Behind The Beard

17th December 2010

Heather Harris uncovers the truth about Santa…

I might turn my attention to the Bermuda Triangle next, or to Nessie or to Life on Mars (the planet, not the TV programme). After all I clearly have the skill set. For decades, large brained boffins have spent many a brow-furrowing hour trying to prove the existence of these phenomena. They’ve typed up witness statements, produced grainy photographs and thermal imaging but still the public remain sceptical…

Well, there’s one mystery solved, and you read it here first: I’ve finally proved the unequivocal existence of the man they call Father Christmas.

Admittedly, since I was nine, when my older brother made some ridiculous suggestion that our parents dressed up on Christmas Eve to deliver the bulging pillow cases at the end of our beds, I’ve harboured a grain of doubt, but as I’d witnessed my Dad’s reluctance to wear even a paper hat during Christmas lunch, though, the thought of him doing the whole red and white outfit seemed absurd. And my Mum was always far too busy still writing Christmas cards on the 24th to have time to work on her Santa impersonation, so surely my brother must have been mistaken.

Over the years, I’ve put the whole question to the back of my mind and dutifully hung up my stocking. The old adage is, “Non-believers, Non-receivers” and I wasn’t going to risk that… even if the contents have slowly dwindled to little more than nuts and tangerines – plus assorted items that smell of lavender or require numerous AAA batteries.

So imagine my excitement when, at the age of 46, I was asked to don my professional investigative journalist hat and discover the man behind the beard.

Never mind the FIFA World Cup scandal exposé or the latest Wiki-Leaks, this assignment threatened to blow apart the whole mystery of Christmas. So many questions remained unanswered: What did he do the rest of the year? Had working practices changed with the Santa Union fighting for an earlier retirement age than the traditional 102 years? Was drinking on duty still allowed and were the latest models of sleigh unleaded or diesel?

The elves too demanded attention. Was there any possibility of career progression from small green shop floor worker to the role of Father Christmas himself? Was extra training required to make Wii games and iPods rather than the previous toy train sets and dolls houses?

But where to start? As the budget sadly didn’t run to a return ticket to Lapland, I set off for Harrods – the repeated winner of London’s top grotto award and surely the perfect place to meet him. The queues at his snowy door were already huge, with a record number of visitors from all over the world (presumably Santa is a linguist of some repute).

I quickly realised that my mistake was to work alone without a small child as a decoy. Approaching Santa as a 46 year old woman did provoke suspicion, and I was politely invited to ring the Press Office.

“I’m writing a piece on Father Christmas and was hoping for a one-to-one interview,” I asked politely.

“An interview? Now? Do you realise how busy he is? Perhaps you could put your questions in writing and we’ll see what we can do,” came the curt reply.

So I did – two weeks ago and I’m still waiting. I just hope he’s not this behind in the rest of his working schedule or stockings won’t be filled until mid-February.

Hamleys weren’t much better. Here Santa’s marketing spokeswoman emailed that she was snowed in, so would get back to me once she’d made it into the office. I did wonder why her bearded boss couldn’t send a reindeer around the M25 to get her out, as I still haven’t heard from her either.

So I decided to go rural and head off to Willows Farm Park near London Colney for a quick chat with a couple of real life reindeers…but my probing request for a quote “straight from the horse’s mouth” was greeted with a blank stare. Clearly, they had been briefed not to blab even under extensive carrot bribery.

Running out of ideas and with the temperature plummeting, my approach took a technical turn. After all, where are the answers to all life’s unanswered questions? The internet.

Amazingly, all it took was a few clicks and I was on the www.santa.co.uk website chatting to Steve. Explaining that his company has been offering children exclusive phone calls and visits from Father Christmas since 1999, he reported that business was more hectic than ever (despite the fact that recent legislation no longer allows the traditional sit on Santa’s knee).

“The demand just keeps on growing and last year someone paid £670 for a visit on Christmas Eve,” he told me, adding that his only frustration is the growing number of prank calls from non-believers. “Poor old Santa is busy enough without grown ups ringing up making stupid comments,” said Steve. “Obviously he is never rude back, because it’s just not in his nature to be anything but jolly.”

Feeling suitably ashamed at questioning the absolute existence of this elusive man, I decided to go along to The Harlequin shopping centre in Watford just to congratulate him on the fierce loyalty which he clearly engenders from all those around him.

And there he was standing outside his grotto, eating a mince pie. “Tea break,” he muttered guiltily.

Starstruck, my list of in-depth questions was forgotten at once, as I stuttered something about how busy he must be.

“I honestly never notice the time. I’ve been running this grotto for about 20 years and love meeting all the children of Hertfordshire; it’s hard work but great fun. In Lapland we’re keeping up with the demand for technology and being near the Sony shop here in the Harlequin is handy to pick up tips. I’ve never encountered a non-believer. I think when they see me any disbelief goes out of the window!” he chuckled as, wiping the last crumb from his beard, he set off back to his grotto with a wink.

So there we have it. He is real. I have looked him in the eyes and he doesn’t look a bit like my Dad or my Mum. I always knew my big brother was wrong and I’d have the last laugh...

Ho, Ho, Ho!

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