ready to entertain the children.
There are numerous games and craft activities here and the children are guided towards them. One large elf thrusts a sheet of paper into my hand. She tells me that letters have been hidden around the room and we have to find them to reveal the word. No reward or lure is offered as to why I might want to do this, but I’m keen not to appear contrary so quietly concur.
Mummy, my son and I spend a few minutes searching for the letters. Soon it is clear that the mystery word is RUDOLPH. But, on the paper, the spaces for the R and the U have been inserted in the wrong order and the L seems to have fallen off the wall. So what I’m left with is URDO_PH. I fold the sheet of paper and put it in my pocket.
The process is this. Every few minutes a bell rings and an elf with a microphone reads out the name of a child who is invited to see if he/she is on the naughty or nice list before they are taken into a sealed area to see Santa before emerging soon after clutching a toy and a photo.
Now, for the first time, I begin to consider the logistics of this. There are a lot of children here and they can only be processed one at a time. I have a passing thought about how long this will all take but quickly push it from my mind.
We play with the games and look up expectantly every time the bell rings. We have fun playing Jenga and Connect Four. Then we design some Christmas cards. Then we use little beads to make replica candy canes. Then we write a letter to Santa. Then we come up with a Christmas wish to hang onto the tree.
All the while the bell keeps ringing and we keep looking up. But it’s never my son’s name which is called.
There is a large illuminated clock attached to the far wall which is supposed to show how many sleeps are left until Christmas. But it has broken down and an engineer with a tool kit is working at the large hands.
We’ve been here now for more than an hour and have exhausted all the games provided so my son has begun to invent his own diversions which involve me chasing him around an over-sized toadstool.
The large crowd has now thinned as children and parents leave when they finish with Santa. We fall into sympathetic conversation with another couple, comparing stories of how long we’ve been waiting. I show the mother the eight candy canes my son has assembled, but she tops this by producing the thirty-six Christmas cards her daughter has designed while they’ve waited.
The bell rings several more times and we always look up. But it is never my son’s name which is called. My wife and I keep glancing at each other and whispering ‘We can’t be last, can we?’
By now there are almost no children left. Santa’s Workshop, when full of children and elves is fun and festive. Santa’s Workshop, when empty….well it’s just a bit creepy.
Eventually a young woman dressed in period costume takes pity on us. She tells us she is Mrs Claus and wants to read us a story. We gather around her rocking chair and she recites a yarn about a naughty elf.
Then the story is over. We sit on the floor gazing at her expectantly. She produces a basket which contains, we are told, some of Rudolph’s fur. I’m a little disturbed by the revelation but let it go. Then Mrs Claus shows us a jar containing North Pole snow. She searches around at her feet for other trinkets.
We sit on the floor gazing at her expectantly. The bell rings. We look up. Mrs Claus looks up. It is not my son’s name. Mrs Claus meets my eye and I think I see a pleading in her expression. I shrug my shoulders.
Then, suddenly, Mrs Claus stands up and announces that she has to go. I watch her walk to the other side of the room.
Now there are just two families left in the workshop, us and one other. If the huge clock on the wall was working it would reveal that we’ve now been waiting for two hours. An elf is vacuuming fake snow off the carpet.
The bell rings. It is not my son’s name which is announced. The other family scamper towards Santa and we’re left on our own.
My son, who has been patient, stoic and wonderful throughout, suggests one last chasing game and I pursue him around a Christmas tree. While I’m doing this I notice one of the elves approach my wife and ask her my son’s name. It emerges he hasn’t been put on their naughty or nice list. An administrative oversight means he’s not on any bloody list at all.
The elves rectify the mistake and the next time the bell rings my son’s name is called out.
He’s beside me and I see a little tremble run through his body when he hears his name, like he’s been struck by a tiny electric shock.
We approach the grotto and an elf looks for his name on the nice list. It’s right there. The ink is still wet.
Then they tell him to make a wish and close his eyes. As he does this we’re sprayed by fake snow which smells like screenwash.
Then we’re brought behind a curtain into a darker room where Santa sits on his throne. I’m thinking that this older man has seen countless children today, and this is his last appointment before he cracks open a bottle of Scotch. But despite the repetition of the process Santa is kind, compassionate and patient. He also has a real beard and doesn’t speak with an Ulster Scots brogue.
He takes time to talk to my son, realising that the boy is shy and a little daunted.
I’m a desperately proud daddy as my wee man finds his voice to tell Santa his name and age and what he wants for Christmas. He even puts on a timid little smile for the photograph.
Then we’re out and he’s proudly clutching a bag containing a gift. All of the elves have lined up in procession to wave him off and I know he feels special.
My boy told Santa he wanted Avengers superhero toys for Christmas. He rips open the bag before we have reached the door and discovers…an Avenger superhero toy inside.
My son looks at mummy and me almost incredulously.
‘But how did Santa know what I wanted, mummy and daddy?’
‘Santa’s magic buddy….Santa’s magic.’
Some things change over the years. Some things stay the same.