In search of the real Santa

2008-12-01 00:00

It was the year we kept bumping into Santas. We were driving along England’s south coast heading for Alderney in the English Channel to spend Christmas with my in-laws and in every town we stopped at there would be another one.

“Is he the real Santa?” asked Harriet (4) and Stella (2), spotting one outside a jeweller’s in Brighton.

“Maybe he’s Santa’s helper,” said Emma, knowing she was in trouble. “We probably won’t see the real one.”

He invited them to take a gift from his sack. Stella pulled out a handful of red fliers. She was delighted, clearly seeing it as lovely drawing paper.

She was a bit taken aback when he acted embarrassed, saying, “Better put those back.”

“Do you want to put them back?” asked Emma. “I think he wants to give you some sweets.” She did. But when she put her hand in again, she pulled out even more fliers. As the old but not-very-Father-Christmassy Santa started getting impatient, Harriet showed Stella what he meant by putting her hand in and pulling out a sweet.

Further up the road another Santa had plastic animals in his sack; but a skinhead confused matters by handing the children little flags which we didn’t look at until passers-by gave us funny looks. They had swastikas on them. When we arrived at Bournemouth Airport, it was freezing cold, dark and windy as we boarded a tiny yellow plane called Joey.

It wasn’t just the sausage rolls I ate in the airport canteen that would make this trip memorable. Sitting just behind the pilot in this supermarket trolley with wings, it was easy to see there was zero visibility without the pilot continually reporting the fact to traffic control.

I’m not saying he was screaming, “May Day! May Day!” or anything, but there was a definite crescendo in his voice as we roared out over the sea. Still, I’d had a good life. I wouldn’t be the one to spoil his concentration by unseemly grabbing of his knees and shouting, “We’re all going to die!”

“It’s very foggy,” he kept saying into his radio. Great, so now it’s pitch black AND foggy. A few minutes later he said, “I’m thinking of turning around,” and then, “Hang on, I’ll go down a bit and see.” Parachute, please. Where’s the door?

The whole time there was a deafening engine noise (the pilot and co-pilot had nice ear muffs, we noticed) and it was very bumpy. By now I remembered the sausage rolls, and there was the hood of the jacket he wore, temptingly close. “No visibility,” he repeated. Then he asked the co-pilot if he could see any lights.

They did eventually and landed smoothly. The thought of all those Santas besieging the children was far from my thoughts when Emma’s dad greeted us, telling the children he had a surprise. Hoping it wasn’t to tell us to get back on the plane, he said, “We’re going to see Santa.” All right, we weren’t afraid for our lives any more, but we were back in a Santa discussion.

“Is it the real Santa?”

“Probably a helper,” said Emma.

“No,” said Mac, “it’s the real Santa.”

Later, everyone walked in the dark towards the town, rugged up and carrying torches, and, to cut a long story short, the town hall wasn’t the only thing that was full that night. We sang carols and when Santa arrived on stage he had a fireman on either side of him, each giving him more support than we realised.

“Babies to two-year-olds first!” shouted one. Granddad carried Stella up to the stage and I followed with Harriet. As Santa was handing Stella her present, he staggered forward and almost fell on her. A fireman grabbed him and kept him upright. Yes, Santa was drunk. I didn’t hear Santa say to Harriet, “Give us a kiss”, but apparently, as I walked away he’d leant forward and stumbled, but the firemen caught him.

“Wasn’t it nice of Santa to give you lovely presents,” said Granny.

“He smelt funny,” said Stella.

“Bye-bye children!” called Santa, squeezed between two firemen in the fire engine as it left with sirens wailing.

When Stella was being tucked up in bed that night, she said, “When Santa comes, can you make sure he doesn’t come into my room?” And every Christmas for years afterwards she insisted that Santa leave her presents outside the front door.

• John Wright is a freelance writer living in Tasmania, Australia

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