And I’m not referring to elfin safety – just to get that out the way immediately.
When we arrived at Father Christmas’ grotto at 10am on Saturday, it had already been a bit of a morning. Leaving the house before midday with a baby and a four year old nearly always involves some degree of stress. On this occasion, we made it out the door at about 9.35, giving us 25 minutes to do a 35 minute drive. Plus we’d been told to arrive five minutes early.
Inevitably, the sat nav sent us to the wrong place. (It wasn’t until we got there of course that I read the bit in the ticket info that told you which post code to use.) We were nearly there when we witnessed a non-serious car crash. Someone made the grievous mistake of dithering too long while turning right. So the guy behind him, in a jeep pulling a trailer, decided it would be a good idea to overtake him while he was turning. The jeep made it round the car just in time but the trailer didn’t.
As it was clearly the jeep’s fault, I wound down my window and called out to the car driver that we’d seen what had happened. “We’re in a real hurry though. We’ve got to go.” I hastily scrawled our number on an old cassette card (I know, I know) lying in the door pocket, thrust it through the window at him and off we sped.
We needn’t have rushed – we were the first to arrive at Santa’s place. There was a female elf hanging about outside. She looked the part – pixie boots, stripey tights, red and green pom pom hat etc – but she seemed rather nervous. She ushered us into the visitors’ centre, aka the grotto, where tables covered in craft materials for making Christmas cards were packed into a fairly small space. On each was a plate with a “selection” of biscuits (five rich teas, one bourbon – sign of the economic times I suppose).
First impressions were a little disappointing. It was definitely more grot than “Oh!” Cardboard and plastic Santas adorned the walls and various bits of sparkly stuff that had seen many a Christmas in numerous settings dangled limply from the ceiling. If there was a theme at all, I’d have to call it Poundland.
As we had Short Shorty in a pushchair, Tall Shorty naturally chose the farthest to reach, most awkward spot to sit. We attempted to settle ourselves while a second nervous elf offered us mulled apple juice for the adults and squash for the children. She didn’t look as authentic as Nervous Elf No 1. Maybe it was the dark-coloured baggy polyester trousers, the square black glasses or the lack of hat. There was nothing at all about her that said “jaunty”. At no point did she look at the kids. She asked me what Tall Shorty wanted to drink, instead of asking her directly. Tall Shorty waved her cuddly toy at her. “I’ve got Mini Mouse with me!” No response. Massive elfin fail.
The room quickly filled up. At the next table I was somewhat embarrassed to see the driver of the car-crash car with his wife and three children. They now knew the real nature of our super-urgent appointment. We talked a bit about the accident and I gave him our telephone number again as well as our full address. This time it was definitely legible.
Then we were summoned by nervous Elf No 1 into the inner sanctum – a wood partitioned space lined with polythene bricks – to meet the big guy himself. It was all a bit awkward, as these things can be. Tall Shorty went mute from fear and Santa (if indeed it really was him – to be honest I’m not at all convinced) seemed mildly embarrassed. I was surprised about how young he was, as I had always had him pegged as at least thirty five. And who knew he was Australian?!
It was definitely more grot than “Oh!” If there was a theme at all, I’d have to call it Poundland.
After a couple of minutes of stilted banter about whether or not we’d all been good this year (no answer – which is better than a lie I guess) and whether we knew what we wanted for Christmas (we didn’t), Father Christmas asked Tall Shorty if she wanted him to give her a present right now. Finally a question she definitely knew the answer to! He rummaged around behind him. There were three bags; “under 3s”, “over 5 girls” and “over 5 boys”. As Tall Shorty is 4, and as we were his first customers, he was momentarily confused. He plumped for “over 5 girls”. We took the obligatory kids-with-Santa pic and with that the interview was terminated. I thanked him on the way out. “No worries, mate,” he replied.
We returned to our table and spent some time making Christmas cards as we still had a good half hour of our allocated, paid-for 45 minutes to go. Then Tall Shorty decided she wanted to hear a story from the Story-Telling Elf. Nervous Elf No 1 wasn’t sure about it. “You’ve only got seven or eight minutes left,” she told me. “You’ll have to do it quickly as we have to clear the room to get ready for the next lot.”
So the Story-Telling Elf speed-read a book to Tall Shorty while the rest of Santa’s visitors were encouraged to leave the room and start the Christmas countryside trail. Before the book was finished, we found ourselves alone once again with the elves.
“One lot down, seven to go,” remarked Nervous Elf No 1 to Nervous Elf No 2, sighing heavily for our benefit.
“For God’s sake, get in character!” was what I really wanted to say but didn’t.