Santa's Grotto: Behind the scenes

For millions of children, Christmas isn't complete without a trip to see Santa at his grotto. But what happens behind the scenes at these tinsel temples? Deborah Ross dons her elf costume to find out.
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I am a 45-year-old woman dressed as an elf. I am wearing a green tunic and a red floppy hat dancing with little silver bells. I've had to be nice to children all day - Hello, Errol, and what do you want for Christmas? - which is quite against my nature, and now I've got a headache. I'm thinking life doesn't get much worse than this when the photographer says my hat is too floppy. Would I mind if he stuffed it with his scarf? So now I'm a 45-year-old woman dressed as an elf wearing a scarf-stuffed hat that ascends vertically - whoosh! - amidst all the shopping crowds in Brent Cross Shopping Centre on a busy Saturday just before Christmas. I'm thinking: I'm a 45-year-old woman dressed as an elf in a sticky-up hat in a packed shopping centre, how can this be? And: whose idea was this in the first place? Then I remember that it was my idea so I've no one to blame but myself, which I so, so do.

I thought it would be quite fun to be one of Santa's little helpers for a day. You know, in one of those grottos that pop up in department stores and shopping centres in the weeks preceding Christmas. I loved these grottos as a child. Adored them. My own mother used to take me to the one at Selfridges where we would queue for hours, days, months, however long it took. The queue would move slowly - oh so slowly - through a snowy landscape with mechanical Santas and reindeers and a little toy train tootling through. Toot-toot, toot-toot! I would meet Father Christmas, be scooped on to his lap. Laps weren't police-checked in those days, but I can't recall any funny business. I do remember he was always very flattering, though. "My, aren't you pretty," he would lie. "My, isn't that a lovely dress," he would further lie. I would lie in return - "Yes, I have been a very good girl" - and I would get a gift. A bead set, usually. I found it enchanting. I have tried to recapture this particular magic with my own son over the years, but with mixed success. We once visited a Santa at one of his primary school Christmas fairs. He was not convinced. "I don't think it was the real Santa," he said afterwards. Why not? I asked. "He was black." Santa can be black, I said. Why shouldn't Santa be black? "But he was black and a woman," he said. I left it at that. One, I could have coped with, but I couldn't fight against the double-whammy. The black woman also had a beard. I still have the photo to prove it.

I turn up at the Brent Cross grotto at the appointed time, which is first thing. It's down by the fountain on the ground floor and is all silver and conical. At the entrance is a giant teddy hugging presents. The teddy has its tongue partly hanging out which, alas, gives it something of the look of a giant teddy mid-epileptic fit. There is already a long queue. A queue of mums, dads, kids, buggies and vast Asian extended families who, I later discover, will want each and every one of them squeezed into the same photograph, including that seventh cousin 11 times removed whom they only met at Heathrow this morning. I am introduced to Emily Elf, who is the Chief Elf. Emily has been Chief Elf-ing at various grottos across the country for the last five years now. Emily is young and very pretty and lovely and otherwise a dance teacher. She likes f Brent Cross a lot. "You get a very nice class of person," she says.

I'm despatched up to the centre's offices to change into my costume. On my return, I pass a group of chav-hoodies. I don't think they come from that nice class of people. "Oi, elf," one shouts, "get 'em off." I do not think this is any way to treat one of Santa's little helpers. I'm afraid I give them the finger. I decide that if I've been spotted and am later confronted by management, I'll say: "What, it means that in human? I had no idea. In Elfish it means: 'I greet you most warmly, my friend.' I'm shocked. I truly am." I figure that if I jangle my little silver bells charmingly enough I might get away with it.

There are three other elves today: Annie Elf, Shadein Elf and Shalena Elf. They're students doing holiday jobs. It takes me a while to work out that Shadein Elf and Shalena Elf are identical twin elves. I just thought they got around really quickly. I am a little disappointed by their names. I thought they'd be called Twinkle and Merry, or Cracker and Sparkle. I'd even thought of a good elf name for myself - Debilstiltskin or, if not, Debilicious - but now feel maybe I shouldn't confess as much. I'm taken inside. It's quite tiny and hot. There are snowflakes and a silver tree, sacks of presents, and Santa, naturally. He wears a huge belt and has a big beard so white and glossy it looks like meringue before you put it in the oven.

"Hello, Santa," I say. "Hello elf," he says. I attempt to make small talk. Where are you from? "The North Pole," he says. No, really, I say. "The North Pole," he says. Santa, I say, I'm 45 and in the know. Truly, I can take it. Where are you from? "The North Pole! I live in the North Pole with Mrs Claus, of course." When I later ask who takes over during his lunch break he says: "No one! There is only one Santa!" This sort of stuff can get to you. Later, when one of the other elves, who can't be named for obvious reasons, suggests that there are multiple Santas and maybe this one drives a London sightseeing bus for most of the year, I say sharply: "Don't be ridiculous. THERE IS ONLY ONE SANTA AND HE LIVES IN THE NORTH POLE! WITH MRS CLAUS! WHAT ARE YOU? SOME KIND OF DUMBO?"

The elves are sweet and co-operative and divvy up the jobs. There is Counter Elf, who takes the money (visit and gift: £3.95; visit and photo: £4.50; visit and gift and photo: £7.75). There is Camera Elf, who takes the photo. There is Printing Elf, who prints out the photo at the exit. And there is Meet & Greet Elf, who brings the children in to see Santa. I begin as Meet & Greet Elf. I have to read out the child's name and age from the back of the ticket, give Santa the appropriate present (pop-up books for the younger kids, sticker books for the older ones) then bring the child in with a f "Hello, Chelsea. My, aren't you pretty. My, what a lovely dress. Father Christmas is ready to meet you now. Come in, Chelsea, come in." Chelsea may be five. Chelsea will say she wants a Barbie or Bratz doll for Christmas. (The boys want robots or Power Rangers.) Santa will say: "Well, I can't make any promises but I will see what I can do." He does not say: "Money no object, lass! Whatever you want you can have and the more expensive the better. Isn't that right, mum?" Camera Elf will take the photograph. Smile, Chelsea, smile! Chelsea's smile will be the smile that children of that age do for cameras. That is, it'll be a rictus-grimace. The parents, on their way out, will always say: "And I want a Porsche!" They think this is very funny. Santa will come back with: "It will have to be a very big stocking." Everyone laughs, like we haven't heard it 657 times before and will probably hear it 62,345 more times before the day is out. The only variation is that sometimes they'd like a Ferrari. Santa hasn't had any particularly unusual requests this year, although one little girl did request Brent Cross vouchers, to spend at her convenience, which took him aback a bit.

The over-fours are fine, pretty much. It's the under-fours who are so very trying. They don't really get it. They tend to be frightened. They come in, take one look at this big man in the big beard, recoil, then start crying. They will then either hang on to their mother's leg or stretch out their arms to be picked up, howling all the while. You know it's over. That once the howling starts, that's it. They're not going to stop until they're at least a mile away. But the parents will persist. It's: "Don't you want to tell Santa what you want for Christmas?" Or: "Don't you want your picture taken with Santa?" As the child has no conception what a picture is, this is unlikely. They will then physically propel the child forwards, which results in even louder howls as the child resists and tries to shrink backwards. One mother says: "I tried last Thursday and she screamed then, too." So you thought you'd wait a few days and that would make all the difference? Top thinking, mum! I ask Santa - of whom there is only one, and who lives in the North Pole - what this is all about. He says: "Sometimes the parents do want it more than the child. They see it as a kind of rite of passage." Emily Elf and Annie Elf and Shadein Elf and Shalena Elf are wonderfully patient. They try to distract the howlers. They act silly and jingle bells. I seriously think throttling would be more effective, but there you have it.

I get to have a go at all the elf jobs. I like being Counter Elf the least. "I want to see what the presents are before I pay," parents will say. Or they'll ask how much it is when they are stood right in front of the tariff board. I quite like being Printing Elf. Sometimes they even want a key ring! The queue never lets up. I note that children aren't called Sue or Bob any more. They're called Montana and Madison and Ashelyne and Gwayne. One childless couple queue to have their photograph taken. What's all that about? Why? I ask them. "Oh," they say, "we always get our photograph taken with Santa. Every year!" The grotto gets hotter and hotter. I tell Santa that I hope he's remembered his deodorant. He says he has. He says he's a Lynx man. So now there are three things I know about Santa: 1) there is only one; 2) he lives in the North Pole; and 3) he's a Lynx man.

Meanwhile, the till pings away. It's a rattling good business, this. Apparently, two million children visit a Santa every year, for which parents pay £6m. I do about five hours - only half a shift, in effect - by which time my feet hurt and my head hurts and my face hurts from all that false smiling. I figure I'd better beat it before I start saying: "Hello, Gwayne, what do you want for Christmas, like I care?" Or: "Smile or don't smile for the camera, Montana. I so don't give a stuff." As I sneak away I spot my partner - who had promised, on his mother's life, not to come - at the top of the escalator pissing himself laughing and pointing me out to passers-by. So I give him that Elfish sign, the one that means: "I greet you most warmly, friend."

That is my story and I'm sticking to it.