Jonny McCambridge: Santa, reindeer and the non-elfin elves
Many things in the world seemed much simpler when I was a 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.
I have undimmed memories of my parents driving me and my brothers to the grotto at the Tower Centre in Ballymena in the early 1980s, and of being surprised when Santa Claus spoke to me in a thick Ulster Scots brogue. It wasn’t how I had imagined he would be, but it was still Santa.
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 happy.
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 have to try a lot harder.
This elaboration is best explained through some of the convoluted things I’ve witnessed over the past few years at 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 fed live reindeers and observed 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. I’ve been sprayed with fake snow which smelt of screenwash, designed Christmas tree decorations and sang carols so far out of tune that the reindeer grunted in protest. I’ve baked cookies, toasted marshmallows and drunk mulled wine thick enough that it lined my throat like varnish. All in the cause of being permitted to allow my son to see Santa for a few minutes.
I’ve met enough elves in my life to fill a convention. The only thing that they have in common is that none of them were elfin. I’ve seen elves who were taller than me, had beer bellies and stubble and reeked of fags. I once had an annoying conversation with an elf in a car park who refused to break character even though there were no children within a hundred yards. On another occasion I spied an elf who bore an astonishing resemblance to Johnny Cash.
The Santa experience has become like a Christmas tree with too many baubles. They keep trying that bit harder in search of the ‘magical experience’.
At the weekend my wife and I fulfilled our parental duties with our annual Santa trip. The large waiting area, presented as a winter wonderland, was full of children in various stages of excitement, boredom and tiredness. Parents were gamely trying to get their little ones interested in the activities - cutting out shapes, writing letters, rolling out dough, making cards.
But there was only one event which really stimulated the kids - the moment they were summoned to see Father Christmas. As my son heard his name being called I noticed a slight tremble run through his body.
We were taken behind a curtain to meet a smiling man with a real beard. My boy seemed daunted at first and I wondered if the occasion might be too much, if his personality might disappear when he most wanted to express himself. But then he seemed to find a renewed confidence and stepped away from his mother.
I heard his voice, low at first, and then a little louder, telling Santa that he’d been good and would like superhero toys and some surprises. Then he sat on the old man’s knee and smiled for the photographer. As he left, proudly grasping a new toy, he waved and said goodbye.
And there’s no doubt that, just for a few moments, it was a magical and memorable experience for him. But all the rest of the visit, the games, the crafts, the food, the elves, will melt away as quickly as a Christmas snowfall.
As we descended the stairs, my boy whispered in my ear ‘Daddy, that was the real Santa.’
Some things change over the years. Some things stay the same.