No business like ho-ho-ho business

The mercury is pushing 75 and there are 100 men in Father Christmas outfits on the streets of Copenhagen. Julia Stuart reports from the World Santa Claus Congress, where fractious delegates are getting hot under their furry collars
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The Independent Online

While the majority of the beards are false, most of the stomachs are not. In a moment, the artificial whiskers that hang in luxuriant white curls and have the texture of loft insulation, will either be pulled down around their necks, or removed altogether and kept by their feet like pet poodles. All that will remain will be the matching white false eyebrows stuck to their foreheads like obstinate cumulonimbi.

The copious facial hair belongs to more than 100 men from around the globe, all of whom are dressed as Santa Claus. The removal of the beards is paramount: Christmas dinner is about to be served. And nothing comes between Santa and the gateway to his stomach. At least, not at this gathering, the 40th World Santa Claus Congress in Denmark. Despite the heat - the temperature is climbing steadily into the mid-20s - they are all wearing the regulation red and white fur-trimmed trousers, jackets and hats, as well as gloves and boots. Not even Father Christmas is immune to BO.

But, before they get stuck into the traditional Danish Yuletide feast of roast pork, red cabbage and rice pudding, there is some crucial business to attend to on this, the final day of the convention. In a move that could change Christmas as we know it for ever, the Spanish Santa is insisting that Christmas Eve be officially moved to 6 January, the day when children in his native country traditionally receive their gifts. It is a highly unpopular motion and has caused much furrowing of already matted eyebrows. It is not the only squabble that has to be sorted out: the Finns are insisting, as they do every year, that Father Christmas must be recognised as having come from Finland rather than Greenland.

The Santa Claus Congress developed from a children's party held in July 1963 at Bakken, the world's oldest amusement park, near Copenhagen. One of the venue's performers, who put on an annual children's summer show, opted for a Christmas theme and invited along a group of Danish Santas. It was such a success that it eventually turned into an annual three-day international event. But not just any old Santa with a wad of cotton wool stuck to his chops can join in. "You have to be invited," insists Tina Baungaard-Jensen, spokeswoman for Bakken. Proof of professionalism is required, such as video evidence of studious ho-ho-ho-ing in a shopping-mall.

"Last year, we had someone from the Congo who wanted to come. It sounded really exciting but they didn't have any proof [of their Santa experience], so they couldn't come," says Baungaard-Jensen, who admits to being given "really huge presents" by the delegates at Christmas.

This year, there are Santas from 13 countries, including Venezuela, Ireland and Japan. "We used to have one from England, but he's got too old and only travels on 24 December," she explains. Bakken pays for the accommodation and food of all the foreign Santas, the expense of which is offset by press coverage.

But once accepted, it is by no means a lifetime membership. A request to attend from one Swedish Santa was turned down flat after he was caught sleeping on the job the previous year. "You have to behave well, dress very well, be good to the children, and have the real Santa mind. He was falling asleep on the benches in the park, and the children were having to wake him up," explains Baungaard-Jensen.

So far this year, there have been no signs of any misbehaviour. It is the second morning, and all the Santas have arrived at Bakken. Many of them drove from the hotel in costume, much to the alarm of other road- users. The Japanese Santa, Paradise Yamamoto, 30, is taking photos of himself with his mobile phone. He is, by his own account, "very famous musician in Japan". But he sounds more proud of the fact that he is his country's only "authorised" Santa. Authorisation is granted by the president of the Santa Claus of Greenland Association, currently a Dane called Ole Lundsgaard, who decides on the final day of congress whether the costume and ho-ho-hoing pass muster. The recruit also has to promise not to smoke or drink while on duty.

Also taking his photo with his mobile phone is Yamamoto's sidekick, Yutaka Iwabu, 33, a high-school teacher who has come dressed as Rudolph, complete with plastic red nose, furry skin-tight jumpsuit with tail, fake blond goatee, and hair that has been bleached especially for the occasion. "My equipment," quips Yamamoto, slapping his chum on his considerable belly. "One hundred per cent fat," says Iwabu, proudly, taking his furry stomach in both hands. "Me too," says Yamamoto, doing the same with his own. The curious double-act seem to be having the time of their lives.

In two double-decker buses and an assortment of old fire-engines, the Santas make their way to nearby Bellevue Beach for their annual paddle, as the brass band on the top deck belts out "Jingle Bells". "You wouldn't believe some of them," says one driver. "They'll argue over where they sit. They'll say 'I've been coming for 10 years and you've taken my seat'." But today, the Santas are in high spirits, frantically waving to the public, who appear delighted to see them - even construction workers wave back - until they come under fire from a hail of sweets being jettisoned from the top decks with the power of a blunderbuss.

At the beach, Yamamoto whips off his trousers to reveal red underpants, and dashes into the sea, a stagnation of seaweed, gleefully followed by Rudolph, now sporting red trunks over his furry suit. Many of the older Santas' legs would frighten small children. On the boat to Copenhagen, there is much ho-ho-hoing coming from Henrick Jacobsen, when he's not talking on his mobile phone. Jacobsen, a prison warden whose grotto has pride of place in the biggest department store in Denmark, daren't admit his hobby to his charges for fear of being laughed at. He looks more ferocious than friendly due to a pair of dodgy buffalo-hair eyebrows, which are becoming increasingly threadbare after years of being ripped off. Much like leg-waxing, the process also removes his own brows, and he has to wait several weeks after each congress for them to grow back.

The Santas start parading through the streets. Children stare and then either smile or burst into tears. One Santa kisses a woman, who, startled, automatically wipes the spittle off with the back of her hand. Tourists ask for their photos to be taken with them. One object of much finger-pointing is Ole Hald, 47, a Danish children's entertainer, who has come as Santa Elvis. Dressed in a red jumpsuit bearing an eagle on the back and front, a badly fitting wig, large gold-rimmed shades, stuck-on sideburns, and a red Santa hat, he risks being booted out for a dress-code violation.

Once outside the town hall, Jens Fisker, 48, from Greenland, another prison warden, is beginning to look particularly uncomfortable: "It's a lot of fun but very, very hot when you've just arrived from Greenland," he explains. The Irish Santa, Larry Moore, insists that he has got ice-packs down his trousers to keep him cool. "Now we smell," says Thomas Kohlert, 39, from Denmark. "The hottest place in Denmark is behind my back, below my belt," says Bent Lonrusten, 38, from Norway, who has been dressing up as Santa for 25 years. "A voice told me," he says of his role. "Some people become nuns, but this is my goal in life."

Meanwhile, Bent Friis-Vest, the Spanish Father Christmas, who is carrying his country's flag, is complaining that it's too cold. He is failing to drum up support for the vote tomorrow. "On 6 January, in Spain, there are lots of presents for children, but on the 24 December, nothing," says the retired waiter. "In Spain, the population is bigger than Norway, Sweden or Denmark. If it doesn't work this year, next year there will be many Father Christmases from Spain and then we will change it."

Assuming the role of arguably the world's most adored man - by both children and adults, judging by the Santas' reception in Copenhagen - is clearly a major motivating factor. Yet, for a number, dressing up as Santa is a good earner. A number of the Santas press business-cards into my hand, one flashes a CD, some have websites, and several hang about conspicuously, hoping to be interviewed. Kohlert, a management consultant, who became a professional Santa last year, says a small fortune can be made appearing in Christmas shows. "I can get more money being a Santa than from consulting. I can get £200 an hour, sometimes £300," he says.

In the evening, all is quiet in the hotel bar. Most of the Santas are unrecognisable with their smooth faces and floral shirts. The odd authentic white beard gives them away. The Venezuelan Father Christmas, a journalist, has clearly not had enough attention for the day and is now dressed up as Hannibal Lecter. A number of the more elderly Santas are already in bed. A small contingent go out for dinner. One of them, Peter Christiansen, 46, a Swedish carpenter with a splendid long white beard, is in black biker leathers. "Bikers are dangerous people in many people's eyes," says Christiansen, who was made an authorised Santa in 1998. "When you put on the Santa gear, you suddenly become the nicest person in the world. It takes one and a half minutes. I like that." By the end of the evening, Christiansen is balancing a glass of beer on his stomach and telling very rude jokes.

At Bakken the following morning, all the Santas are back in disguise, sitting at tables in a restaurant about to cast their vote on the contentious Spanish issue. But first there is live entertainment from a Danish elf and Henrick Jacobsen, the prison warden with the dodgy eyebrows, who sing a song about how the elf wants to rock'n'roll but Santa wants to polka. Next, the "Christmas herring 2003" is chosen from four samples prepared by restaurants all desperate for the publicity. The winning chef promises a teddy bear to every child in hospital on Christmas Day. Then it's time for the "Hokey Cokey" in Danish, sung by a young woman in false eyelashes and a bottom-hugging Santa suit, who is accompanied by seven dancing girls in short Santa coats. Each time they raise their arms, seven pairs of white knickers are flashed. Many of the Santas are over 60. There is likely to be a heart attack at any minute.

At last, the compère announces that it's time to decide "the most important thing" - whether Christmas Eve should fall on 6 January as the Spanish wish, or 25 or 24 December. There is considerable booing for the dates other than 24 December. "The one that gets the most claps will be Christmas Eve," the compère decides. He reads the dates out without pausing between each one. After the last - 24 December- there is an almighty cheer and the matter is settled. The Spaniard didn't stand a chance.

"Now," says the compère. "It's time to talk about where Santa Claus comes from. Everybody knows he was born in Turkey years ago, and then travelled through Europe looking for a beautiful country where there was no war, and that was Greenland. That is where he stayed, and so Father Christmas lives in Greenland." The matter is closed, without a hint of debate.

Diplomas and trophies are then presented to the Santas who have given 25, 30 and 40 years of service. With so little of their faces visible, it is hard to judge their reaction. After his costume has been scrutinised and three attempts at ho-ho-hoing (the first two of which receive cries of derision from the audience), the Italian Father Christmas is "authorised". The first "official" Santa of his nation, he cups both hands over his heart. "Contentissimo," he sighs.

The food arrives, the fake beards are off, and the press are asked not to take photos. What, a moment ago, was a group of cuddly, loveable Father Christmases, has turned into a roomful of sweaty bald blokes. Talk of who has the best costume and how to get a good curl on your moustache is temporarily suspended as they work on improving their Santa tummies.