• Matthew Waters

Santa in a Tourist Attraction

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Santa Claus, Jolly Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, no matter what you call him he is one of the most famous figures on the planet. He brings joy to so many and I hope he visited you this past Christmas. But what is it like for the hundreds if not thousands around the globe who impersonate him, so that children can tell the big man what they want for Christmas face to face. I am lucky enough to have the inside track on what it is like to play one of the most famous men in history on the run up to Christmas.

I work in a Chocolate Museum in York. I know right lucky me, working with chocolate everyday! We are a tourist attraction and provide a tour about the chocolate history of York. The city in North Yorkshire is home to world famous confectionary like the KitKat and the Terry's Chocolate Orange. But enough about chocolate, if you want to hear more about that message us and I will write a blog about it, or go to York Chocolate Story and book a tour. Hopefully my boss will thank me for the plug.

Anyway, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I had to step in to play Santa this year. Our normal Santa is highly susceptible to the virus and therefore I was asked to jump in, because they knew I would do it for the money, also who doesn't want to make Christmas for hundreds of kids especially in these difficult times.

I was very nervous about doing this role as I didn't want to be exposed and ruin Christmas for all the children who had come on the tour, as well as annoy the parents who had paid good money for their kids to enjoy seeing Father Christmas. Those nerves led me to practice harder then I have for a lot of things. I would walk around the house singing 'Good King Wenceslas' in the deepest and oldest sounding voice that I could. I am used to practicing for musicals but this was not in my natural range, I don't think Santa is in many people's natural range to be honest, so it led to a lot of sore throats.

However, I was only told one week before that I would be playing Santa so not a lot of preparation, so not a lot of time to continue hurting my throat. Add to that the fact the attraction was closed due to lockdown until the 2nd of December, we were really against time. But luckily I have been good at 'winging it' for quite some time due to my normal lack of preparation, mostly self inflicted.

As well as the lack of preparation my confidence was also knocked by the costume. With this being a 2020 Christmas even Santa had to wear a mask. There were two approaches to this, the underneath method, where Santa's beard would cover the mask, and the over the top method, where Santa would look like everyone else with a beard and have it propped on top of his beard. I chose method number one, as I thought the kids seeing the mask on Santa would hinder the fantasy a little bit. However this did mean Santa's beard had to cover his nose, because Santa is not a fool who doesn't understand that the mask needs to cover mouth and nose for it to work.

Quick side note, what are people thinking when they leave their noses out of their masks like seriously, just take it off at that point!

Anyway, Santa without a nose is a little funny looking but in a 2020 Christmas it was the best we could do. The costume was also bought for someone quite a lot taller than me so the trousers were far too long, but I could tuck them into my boots. Also the width of Santa played a problem, weird flex, I was to skinny to play Santa. I lost a lot of weight during lockdown and this could be the only time where that was detrimental. We needed to add a fake belly underneath but I still didn't feel fat enough, but it had to do. The final issue with the costume was I wasn't tall enough. I imagine Santa to tower above children, which I do not, but again nothing I could do so just had to go with it.

Thankfully my Elves were very helpful in setting up the whole thing. They came up with a rough plan of what we would do with very little script. Basically, we would make white chocolate snowmen lollies and chocolate truffle reindeer noses, and my job was just to chat and react to whatever the kids said. The plan being, with the kids distracted with chocolate they would be less likely to realise Santa was nothing but a short 23 year old with a squeaky voice.

We did the first Santa tour at 10:30am on the 5th December and it was nerve wracking. Standing in the middle of the Virtual Factory, in full Santa regalia, being starred at by a group of Asian students who had been on the tour before. Synthetic white hair pocking me in the eye and my glasses steaming up, fair to say I was not comfortable. I heard the children shouting at the top of the stairs, presumably the tour guide had ask if they were ready to see Santa. The nerves were now through the roof, it was almost like I could feel my fake belly wobbling. For some reason I started singing 'Good King Wenceslas,' to calm the nerves, was I actually becoming Santa and only able to sing Christmas songs?

But as soon as I saw those kids it all became worth it. You won't understand how kids look at you when they think you're Santa. The look of wonder and amazement radiating off their little faces. The nerves all washed away, it was time to make Christmas for these little boys and girls. It has been a difficult year for everyone and it was time to spread some Christmas cheer. The looks on the faces of at least one child in every group is what kept us going through what proved to be a difficult December for a lot of the staff and just a lot of people in general.

I remember one child that started jumping up and down as soon as she saw me. I have never seen energy like it. She continued to bounce for the rest of the tour, a good 30 minutes, and when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas she started to jump around even more to the point where I could no longer hear what she was saying. It turned out she had written to Santa and asked for a Pogo Stick! The comedic genius and innocence of children around Santa is amazing. There was also a pair of children who asked for Heelies, you know the shoes with the wheel in the heel? Turns out they both got the same thing just because they wanted to race each other down the street on Christmas day and Heelies where the vehicle of choice. It is very easy to be Santa when you have kids who just want to talk to you and tell you funny stories.

But what do you do when their are children who are a little to old for Santa and are playing up a little to look cool in front of the group? Well you do what every good Santa would do. You embarrass them. Not in a mean and degrading way of course, you just make them do things like start off a Christmas carol. I was Santa so I could get them to do anything and with enough pressure from Mum, Dad and their younger siblings they will do it. I got a boy of about 15 years old, who had brought his girlfriend along with his family and had been laughing at me throughout the tour, to come to the front and start singing his favourite Christmas carol so his mum could film it for his 18th birthday, I said to the same boy why he had asked for an engagement ring for his girlfriend for Christmas and he started to blush and get embarrassed because he was still 15 and girls are still scary then right? He wasn't a bad kid or anything it is just funny to play games with the older ones to get laughs for the rest of the group and to get them involved because the parents paid money for him too.

There is one rather special thing about playing Santa in a tourist attraction that I only saw glimpses of this year. You get to hear and see how other cultures celebrate Christmas. Due to Covid 19 there were not a lot of non-British children this year but in previous years I have heard other Santas comment on other Christmas traditions they have heard, so I was upset to miss out on that. But there was one boy who was having his first Christmas in the UK and when I asked him what food he will be having on his Christmas dinner he replied with 'Cheese Toastie.' Now I don't know about you but I have never seen a cheese toastie on a Christmas dinner before. His mum and I started to laugh and she explained that they don't really do Christmas dinners the same way in Colombia, and his favourite food around Christmas is Buñuelos, which are kind of like Cheese Fitters. He has started calling them Cheese Toasties because he gets them at school and they are kind of similar. I just love finding out stuff like that about other people's cultures. It is a shame I don't have more stories like that.

Playing the big man was an honour and something I will never forget. I didn't understand the joy he brings to so many people around Christmas and I am glad I could be a part of that. We also did a pretty good job getting a 5 star review in The Sun, wish it wasn't in The Sun but you know.

The stress was all worth it to provide some Christmas cheer this year especially and who wouldn't want to be able to put Father Christmas on their CV, it has to be one of the biggest roles of all.

But the highlight was defiantly meeting the real Santa for Christmas dinner at his house in the North Pole on Boxing Day. It is a Christmas tradition for all of his doppelgangers to meet up on Boxing Day for a big celebration and a thank you for standing in for him while he keeps an eye on the preparations and rests up for the big day.

That is right he is real!

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