Or his helpers, anyway.
Yes, today I failed one of the most basic parent tests and lost my temper at the Christmas grotto. I realise that every parent in the Western world – including my own – has had to bottle their rage while standing in the queue for Santa, and I’m the weak one who buckled under the pressure. This does not bode well for Tabby’s teenage years.
Except that when I say I lost my temper, what I mean is that I returned a naff present with a very withering stare and walked off without paying and some muttered expletive or another. It’s still pretty shameful, but before you judge me, here’s a bit of background to show that I was, I felt, provoked.
For various reasons involving friends’ weddings and overseas trips, I have just seven shopping days left before Christmas already. I need to buy presents for my extended family, preferably by the end of next week. To this into context, I usually do most of my Christmas shopping on the 24th or 26th December. I’m finding it very hard and feel under pressure to perform.
So even though it feels ludicrously early, I took Tabby in to Brighton today to brave the surging Saturday shopping crowds, which are already getting in shape for the big one. After a couple of hours of not buying anything in the cool and funky shops around Seven Dials, we ended up in Churchill Square mall. For those who don’t know this haven of commercial wonder, it’s the usual chain-store-and-fast-food hellhole and it already has a franchised Santa’s grotto set up on the ground floor. Santa – Book online and avoid the wait! – sits inside a three storey plastic tree, and has an animatronic Cinderella and three sinister dwarves in his garden.
Outside the grotto door there are two foxes, one of which repeatedly headbutts its inanimate partner: I think they are supposed to be hugging.
Naturally, Tabby was enchanted and I was feeling guilty enough – having dragged her around Brighton in the cold – to start queuing.
Santa, though, wasn’t in: just a very bored looking elf on the main desk and her manager. They both ignored me for a couple of minutes before explaining Santa would be back in ten more – just enough time to take Tabby to the loo, three floors up.
By the time I got back the gates to the line-up were open and parents and offspring had started to take their positions. We were about fifteen kids behind the front, which seemed like a reasonably forward place to be. Twenty minutes tops, I thought.
Half an hour later, Santa finally ensconced himself and children began disappearing, one family at a time, into the door of his grotto. It was another twenty minutes before we actually got to the tree trunk entrance.
Even Tabby was bored of the wife beating foxes by this point, and as we got to the front of the queue, I read the price list. £4.50 to see Santa and receive a present, then a sliding scale of £5-£12 extra for digital photo prints in a nasty plastic keyring or leaky snowglobe*.
I was fairly sure that Tabby would be happy with the basic package. What I wasn’t expecting that a sacking curtain would be drawn back and another bored elf would usher us into a glowing red furnace that looked like a scene from Saw based on Dante’s vision of Hades. Santa, all white wig and red light uplighters, beckoned us inside.
Tabby screamed. And cried. And screamed some more.
I like to think that I’m quite laid back when it comes to this parenting malarky, and queuing for 50 minutes for that sort of anticlimax doesn’t really phase me. I was happy to apologise to Satan/Santa and his elf and go on my way. I think Father C – who appeared never to have seen a crying child before, which I find hard to believe – would have been happy with this outcome. Not a bad Santa as such, but his voice was several octaves too high and he failed to do much hearty laughing.
It wasn’t, however, enough for the angry elf. She thrust a giftwrapped book into Tabby’s hands and – bless her – even offered to take a photo of Tabby and Santa. Talk about staying on script.
I declined, as graciously as is possible when there’s a river of tears and snot running down your neck, and made for the exit. Hoping it was all over. This grotto, though, is pay as you leave. Presumably the hope is that parents who have steeled themselves to spend just £4.50 will be bowled over by the artistic merit of a poorly exposed inkjet print in which something that looks a bit like their child is standing next to one of history’s least convincing Santas. They’ll be only too glad to hand over another £8 for a seethrough keyring and a couple of inkjet prints to the mirthless crew.
Strangely, this ploy actually works. As we left, there was another queue. The grandmother in front of us was dutifully buying bespoke keyrings for each of her charges.
So we waited patiently with a fiver readied, and Tabby began to cheer up. The lone elf cashier finished her fancy scissor work, snapped shut the last fob and I stepped up to pay… only to be shoved out the way by a Pushy Mum who wanted to book her child’s place at Santa’s side in advance. Cue an absurdly long discussion between the checkout elf and Oblivious Woman around the finer points of what’s included for each price, and whether you choose the pieces of tat you to buy before or after entering the Devil’s Throneroom next door.
By this time, the father and son combo I’d been avoiding conversation with during the wait in to the grotto were out, and another queue had formed behind me.
Finally, Oblivious Woman wandered off. I stepped up to the counter with a warm, limp fiver dangling out at arms length… and the grandmother returned; her keyrings already broken into pieces. The elf, naturally, demured to the old tradition of ‘age before me’ and turned her back to us.
At which point, I asked Tabby if she’d rather have a decent present**, put the still wrapped paperback on the counter and stormed off muttering something very unfestive under my breath. I didn’t exactly make a scene or fight Santa, but I’m fairly sure getting a free peak into the grotto and swearing at an elf in front of a four year old counts as a karmic depreciation when your sould is held up for judgement, even if you’re sure they didn’t really hear it.
Worse, they have CCTV in these places, don’t they?
* I really did see one returned because it was leaking.
** A packet of heart-shaped sweets from inside the head of Hello Kitty, in case you were wondering.