Father Christmas at Harrods: 'Twas four-and-a-half months before Christmas...

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The Independent Online

The ceremony in which the white-bearded gentleman turns up at the Knightsbridge store to open the Christmas season in early August is becoming one of London's great traditions, right up there with the Changing of the Guard. You can almost set your watch by it. Soon as you glimpse it, you know there are only 137 days before Yuletide is upon us.

Yesterday it passed with all the tradition for which it is becoming revered. There were traditional Harrods PR girls, in traditional PR girl costume (little black dress), traditional photographers, in traditional photographer garb (Nikon-festooned combat fatigues), and traditional passers-by asking: "What's this about then, is it a bomb scare?" And, of course, traditional artificial snow.

Most of all there was Father Christmas, taking time out from a Blackpool holiday, his corpulent frame in a Victorian bathing suit of red-and-white stripes. ("He looks like a convict," said one of the hacks).

He arrived sans reindeer, accompanied instead by a seaside donkey called Dino who wore a straw hat, sunglasses, a garland of flowers and an expression that said: "Sod this for a game of soldiers." The old gent himself looked more benign. Beaming broadly, he strode into the heart of the artificial snowfall, as a barrage of flashguns fired, and said: "Ho ho ho."

After posing for a sackful of pictures, with Dino still looking glum, he told us the reindeer were resting, but would be at Harrods for the start of the Christmas season proper, from 5 November, when the grotto opens. There would be Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer, Cupid, Vixen, Dasher and Comet, led, of course, by Rudolph. In the meantime, he said: "I shall be making toys, with my elves."

Asked why Dino wasn't entering into the spirit of things, he said: "He's not like the reindeer. He isn't used to the snow."

Santa was opening Harrods' Christmas World, a department dedicated to Christmas decorations and baubles. Trading starts in August, staff said, because the demand is there; many foreigners taking summer holidays in England want to take home Harrods decorations. They range from a lime-green tree bauble (75p) to a "shelf doll" - a full-sized figure resembling a great lady from a Gainsborough portrait whose garments enclose a series of glass shelves - priced at £1,950.

You may think that's a tad freaky, but it's nothing compared to Reindeer Barbie. Harrods are offering (for only £229) a typical Barbie doll, in a frilly scarlet dress with fluffy shoulder pads, long scarlet gloves and a parting to show a pair of very shapely legs. When you look at the head, however, it's a reindeer. It's the sort of thing Hunter S Thompson saw on particularly heavy acid trips.

The store reckons it will shift more than £3m of this merchandise before 25 December - not to mention the millions of pounds worth of Christmas gifts, the most expensive on offer being a Cartier diamond necklace priced at £675,000.

Being a conscientious reporter, I asked Father Christmas for another word. Dropping my voice, I said: "Who are you, actually?"

He said: "Father Christmas."

"No," I said, "What I mean is, what's your real name?"

He looked perplexed. He said: "Father Christmas."

I approached Harrods' corporate relations manager, Michael Mann. "Father Christmas over there?" I said: "Who is he, actually?"

"Father Christmas," he said.

"No," I said. "I mean, who is that guy, really?"

He said: "Father Christmas."

All that stuff about him not existing, indeed.