I am not going on my own, no. I am taking my son, Nye, with me. Nye is seven. Nye will be useful. Nye has some profound questions for Father Christmas, such as: How do you get into houses without chimneys? How do you get round so many houses in one night? How come you always use the same wrapping paper as my mum? Can I have a Wrexham away kit for Christmas? ("Mum, will Santa have heard of Wrexham FC?" "No, but then, darling, who in their right mind has?") I am taking my niece, Georgia, too. Georgia is four. Georgia has something to ask, also. It is: "Please will you bring me a Barbie? Thank you." Georgia, I sigh, you already have 479 Barbies. She is outraged. "YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH BARBIES!" she cries. Georgia might not be so useful. There is a big Rudolf at the Cosmos check-in desk at Gatwick at 6.15am. I don't think it is the Rudolf. I think it might be someone in a costume. I mention this just to give you a flavour of the trip from the off.
A five hour flight - "Georgia, I'm not playing Barbies any more. It's boring. "BARBIES ARE NEVER BORING" - and then, finally, our arrival at Kittila, Lapland. Snow on the ground. Snow in the air, twirling and twinkling, shimmering and swirling. It's as if the sky has decanted diamonds. It's nippy, yes - minus 29 - but thrillingly entrancing. I am entranced. The kids are entranced. They have never properly seen snow before. "It is fairy dust!" exclaims Georgia ecstatically. We are put on to coaches. We are on coach B. "Who are we? We're Bouncy Bus B," says our Cosmos rep, Sharon. "Come on - LOUDER! WHO ARE WE? WE ARE BOUNCY BUS B!"
I must say I find this slightly worrying. Look, it's not that I'm a snob or anything. I once went on public transport, like Tony Blair (and it would have been fine, had it not been public). It's just that I'm not good at package-holiday group jollity. Where is it going to end? There is a "Gala Feast" tonight. Will there be a conga? I have never knowingly done the conga. Who goes on these trips? Well, it seems to be young families, mostly, although there also seem to be two or three middle-aged couples without children, too. One such couple are sitting behind me.
"What's the food like in Finland?" she asks.
"Seafood, I think," he replies.
"Oh, good," she says. "I like all seafood. Apart from fish."
We are driven into a small clearing in a forest, to a breathtaking white wonderland of small, wooden, snow-coated houses. This is Father Christmas's headquarters, apparently. We are greeted by elves. They are quite big and well-built for elves. Busty, even. ("Who are we? We're Busty Cup Ds!") It might, actually, be quite easy to confuse them with buxom Finnish students doing holiday jobs. We are given a tour. First, the elves' workshop, where the children get to hammer at bits of wood, then the reindeer paddock. Dancer and Prancer and Vixen are here today, but not Rudolf. I do not know where Rudolf is. Perhaps he is doing his Shirley Bassey at an audition for Stars In Their Eyes. I've heard he does a good Shirley Bassey. Then it's into Santa's Post Office - with its handy souvenir shop. "Mum can I...?" "NO" - and then, finally, Father Christmas's house.
It is cosy and intimate. A log fire is blazing. And there, on the sofa, is Father Christmas. The children's mouths form into perfect little Os. He is, yes, big with red cheeks and little round spectacles and a long, white beard. He is pleased to see me, I think. He says: "Sit down, dear. Have some hot berry juice. Was your journey OK?" The children are whisked away by one of the over-sized elves to feed the reindeer. This is my interview time. (They will meet him later, at the Gala Feast.) I hear Georgia say on her way out: "It can't be the real Santa. I met him last year at Wood Green Shopping City and he's black." "Oh," says the over-sized elf. "His beard looks false," says Nye. "Oh," says the over-sized elf. "Who are we? We're Bouncy Bus B," says Sharon.
I sit with Father Christmas. He says I look tired. He has a kind face and kind eyes. I want to tell him everything, and do. I say I am tired. It's not just the flight, I say. It is this time of year. The shopping, shopping, shopping. I am haemorrhaging money. The other day, in Crouch End, I felt like taking out all my credit cards and my cheque book and stamping on them and shouting: "Right, traders, you've had it all. I'm WIPED out! HAPPY NOW?"
Father Christmas sighs unhappily. He says, yes, this is what it has come to these days. He says when he first started out almost 2,000 years ago, it was not like this. "Then, my dear, a little wooden whistle was enough. Now, even the smallest child would saw into it, to see if there was a Nokia 3012 in there."
"And you find this sad?"
"I find it sad, yes. Especially as the Ericsson 4563 is a much better phone."
"You don't think, then, that your presence undermines the spiritual and religious significance of Christmas?"
"This is the big question, I know. And it worries me, too. I don't want to steal Christ's thunder. That has never been my aim. But, I think, we must ask ourselves, where is he while I'm schlepping from grotto to grotto? Where is he, while I'm stuck in Selfridges, jiggling small children on my tired, and now rather arthritic, old knees? I wouldn't mind a bit of a rest, you know. What do you think?"
I tell him I might not be the best person to ask. I tell him I'm one of those Jews who will, frankly, celebrate anything that comes with a substantial gift attached. I am even into Diwali in quite a big way. But, enough about me, if such a thing is possible. It's you, Santa, who must be tired, surely?
Yes, he says, he is. "This year, in particular, is bad because the elves have taken to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? which has disrupted the work schedule horribly. I am thinking of docking their wages or, if not that, at least no longer offering private elf insurance. And will Rudolf be back by Christmas Eve? This is a big worry, but I could not stop him going to London for the auditions. He has worked on his Shirley Bassey for some years now and it would not have been fair. He does an excellent `Big Spender'. He is getting Matthew Kelly's autograph for me. I've already got Cilla Black's."
"How do you get round the world in one night?"
"Have you, my dear, ever read Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time?"
"Well, then, as you must know, if you can travel at the speed of light, at 186,000 miles per second - as I can - then time passes so slowly that it almost halts."
"I didn't get past the first paragraph, actually."
"Neither did I. I prefer Dick Francis, myself. But it sounds rather good, don't you think?"
"And houses that have no chimneys?"
"Have you read Einstein's 1905 paper, The Special Theory of Gravity?"
"Good, because then you won't know that I'm talking total rubbish when I say that if E=MC2, and X+Y=Findus Supermousse times six pairs of navy pop-socks, then the bodily proportions of the average Santa can be reduced sufficiently to slip through even the weeniest gap, and so enter any dwelling. OK?"
"I quite like Danielle Steele."
"She is jolly good, I agree."
I wonder if he gets lonely, stuck here in the middle of this forest. Is there a Mother Christmas? Is he married? He says not. He says Mother Christmas was invented by "you know, those women who don't shave and can't get men". The feminists?
Are you anti-feminist?
"Absolutely not. Good heavens, no! The thought! Or, as I said to my Chief Elf, Betty, just yesterday: `Stick your chest out, dear. You are not making the best of yourself.' Only joking, ho-ho-ho. I have to do at least one `ho-ho- ho', don't I? Or people won't believe it's really me. I don't know where the `ho-ho-ho' business comes from, actually, because I am not, generally, a `ho-ho-ho' sort of chap. I am quite serious minded, in fact. I like Wilbur Smith, too."
Anyway, he says he has to go now. This is, of course, his busiest time of year. And when it's all over? What do you do then, Father Christmas? It all depends, he says. Last year, he and Rudolf went to Sandals in Jamaica, "which was very pleasant". But if Rudolf gets through the audition? "Then I think we are going to have to work on his `Diamonds Are Forever', which needs a bit of brushing up."
I give him a little kiss and say: "See you at the feast."
"Yes, my dear, and a very Merry Christmas to you."
We are herded back on to Bouncy Bus B. We are then taken sledding, and on a husky ride. Both are stingingly cold, but utterly fantastic and exhilarating. The children's faces shine with the absolute excitement of it all.
Then, it's the feast, where Nye and Georgia get to sit on Father Christmas's knee. They get presents. Georgia gets a game, Wiggley Worms. Nye gets a game, Connect 4. They are happy, even though Nye keeps saying: "His beard is false, mum. It is." I tell him I've never heard anything so ludicrous which, indeed, I haven't. I drink quite a lot. I might have unknowingly conga-ed. Then it's back to the airport on the coach. "Who are WE?" We are asleep, mostly.
Deborah Ross and family travelled to Lapland with Cosmos. Further info: 0161-476 5678