'My beard is real. I start growing it in May each year'

Colin Gitsham, 57, is a Father Christmas at John Lewis in Oxford Street, central London

What do you actually do?

I try to make Christmas magical for children. When they see me in my red suit, some children's faces light up, but the shyer ones occasionally burst into tears. It's my job to put them at ease. Eventually, both the children and their parents go away smiling.

What's a typical day like?

I arrive at about 9am, get a coffee, and spend an hour replying to letters children have put in Santa's postbox. At 10am, I start getting dressed in my red suit. I have a real, naturally white beard, which I start growing around May each year after Christmas, it's back to designer stubble. By 10.30am, I'm installed in the toy department. I have an armchair and a Christmas tree, and I spend time chatting with each child, asking them their name and age, and what they want for Christmas. I work until about 7.30pm, and only take a break if there are no children waiting and then I leave a note saying I've gone to feed the reindeer.

What's best about it?

Seeing the children's faces light up when they pull my beard and find that it's real. You can't put it into words it's just wonderful to see their enjoyment.

What's not so great?

People think it's easy talking to children all day, but it can be tiring. You have to be a quick thinker. If a child asks where the reindeer are, I say they're up on the roof. If they say they've seen another Father Christmas, I say I'm the real Father Christmas, but because I'm so busy, I have to ask other people to dress like me and find out what children want. But really, there are no downsides. I love it.

What skills do you need to be a good Santa?

You need to have a chunky, fat figure and a realistic beard. There's no point in being skinny, because that's not children's idea of what Santa looks like. Having said that, I try to encourage healthy eating by telling the children that if they eat their carrots like Rudolph, they'll be able to see in the dark and might spot me on Christmas Eve. You've got to be able to persuade each child to feel comfortable. You need to respect their opinions and bring them out of themselves.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to do the job well?

Keep up to date with the latest toys. I've worked for John Lewis for 30 years, and in the toy department for 12 years. It helps to watch the ads on children's TV. It's also important to know roughly what the prices are. You don't know the parents' financial situation, so you've got to be responsible and not promise anything. I also never advocate pets as Christmas presents.

What's the salary and career path like?

I work for John Lewis year-round, so my salary doesn't alter at Christmas, but in the past I've been offered 60 to do the job privately. Very roughly, a self-employed freelance Father Christmas might earn about 200 a day working in a large department store.

For information on training to be a Father Christmas, visit the website of the entertainment agency Ministry of Fun, which runs a Santa training school, at www.ministryoffun.net.