In the vast 'To Do' list that needs to be ticked off before the 25th December, taking the kids to see Father Christmas has to be quite a biggie.
Before I begin, I must explain that I have a major hang up about the name 'Santa' - for me, the man sporting a big white beard in a red costume will always be Father Christmas and, until recently, I have attempted to boycott any imposter with another name. Sadly, the winds of change are against me and Father Christmas is, like the little English red Squirrel, soon to be eradicated from our shores by an American immigrant. For this reason, and also because it is quicker to type, I will use the name Santa for the rest of this blog.
Last year we went to visit 'Santa in the Woods' at our local country park. We had high hopes due to the fact that I had given up three hours of my time trying to buy the damn tickets online on my 'phone at my in-laws. Plus they had cost us £12 per child. We didn't even want to take the younger one (harsh but true; she was only one, what would she have gotten out of it?) but you were only allowed one adult per child's ticket purchased and we both wanted to go. £24 later, we were hoping for good things.
It was nice (whether it was £24 worth of nice is up for debate) and it did last about 45 minutes. We walked through the park as some amateur actors staged a rather contrived pantomime-like story which involved a lost princess and some kind of bad guy. The kids seemed to love it, they got freebies along the way such as bubbles and sweets and everyone seemed pretty happy.
Until we got to the 'meeting Santa' part. Bearing in mind that we had already been wandering around outside for close to an hour, we then had to wait over 50 minutes in the cold whilst they took small groups into a large wooden hut to meet him. We had all been given a number and had to wait, meat-counter-style until our number was called. The part that really got my control freak nature's goat was the fact that the wet weekend of an elf calling out the numbers kept calling out the SAME NUMBERS every time! I was held in check for only so long by the admonitory look my husband was giving me before I had to ask him, "Do you not think they might have actually gone home?"
Then, and I can feel my blood pressure rising just remembering this, we had a situation where there was only one space left on the next sitting and the person with the next number (14) wanted to wait and go in at the same time as their friends (15). I tried, oh I really tried, not to interrupt them but after 7 minutes of listening to Dithery Dobby trying to reconcile this one with his clipboard, I couldn't cope any longer. I broke free from husband's restraining arm and screamed "Why don't we go in now and you can give my ticket (16) to them so that they can go in with their friends?"
Dobby just looked at me pityingly. "We have to go in number order Madam," he said. I wanted to stick my head in the cauldron of tepid mulled wine and leave it there until New Year.
That year we also went to the classic shopping centre Santa. Quite a long queue but a surprisingly pleasant experience once inside the grotto. A happy little 3D video about the elves making the presents, a short wait to see Santa and a gift - all for free. Admittedly you were not allowed to take photographs and they attempted to fleece you with a snapshot for £8 on the way out. As my eldest child wasn't even looking at the camera and my youngest looked absolutely terrified, this was one expense we were spared.
I have friends who wouldn't go anywhere else but to the big boys at Christmas: Harrods, Selfridges or Hamleys. However, as tickets for these more high-class Santas seem to sell out faster than a Barbra Streisand/One Direction double bill, you’d need to be a much better organised kind of mummy than this particular slacker.
This year, quite by chance, we hit the Santa jackpot. We took W and S to RHS Hyde Hall for their children's Christmas festivities, assuming that this would be the usual visit to the excellent Craft Barn to make some Christmas decorations, some lovely cake and coffee for the grown-ups and then home. However, in the Visitor's Centre a Christmas story was advertised and we wandered in for the last sitting of the day.
The storyteller was fantastic. He held around 35 children of many different ages, and their parents, absolutely enthralled as he told them the story of how Santa Claus came to be. Then, and even I was genuinely surprised, the man of the season came knocking on the door.
And what a Santa he was. From his fluffy white eyebrows to his shiny black boots, he was every inch the real Saint Nicholas. He walked like Father Christmas, he talked like Father Christmas; to everyone in that room, even my humbug husband, he WAS Father Christmas.
He spoke to the children about Christmas traditions in the past, when children would be given an orange and a homemade toy. He asked them questions to find out what they knew: praising those that knew their history and rephrasing the more random responses (such as W's suggestion that they might have made lightsabers) so that they never felt silly. He then told them how he had been asked once what had been the greatest gift he had ever given. His inspired answer? The gift of imagination.
Afterwards he invited the children to come and speak to him. He said that there was no rush, he would stay until he had spoken to every child, and he was true to his word. He took the time to speak to every one of them for as long as they wished to about anything they wanted to say. Admittedly, this meant a long time waiting in a queue that never seemed to go down but, amazingly, no-one seemed to mind. I'm not sure if it was because we were in the warm, because we had just listened to a wonderful story or because we were all, adults and children alike, a little in awe of this wonderful man, but I didn't hear one word of complaint. I watched as child after child told him everything they wished for this Christmas. I overheard him giving them fatherly advice. To one boy who said he was struggling to learn to play the piano he said, "All that matters is that you get a little bit better every day." And that was it. No cheap plastic toy, no video screens, no allotted time slots. It was old school, it was low-tech, it was wonderful.
When we got to the front, W became uncharacteristically shy. Santa Claus took his hand and asked him what he liked to play. Before long, they were having a lovely conversation about Star Wars and W told us afterwards that he must be the real Father Christmas because he "knew about everything". As we left, he shook our boy's hand and said, "Always stay away from the Dark Side, William."
All in all, it was the perfect beginning to our Christmas festivities. For me, this was everything a trip to see Father Christmas should be about. The only tiny fly in the ointment was that he was in fact called Santa. But, hey, you can't have everything can y'all?