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Santa - tales from the grotto

For many years I sat in a grotto in a large supermarket in Coleraine.

Article by Brian Willis.


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Me in my formal pose
Me in my formal pose.
And to answer the inevitable question- yes it's real.
It's all in the book

For many years I sat in a grotto in a large supermarket in Coleraine. As each child visited I would ask them what they wanted. Then, using my quill pen, and with great aplomb, would note down their requests in a book. During our chat I also jotted down other details such as what they were leaving out for me as a gift etc.

I still have that book and thought you might be interested in some of the episodes recorded in it.

And what did they leave out for me? Milk was the most popular choice, followed by tea, fizzy drinks, beer, vodka and whiskey. Drunk in charge of a sleigh me thinks. Oh yes and of course the ubiquitous mince pies. The reindeer mainly had to suffice with carrots or apples but more about their snacks later.

The most unusual present requested was probably "An Ice Rink". It transpired this young lady got up at some unearthly hour each morning to practise at an ice-rink many miles away. I am delighted to note that now, years later, she regularly appears on television and in the national press as one of our most up and coming teenage champion ice skaters. I believe the family eventually moved house to be nearer to a rink.

From Romania

A Romanian girl, who had been brought over from that strife torn country for a Christmas break, (that dates this episode) arrived in my grotto with her benefactor who had paid for her trip, together with an interpreter. Not an easy performance - what's "Ho Ho Ho" in Romanian? But I think she enjoyed the visit and the magic of the event.

I asked one visitor what she wanted for Christmas to be told in a very grown-up manner...."We don't believe in Christmas or Santa Claus" I was tempted to ask why was she visiting me? - but didn't.

Then there was the child who wanted "A big surprise with three wheels" (Guess who was hoping for a tricycle?)

One of my annual visitors was a playgroup of 3 and 4 year olds from Castlerock. Santa was their Christmas outing and I always enjoyed their visit for it was a chance to be entertained as these little mites, muffled up against the cold, all crammed into my grotto and stood around my chair and sang me songs and carols. That also reminds me of a visit by the Bushmills Robins many years ago when I was in a grotto in a local leisure centre. Every one of the thirty or so children asked for a mountain bike!

I was walking through the store one day doing my "Ho Ho Ho " bit when I was accosted by an irate lady who said I should be ashamed of myself for duping little children. But this onslaught was offset by the vicar who met me a few days later with the smiling greeting...."We are both coming up to our busiest time of the year".

One youngster wanted a tooth out as his main present. I was then given a demonstration of just how wobbly the tooth was. I reckon it came out a couple of hours later and my credibility probably rose another few points.


As you can imagine, requests for gifts were varied. One family only wanted coloured pencils and a colouring-in book. Whereas I winced one day to be told that all five children wanted brand new bikes. A nod from the harassed Dad confirmed this was to happen.

Actually nods - or otherwise- from parents was a very important aspect of the visit. One time I found myself dutifully attempting to steer a request away from the Flying Scotsman electric train set to an Intercity Express version instead. (As I explained to my client, gnomes are more skilled at making Intercity Express trains.)

Farm children

One child who lived on a farm was leaving some silage out for the reindeer as well as biscuits for Santa. Dad confirmed this silage ritual happened every year in their family. I also had a farmer who annually dragged a bale of hay up the stairs to be placed outside the child's bedroom door for Rudolph and friends.

Coleraine is set in a rural area so farm children were regular visitors. Of course many asked for toy tractors and slurry tankers. One was going to leave Rudolph a "bucket of corn".

On one occasion there was a slight commotion in the queue outside the grotto when a youngster, who had already been to see me, insisted on returning. The others let him and his mother return whereupon the little boy solemnly stood in front of me to give detailed instructions as to which lane I was to use, as he had forgotten to tell me on the first visit that the other one was too muddy.

I often had adults visit me too and well remember the 91 year old lady, wearing her flashing Santa Hat, who wanted a "man with plenty of money and I'll soap the stairs".


Perhaps my worst moment was when a mother of a child returned with the Teddy Bear gift which I had given her toddler the day before. It transpired the label on the bear said 'Unfit for under 5 year olds'. Consternation all round. How many had been given out and to what age group? Luckily records showed only a handful had been issued. However things moved swiftly and I was very impressed by the speedy action of the management. Within hours men in suits arrived at my grotto and the remaining teddies were whisked away to a laboratory 60 miles away in Belfast. Here they were tested to destruction and back came the report that "All is well, the toys are perfectly safe for all age groups right down to babies". Nevertheless, no more teddies of that particular make emerged from my grotto that year. However, I was left with the mental picture of my poor teddies being "tested to destruction". I wonder what was used - the rack perhaps? Tempting to include a cartoon here but it might offend the younger surfer.

Two little boys arrived hand in hand. "Is he your friend?" I asked one. "No - he's my brother" came the reply.

One youngster conspiratorially whispered in my ear she wanted a ..... "big heavy thing" for Christmas. I never did discover what she meant.

It is very useful to be able to lay the blame or excuses at the door of the broad shouldered gnomes who are beavering away back at the toy factory at the North Pole. Especially when one youngster asked - 'If you make all the toys, how do you make Daniel O'Donnell tapes?'

Fire Engine

I used to come to the store by fire engine. I sat on top of the engine, supported by a burly fireman holding onto my belt. So there we were arriving at the entrance one year with crowds of excited children and their parents lining the route. The engine slowly edged under the canopy entrance roof and I am busy waving to my supporters when there is a great bellow from my minder... 'Everybody down'. I looked up to find an ornamental section of roof coming towards me about to knock off my head. We threw ourselves down onto the machine. What had happened was that in the intervening year the fire brigade had acquired a new (and one foot higher ) machine. This is not quite as dramatic as it reads for the fire-engine driver was only inching slowly under the roof so there was ample time to be aware of the problem. My fault was I was too carried away doing my royalty hand waving routine to notice the danger.

I was often the recipient of gifts too, especially dummies (comforters). When parents decided the youngster was growing up and it was "time to put away those childish things" who better a person to formally present them to than Santa? These I gratefully accepted and explained I would take them back to give to my youngest reindeer. (Incidentally Mrs Santa's cats also like to bat them around the kitchen floor too.)

Then there was the embarrassed father who returned to the photo collection point. He had collected the picture of his child sitting on my knee, gone home, handed it over to his wife only to be scolded for bringing home a photo of a complete stranger- he hadn't recognised his own youngster.

But perhaps the most poignant request came out of the blue when I asked a shy seven year old boy what he wanted for Christmas. "For Mummy and Daddy to get together again" was his reply. (My "fairy" taking the photos shed a few tears at that point and I had to stop seeing children for a few minutes after that.) But the boy and I had a wee chat and hopefully his 'visit to Santa' brought a little light relief into his so called festive season. Yes there's more to this Santa task than just sitting in a chair and doling out presents. There's the privilege of being privy to the hopes and dreams of a new generation.

With my book from which these reminiscences came
With my book from which these reminiscences came.
That chair

It's well it was a large seat for I once had a family of twelve surrounding me, around and on it, for a group photograph. Note the cushion for sore and weary limbs.

PS. The supermarket has since changed hands and I am no longer in attendance. So instead of coming to me, you'll just have to wait until I visit you - on Christmas Eve.

Happy Christmas from Santa

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