Inside Santa School where hopefuls can earn £800 a day – but training is snow joke


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A Santa shortage caused by Covid and Brexit means Father Christmas stand-ins can earn £800 a day – Dan Hall went to Santa School to learn the tricks of the trade

Dan Hall with his Santa School certificate after Father Christmas training
Dan Hall with his Santa School certificate after Father Christmas training

Kids across the country have just 12 more doors to open on advent calendars before Father Christmas’ magical arrival. But what does it take to step into the big man’s boots?

A staff shortage at grottos caused by Covid and Brexit means wannabe Santas can earn as much as £800 a day. Sounds tempting, right?

But is it as easy to turn into Father Christmas as it sounds? Here’s how I got on spending a day at a Santa School…

In the corner of a London yoga studio is a decorated Christmas tree, wrapped presents, and an ­ominously vacant chair.

That’s because the studio is hosting Santa School, where ­volunteers will be put through their boot-clad paces to see if they have what it takes to be Saint Nick. It might sound like a laugh but, as I found out, the training is snow joke.

Santa trainer James Lovell (right) takes Dan through reindeer basics
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Image:

©2021 Steve Bainbridge)

Leading our course is Ministry of Fun founder James Lovell, a Santa specialist who has been teaching wannabes for the likes of Selfridges since 1999.

His first lesson for me is that there is a lot more to the job than you might think. And he has high standards, believing every interaction a child has with Santa must be sensational.

He says: “I remember when I met Father Christmas for the first time. It was amazing. I’ve still got the pencil case he gave me. It was at Beales ­department store in Bournemouth.

“It has to be an experience that children remember for ever. So I thought, ‘In ­order to make sure that anybody meeting Santa has a magical time, we need to look at what it’s all about’.”

Dan and other wannabe Santas sharing tips
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©2021 Steve Bainbridge)

That means giving careful consideration to how Santa looks, how he speaks, and how he should handle tricky questions from kids.

After a brief history lesson on the origins of St Nicholas, it’s time to get into his iconic gear.

Like Christmas presents, Santa suits available to buy vary in quality.

The one James wears when he plays Father Christmas features a super-realistic £1,000 beard.

Whereas the costume I’m putting on is a little more cheap and cheerful, and features an acrylic wig that makes me look like the drummer from Slade.

And while fake Santa bellies are available, I simply stuff a cushion under my coat. Given that it’s a chilly December day, the heating at the studio is on full whack and that makes me hotter than a freshly roasted turkey.

It’s not easy being Santa
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©2021 Steve Bainbridge)

But just like the great man himself, nothing will stop me pressing on – even if I do spare a thought for all the Santas who’ve spent long days in shopping centre grottos in the full itchy garb.

It’s then time to practise a few ho ho hos – the trick is to deliver it more as a laugh than a statement – before having a go at role-playing in a grotto.

As they say, the proof is in the Christmas pudding.

How one handles kids is what makes the difference between an absolute cracker of a Santa and a tree-mendously bad Father Christmas impersonator.

James, who acts as a kid in the role-play, tells me before we start: “I’m quite brutal. If people aren’t very good I will tell them.

“People have to know. You can’t just laugh it off. You wouldn’t do that with a child sitting opposite you.”

No pressure then.

I start OK but within a couple of questions I unravel like a poorly knitted Christmas jumper.

“Did you get my letter?” James asks me, playing a young boy. I reply: “Yes I did, I enjoyed it very much and put it on the wall above my… magic fireplace.”

Dan practises for grotto duties with head trainer James
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©2021 Steve Bainbridge)

My improv skills aren’t quite as strong as I’d imagined.

Five more excruciating minutes follow, where, among other ­embarrassments, I fail to recall the names of Santa’s reindeer.

James’s verdict: “There was lots that was good about that, though you did go down a bit of a conversational cul-de-sac.

“The fireplace… Don’t know what happened there.”

He adds: “But you were jolly, so that was good.”

My own verdict was that, despite my best efforts, I was ho ho hopeless.

The training was put on by network site Nextdoor, which arranged for 100 volunteers to learn how to play Santa for communities.

They acted after finding that 78% of people are at risk of not ­seeing Father Christmas this year, with 47% of the country not having a dedicated Santa Claus in their area.

Roisin O’Neill, head of community UK at Nextdoor, says: “The reason we’re doing this is we ­believe every neighbourhood ­deserves a visit from Santa.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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