Author’s Note: This article isn’t the usual pop culture stuff I put out, but I felt it was an interesting topic considering the seasonal period!
If there’s one thing that connects most of us, it’s that we all, at some point in our life, will stand inside Santa’s Grotto. Maybe it was when we were young; or maybe it was when we took our own children to see jolly Saint Nick.
And for most of us it’s a small blip in an otherwise fairly busy December.
But while I had always thought of the whole “dressing up as Santa” as a relatively minor aspect of a performer/actor’s career; a fellow theatre worker assured me that said belief could not be further from the truth.
Though only in his 30s, Peter (not his real name) has been playing Father Christmas on and off for the past few years. And he was insistent that the character was one of the most important and challenging roles that an actor could undertake.
At first I dismissed this viewpoint as no different to the dozens of egotistical actors I’ve encountered over the years. But as Peter spoke and added details to his assertions, it became more and more apparent how mistaken I was.
As an adult, what happens when we see a bad performance? We might be disappointed, we might rant to friends, grouse on social media, a few of us might even try to obtain refunds. But we quickly move on. Whatever the performance, it was merely one out of thousands we might see every year across film, television and theatre.
But for a child, a bad Santa performance can be the difference between them holding on to their innocence for just another year; and that same child realising that a little magic has just left their world.
After all, who is Father Christmas? For some children, he’s just a fat-ass who brings presents. But for many others he is the single biggest example of faith. Very few people get to see acts of God; but Santa? He’s standing right in front of them!
Indeed, Peter himself pointed out the understandable idea that, for 11 months of the year, the most important people in a child’s life tend to be their parents or careers. But come December, for that entire month the person at the forefront of a child’s thoughts is usually Father Christmas.
“That’s why what we do is so important,” says Peter. In fact, it’s so vital that he reveals to me that there’s even a Santa School where aspiring or potential Santas train at.
Ministry of Fun (MoF) is an entertainment production company that has been responsible for a ton of amazing and engaging PR stunts in the UK over the past 20 years. You might not have seen their work personally, but I guarantee you’ve read some mainstream press coverage of it. For example, back in the spring when Season 7 of Game of Thrones was about to debut, MoF sent a crew of “White Walkers” around London as promotion.
But during the Christmas season, MoF take on the arduous task of providing Santa Clauses to dozens of locations all over the UK. In fact, according to their website, they have put on 17 Santa schools and trained nearly 700 Santas since 1997.
Putting aside my surprise that there was such a thing as a Santa school, it’s apparently not even the easiest undertaking. This isn’t a course that takes a mere couple of hours. Instead it’s several days of learning exactly how Santa walks and talks. Reciting all eight reindeer names over and over again. Familarising themselves with the hottest toys. Studying how to talk to children who’s first language isn’t English. And even learning how to deal with children who have disabilities or ask for family members to come back from the dead.
And it’s worth it. There was one beautiful story that Peter told me about a child he met who was completely paralyzed. Couldn’t move a muscle and couldn’t say a word. But that child just wanted to meet Father Christmas. And with his MoF training, in those 60-90 seconds that Peter had, he tried to make that boy feel special. He got out of his chair with a big “Ho, Ho, Ho!”, and said “Let me show you around my Grotto!”
At first I couldn’t understand why that would be special, but Peter pointed out that most children tend to see Father Christmas seated. By getting up, walking around and being a little more active; not only is it something different for the child to see, but it allowed him to take in the size, scale and frame of Father Christmas. Peter’s intention was to give this child an image in his mind that he could truly treasure forever.
And even though that child couldn’t talk, as Peter showed him around the grotto, telling him tales about the reindeer, you could apparently see the child’s excitement in his eyes. I wasn’t even there, but the joy and happiness that Peter described honestly made me feel like I was.
I asked Peter what kind of people decide to become Father Christmas. Though some obviously do it for the money, and others for their careers and love of children, the most fascinating were those referred to as “professional Santas”. These are people whose whole existence is based around being Santa Claus. They have a real beard, a real belly, and they’ve got their “Ho, Ho, Ho” down to an utter artform!
As our conversation continued it occurred to me to ask Peter about diversity within the Santa community. He did acknowledge that there were no women in the role and very few Black or Asian performers. But rather than coming from a place of laziness, it actually seems to come from a place of love.
Take the major theme parks for example. Places like Legoland, Thorpe Park and Alton Towers can have up to 30 Santas working on any one day. That’s 30 different men that need to look, sound and respond in reasonably similar ways in order to make every child feel like they’ve met the same person. And while said children are standing at the photo booth to pick up their photo, they get to look at a mass of screens filled with Santa Clauses. All it takes is one Santa looking out of place and the spell would be broken.
But surely there had to be some negative aspects in doing the role of Santa that Peter had conveniently overlooked. He did admit that sometimes it got overwhelming, especially in places where there’s a strict time limit. For example, in a major theme park, any single Santa may have up to 1000 children visiting him in one day. If you break that down (assuming a 9 hour work day with a 1 hour break), then that basically adds up to around 30 seconds per child. To try and make a child feel truly special in only 30 seconds is quite the challenge, and a true credit to how hard Santas have to work.
But when I broached the topic of difficult children, he instead said to me that the real challenge was difficult parents. It consistently amazed Peter how many parents would openly comment in front of their children over how “fake” Santa’s beard was; or how “surprisingly young” Santa looked. It was truly astounded to him how, when so many people were working hard to keep a child’s dream alive, their own parents could sometimes be the ones to destroy them.
“It’s all about the magic.”
This was a line Peter would repeat constantly during our conversation. A five word phrase that was at the heart of every Santa as they went about their work. While it’s easy to dismiss Christmas as a crass time of commercialism, it became clear to me that there are hundreds of people that truly love trying to keep children’s dreams alive. To make them feel, if only for a few seconds, that Father Christmas is their best friend.
So when you’re next at Santa’s Grotto, that man wearing the big red suit isn’t just an actor. It’s a man who is truly trying to make your children believe in something wonderful and enchanting.
It really is all about the magic.
Photos Credits: Miles Studio/Shutterstock.com, LuckyBusiness/Shutterstock.com, OPOLJA/Shutterstock.com, Matt Alexander/PA Wire, Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock.com, 4 PM Production/Shutterstock.com, Milles Studio/Shutterstock.com