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The Independent Culture
THE COLD winds of global market forces have reached the North Pole. Father Christmas is seriously over-budget, and trouble-shooters have been brought in to carry out some urgent down-sizing.

In Greenland, they're feeling the chill already. Last year, 17 professional Santas, from as far away as Australia and Canada, were invited to Jacobshavn to participate in the first official Santa Summit and World Championships. This year, however, the Santa Claus of Greenland Foundation (which is funded by the government of Denmark) has elected to skip the event, in order to save money. It may be back next year - but only if resources permit.

There are many Santas who fervently hope that they will, including Kilburn- born Fred Wilson, who came fourth in last year's event. "It's sad the event's not happening this year," he says. "We went on a boat around the icebergs of Disko Bay, visited a hospital, had a helicopter ride and had a great laugh. We even had a Santa workshop. It was nice to swap some tricks of the trade with some fellow pros."

The actual competition - won by the Danish representative - involved contestants being judged on beard hygiene; range and projection of ho- ho-hoing; and delivering presents against the clock (including climbing down a chimney, consuming a glass of milk and plate of biscuits and climbing back up). Fred - whose efforts were watched by 500 screaming Inuit children - won 500 prawns, a pair of braces, an Arctic coat, a medal and a jeroboam of champagne. Selected for the three-day event by Debenhams of Romford, for whom he works, Fred, a former Grenadier guardsman, seized the opportunity to celebrate his 70th birthday on the polar ice-cap.

The man behind the event was an Englishman, a former stand-up comic and bar-owner called Peter Williams who grew up in St Helens, moved to Copenhagen, then went to Nuuk in Greenland two years ago to be managing director of the Santa Claus Foundation. The aim of the Foundation, he explains, "is to preserve and strengthen the positive values of Christmas and to maintain Santa's link with the Arctic. Father Christmas is a household name. But he wasn't getting the right exposure. We wanted to reinvent him, to make him more modern, human and relevant - to give him street cred. He's still the ultimate marketing challenge."

Williams, 34, had plans for a Santa Academy to produce skilled graduate Santas qualified to practise in any grotto in the world. " ("A Santa must be true to children's fantasies," he explains. "It is a big responsibility. He represents a vision of a better world.") Then economic reality reasserted itself. The Academy project foundered; there were insufficient funds even for the 1996 Championships, and a disillusioned Williams resigned.

His successor, Andrei Fencker, is more optimistic. "There will be a Santa summit in 1997," he insists, "although we haven't yet decided the date or the place." Public enthusiasm for the Foundation's objectives remains strong, both globally and locally. Part of Fencker's job is to open the 75,000 letters addressed to Father Christmas that are delivered to Greenland each year. Last year's Championships - at which Nelson Mandela was voted "Santa of the Year" - raised $100,000 for disadvantaged children in South Africa.

"It is a small operation with a huge concept," says Williams. "There's going to be a lot of unhappy Santas out there this Christmas because they are not having their annual reunion, think-tank and business strategy discussions." !