Old stager Santa threatened with sack

IT'S THE second day of Christmas and Santa is as sick as a partridge. He used to adore Boxing Day. It was his favourite time. His labours over for another year, he needed only to sort out a few final chores before sinking into a vast bath foaming with many varieties of bath salts and with a large bottle of malt whisky in his hand; both the bath salts and the bottle having been inadvertently left in the bottom of his sack.

The reindeer would be back snug in their stables, Rudolph plugged into the battery charger and the sleigh put into the garage to have its runners greased (a little trick he'd picked up from the Olympics).

Then he'd put away his shiny black boots, fold up his heavy red suit and daft hat and slip into something warmly nondescript before popping out, incognito of course, to watch a bit of sport. He didn't mind which. Football, rugby, a race meeting...anywhere where there weren't likely to be many kids or women to be heard moaning about their presents.

Say what you like about the men in those days. They'd stand around happy on the terraces in their new caps, scarves and gloves, sipping contentedly from their new hip-flasks. Now, they're as demandingly grumpy as the rest and he knew the e-mails piling up in his computer would contain as many male complaints as the others.

But that wasn't precisely why the silver-haired old Yule supremo's face was as long as a Wembley architects' report. For a start, he was still dressed up; with his tight boots niggling at his tired toes and the thick red serge hanging heavy about his shoulders.

Far from bringing relief and relaxation, Boxing Day was now FIFCA de- briefing day and he was due on closed-circuit conference-line link up. FIFCA? As his Chief Elf was fond of reminding him, this was FC's own fault. If he hadn't been persuaded to franchise the Father Christmas idea worldwide, he'd still be the one and only Santa and there would be no such organisation as the Federation Internationale de Father Christmas Associations.

As much as he favoured the spreading of the load of responsibility for the delivery of billions of presents, Santa wished that he'd remained the sole provider. It was tough but he'd proved over the centuries that he could handle the job and, moreover, he could please himself how he did it.

But, as with many things in this woe-begotten century to which we are bitting good riddance, once you start sharing good ideas with the rest of mankind it usually rebounds on you. He thought of football, rugby, cricket, tennis and the many other British activities over which an ungrateful world had gained control.

"By the way," said the Chief Elf, breaking through FC's reverie, "you've been cited by FIFCA for not announcing your final reindeer line-up by midday on Christmas Eve." An even deeper cloud of gloom descended upon the normally genial countenance as he remembered the days when it was up to him when he selected the trusty team of reindeer who would power his loaded sleigh through the Christmas skies and when he could take his time with the deliveries.

He didn't have any rivals to care about, or what tricks they got up as they bent and twisted the rules of traditional present-delivery. FIFCA didn't help by bringing in electronic timing and fudging the strict laws on chimney descent and silence. They even did away with the red card for waking up the kids.

Neither was he helped by the fancy formations his competitors introduced. He stuck rigidly to a straight 2-2-2-2-2 of solidly muscled reindeers willing to put their antlers down and go like hell. Others, however, discovered cunning variations. The Italian, Santissimo Clausini, put in an extra reindeer at the back to form the now infamous Staganacio system.

The twinkle-hooved Brazilians, under Santa Natale, discovered a new breed of deer called antelopele and set a new standard for rooftop nimbleness. The German, Gerd Giftflinger, brought in a more rapid way of depositing the presents at the foot of the bed.

Poor old FC was being out-thought and out-gunned. Then, there was the problem of Rudolph. When he of the glowing proboscis first hit the scene everyone thought that our worries were over, that old FC could recover his place as Christmas top-dog. Erratic as Rudolph was, he had that essence of brilliance that could inspire any team of reindeers and was soon a world-wide favourite.

But, being a star in one-off fog situations is one thing but to maintain high standards for a prolonged period is another. Sleighing is a cruel, demanding game and, when one mistake means that FC is stuck with 10,000 Teletubbie jigsaws, you need more than a reputation for the unexpected.

Under all that pressure, it was not surprising that Rudolph spent too many nights on the wrong tiles. Even his own team-mates turned against him. Prancer, reindeer captain and veteran of 500 consecutive Christmas appearances, commented in his column in the Jingle Times: "It's about time people knew the real facts about Rudolph. They'd think less of him if they realised that the red nose comes from being pissed most of the time. Even then, he'd be all right if he could pull a sleigh as well as he pulls birds. The only position he's fit for these days is rear light."

Not that Rudolph would admit his failings. He was too busy bemoaning his absence from the New Year's Honours List. "I'd have been better off as a brown nose in Downing Street than a red nose in Lapland," he complained. FC's renowned patience was close to exhaustion. His only hope was to flog Rudolph to the Americans who had long been trying to put together their own Santa operation. But even they couldn't be that daft.

He shivered as a sudden chill ran down his back. He threw a Yule log on the fire and cursed as the smell of burning chocolate filled the room. Then the telephone rang. It was his agent with even more bad news. FIFCA had found a claus in his contract that stipulated they could review his performance at the end of every century and refuse to take up his option - "and they're not very happy with your record of gift selection", he said.

"A new survey has shown that children can be inluenced for life by what they get for Christmas so FIFCA have set up a new Xmas Stocking Control and some of your fillers over the past 100 years have left a lot to be desired," said his agent, who found it difficult to be pleasant even to his clients.

FC didn't protest. He'd admitted to himself a long time ago that the dispersement of Christmas presents had lost its innocent fun. Had he been too generous? Was he partly responsible for the greed and petulance that dominate the winter scene? Did an extra handful of chocolate coins in a stocking set a boy off on the road to becoming a Premiership chairman? He had to think twice about every little gift. For instance, all what he'd been reading in the lurid tabloids about what players get up to had given a whole new meaning to Blow Football. Worst of all, did he have anything to do with the present refereeing problems in football and rugby? Twenty or so years ago he stuffed whistles willy-nilly into stockings when he acquired a job-lot of Acme Thunderers. The power contained in those piercing notes can twist the impressionable young mind...FC shuddered at the thought.

What else was he responsible for? Did he really give a toy microphone to young David Mellor? Was it him who chose a money-box for Roy Keane? If he'd given little Mike Tyson a tennis racquet instead of boxing gloves, would John McEnroe have been better behaved? As these questions blazed around his brain, the Chief Elf poked his head around the door. "The Press are on, they've heard about the FIFCA problems," he said.

"Tell them I'm considering my position," was the gloomy reply.

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