The mission

Matthew Sweet is slightly surprised to discover that a visit to Father Christmas holds as much magic as it ever did
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Are you ever too old for a visit to Father Christmas? When I went to see him in the Hull branch of Debenhams, circa 1977, I was none too impressed. The mousey Bay City Rollers coif skulking under his hood hadn't got its story straight with the voluminous white beard. And that was surely a Grimsby - rather than a Lap - accent. And would the real Father Christmas have worn quite so much Denim aftershave? No way. But let's face it, once you're sitting on a man's knee, there's very little he can hide from you. You've just got to play along, take your plastic pterodactyl and try to go home with a bit of dignity. And if you're rather unpersuaded by the whole process when you're seven, does it get any more enjoyable when you're 29? I went along to my nearest grotto - at the Lewisham Centre - to find out.

Santa has set up his south London home inside an empty branch of the Halifax, next to the Damart shop. If you want to leave your children in Christmas Wonderland while you browse through the Pac-a-Macs, Lewisham is clearly the place to be. As I enter the building, I can see the man himself sitting in what must once have been the manager's office. Fortunately, the desk has been removed. Too intimidating, I suppose. Santa gives me a little wave. "Is there an age limit?" I ask. "Oh no," breezes Sarah, chief elf, taking my money and ushering me into the crepe-papered inner sanctum.

"And what's your name, young man?" enquires Father Christmas, his gown spangled by the disco glitterball on the ceiling. This is a good start. He's so charming and avuncular that he's already earned his fiver. I sit down next to him on a little bench.

Surprisingly, I'm not his oldest customer. "We've had a few old ladies come along. They've asked me for their lottery numbers. Anything to keep them happy." This futurological aspect of the service is a new one on me, but I hate to look a gift reindeer in the mouth. "What are you recommending this week?" I ask. He thinks about this for a moment. "7, 11, 26, 28, 32, 42." Take note.

The conversation passes to more general matters. Does he find the commuting from the North Pole to Lewisham troublesome? "Rudolph was playing up this morning, so I had to come in a taxi." What are the kids asking for this year? "Computers. Playstations. Barbie dolls. Action Men," he replies. "And Tellytubbies," chips in Sarah the elf. "Tellytubbies are still very popular."

I wondered if children told him things that they wouldn't ordinarily tell an adult. "I did have one young chap who asked me to get his parents back together for Christmas. What can you say? I told him to remember that even if they didn't get on with each other, they still loved him very much."

As there's a small queue of tiny children in pushchairs forming outside the door, it seems to be time to go. But before I do, Sarah pops up with a Polaroid camera. "It's time for the Magic Christmas Photograph!" she announces. "Can I sit on your knee?" I ask Father Christmas. "As long as you only sit on this one," he returns, pointing to his right leg. "He had an accident," says Sarah, pressing the button. The picture spools out, and she swiftly clips it into a white plastic frame with the words, "Merry Christmas" embossed on it in gold letters. She wiggles a finger behind my ear like a magician producing a coin, and waves her hand over the picture. "Just a little of that Christmas Magic!" she exclaims. And then she gives me a set of juggling balls. I emerge from the grotto terribly impressed. A visit to Father Christmas is cheaper than therapy, less oppressive than confession, and you get a present. It's wasted on kids, really

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