Surrogate Santa's crash course in infant survival: Chris Blackhurst, in beard and cloak, finds the magic of Father Christmas undimmed

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The Independent Online
RACHEL from three doors down the road swallowed hard. She wanted a doll and she lived at No 44, which had a gate outside and a big chimney.

Not once did she betray a flicker of recognition. Not once did she say, 'I know who you are, you're Harry and Daisy's daddy from No 50.' She did later, of course. By then her older brother and sister had told her and she knew all along it was me; not the real Father Christmas.

But for 30 seconds she believed. Strangely, for all their knowing worldliness, so did her brother and sister. Like all the other 180 children who paid 50p to meet Santa in his grotto at this year's Alexandra Infants' School Christmas fair in Kingston upon Thames, when it was their turn they wanted to tell me what they wanted and where they lived.

It was no joke, sitting for two- and-a-half hours in a darkened side room with fairy lights, an unseasonally early tree and a tape of singalong carols for company. Forget all those pictures of a ruddy-faced Santa ho-ho-hoing through the snow: his cheeks are red because behind his white nylon beard he is about to expire from the heat. A cup of tea or coffee, even an orange juice was out of the question - every time I tried, the beard got in the way.

To gen up on the part, I took the young Blackhursts - Harry, 6, Daisy, 4, and Barney, 19 months - to meet the genuine article in a local department store. He was dreadful.

Harry and Daisy said they wanted books. 'Fiction or non- fiction?' he inquired. Harry wanted a science book. 'A spy book, that's good,' the obviously hard-of-hearing old gent said. When Santa added that he, too, liked 'traditional' presents best, the children looked baffled. He asked where they lived. When they told him, his reply left them even more perplexed: 'Oh, you didn't have far to come then, you were lucky to have been able to walk - parking in Kingston on a Saturday can be a nightmare.'

Still, there were some rules to be remembered, a sort of crash course in political correctness for would-be Santas. If a child wants a Nintendo don't say they can have one - parents may not approve. In fact, don't promise anything - mummy or daddy may be on hard times. In fact, don't even mention mummy or daddy - they may be separated or, to quote Peter Lilley, never much together in the first place.

There were some lessons learnt on the job - like not to press too hard. Two brothers told me where they lived. 'Where's that?' I asked, not recognising the address. 'It's a community home,' they chorused.

Or there was the child who said he wanted a mountain bike. 'I think that's too big to get down a chimney,' I said, feeling awfully proud of myself, and smiling at his relieved mother. 'That's okay, I'll leave the front door open,' he replied in a flash.

And there was the girl who said she'd seen my house. Thinking I'd been rumbled, I was about to ask if she knew Harry or Daisy but she continued: 'We went to Lapland and saw your house and all your helpers.' I looked beseechingly at her father, but he was too proud of his daughter for remembering the undoubtedly crushingly expensive Lapland adventure to care about my plight.

Worst were the ones who were simply overcome with shyness to say their piece. Half-way through I realised that this is was what it must be like to be the Princess of Wales: everyone is desperate to meet you but when they do, their nerves fail.

Santa, however, has an in-built advantage over royalty. When I asked where they lived and they couldn't bring themselves to tell me, I could always say that silly me, I must know where they lived because I'd been there last year. This worked a treat until one girl suddenly found her voice to tell me I hadn't been there before. Fortunately, it turned out that Christmas hadn't been cancelled for some ghastly reason - she had just moved house.

Another ploy was to ask if they went to the school - their amazement that Santa knew the names of the teachers and some of the children, all friends of Harry and Daisy, was a joy to behold. For some, though, it really was a case of a quick 'Happy Christmas' and a plastic glider for a boy, purse for a girl, toy pack of playing cards if I wasn't sure what they were, and a Frisbee-type thing for the younger ones - all carefully wrapped, of course.

Most knew where they lived and what they wanted. Top of the list by a mile, for boys and girls, was the remote-controlled car. Next was Mighty Max - 'like Polly Pocket, except for boys', Harry informed me later, leaving me none the wiser. That was followed by Crash Dummies, Sindy and Action Man. Then came mountain bikes. Then and only then, came computer games.

As for Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario, either the kids were too young or they have already had their day - Sonic was mentioned by name just three times all afternoon; Mario not even once. Three requests left me speechless. There was was the girl who said that all she wanted was a happy Christmas - her mother looked as embarrassed as I felt; and the twins who said in all seriousness that they each would like a satsuma.

Finally, there was Fuchsia. She wanted a doll that ate cherries. I couldn't tell if she was joking or on some weird drugs trip. I was wrong: Harry knew all about that doll. 'It's on television, you feed it toy cherries and it fills its nappy, daddy - it's disgusting.'

As for Harry, he too, succumbed. He knew it was me - the real one was too busy (naturally) - but he still told me, for the umpteenth time, what he wanted. On this occasion, though, there was an extra note of seriousness in his voice: at the last minute, confronted with the red hood and the white beard, and after hearing the others coming out, even he wasn't sure.

For the sight of him, Rachel, Fuchsia, and all the other bright, shining, wondrous faces - and the pounds 90 raised for the school - I adored every second.

(Photograph omitted)

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