It's all in the book
Me in my formal pose.
And to answer the inevitable question- yes
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
I still have that book and thought you might
be interested in some of the episodes recorded
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.
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
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.)
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
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?'
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
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