'Every child I saw leaving Santa's knee looked as if they'd been dusted with wonderful memories'
At this time of year there seems to be no end of men with white beards wearing red suits and claiming to be Father Christmas. Are they all present and correct? Alex Kane and his daughter take on a special mission
Back in 1897 the New York Sun published one of the most widely read editorials in newspaper history. It was in response to a letter from an eight-year-old girl, whose friends had told her that Santa didn't exist.
The editor's thunderous reply has become the stuff of legend: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. Your little friends are wrong."
That's one editorial that most parents and grandparents can agree with. This year will be the 16th in which my wife Kerri and I will have conspired to keep the Santa legend alive for both our daughters Megan (16) and Lilah-Liberty (5). We've done the usual stuff with milk, cookies and carrots and we've even covered the floor in flour and left a trail of footprints from the fireplace to the tree. We've filmed their responses and choked back our tears and laughter as their eyes widened and pure, undiluted wonder filled their faces. These are heart-stoppingly beautiful moments. And even though Megan has seen through the smoke and mirrors she hasn't said a word to shake Lilah-Liberty's continuing sense of wonder. For whether we like it or not - and even if we don't have children - we all become part of that unbreakable magic circle in which children are allowed to believe in Santa for as long as they need to believe in him.
But every year at this time, as we take our children through the shopping centres and past the grottos, we all face the same question from them: "Is that the real Santa"? If you've ever seen the film Elf you'll remember the scene when Buddy wrestles a store Santa to the ground because he's not the real Santa; or Miracle on 34th Street, where the Macy's Santa has to convince a court that he is the real one.
Belief is a very powerful thing with children. They can believe in all sorts of weird and wonderful things, from tooth fairies to flying dinosaurs, and in most cases we are happy to let them - because it's all part of the magic of childhood. Yet the shopping centre Santa is probably the only weird and wonderful thing they have real contact with. They see him up close and many of them sit on his knee and talk to him. For those few minutes that Santa - the Santa they believe in - has to convince them that he is THE Santa.
Lilah-Liberty and I visited some. It was a risky venture, because there was the possibility that she would see through one or all of them and, in the process, lose her belief that there was a real Santa anywhere. So the plan was that she would see each of them and talk to them and do all of the Santa stuff and then wait outside with someone while I chatted to him.
Our first one was in Victoria Square in Belfast. He was in a snug little hut on the third floor and the spitting image of Richard Attenborough's Kris Kringle in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. Lilah-Liberty loved him and was immediately under his spell. She sat on his knee and chatted as easily and comfortably as if this were her own Papa. This guy was so good that even I was beginning to believe in him!
His name was John and this was his first year in the role. "I was approached, mostly because of my beard, and I just love the role. The beard is really important, because once a child tugs it - as many of them do - and realises that it's real then they accept that I am real. I am Santa for them.
"The children make it all worthwhile. When you see the look on their faces as they come through that door, a look of real joy and astonishment, then you know that you have made Christmas worthwhile for them. You have dusted them with wonderful memories. And when people talk about the commercialism I would just say come down here and see these faces."
John makes another very interesting point: "When you look at the parents' faces you see that most of them are getting into the magic a well. I think some of them choose to come here with their children and grandchildren just to remind themselves of that brief moment in their own lives when Christmas was a simpler and less stressful time for them. It's wonderful to watch."
Our second Santa was over in CastleCourt. He was in a noisier, less intimate setting, with an awful lot of bustling in the background. I thought that this would distract Lilah-Liberty (she's always very aware of what is going on around her) but not a bit of it. Even though it was only an hour since the first Santa she was just as enthralled with this one - he looked like a thinner version of the Coca Cola Santa - who greeted her with a booming voice and an invitation onto his lap. He did seem a little surprised when, having asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she replied: "But I've already told you." That's my girl!
This Santa was Kevin Quinn: "This is my ninth year here, although I did it once on the ferries. I actually saw an advert for it and I had the beard anyway. I love kids and I've been a teacher all my life - I still coach mathematics - and this is just brilliant. Once they pull my beard they know I'm Santa.
"You've got to be jolly. You've got to be good with children. Some of them are a bit wary about an old man with a beard and you almost have to coax them into trusting you and coming onto your knee for a chat and a photograph. And sometimes parents almost throw the child at you and then back away to get out of shot - and that can be quite scary for a child. They can see through you. They can see through a performance. This isn't just a game for them - you have to be their Santa. Get it wrong and you kill their sense of wonder forever."
Our third Santa was over at the Titanic Centre the following day. This was by far the most extravagant venture, complete with a street of shops, Victorian games, a place to write and post a letter to Santa and a chance for the children to see their name on the Nice List before meeting him.
Lilah-Liberty refused to write her letter and then threw up in a bin. Oh dear, this wasn't looking good. It wasn't helped when Santa's photographer tried to coax a smile from her by inviting her to "say cheese and sausages", for it seemed to me that he was likely to be covered in cheese, sausages, chocolate and a fried egg as her stomach continued to heave.
That aside, this was a very good setting and a very relaxed, uncrowded atmosphere. There was even a Mother Christmas (Judith Anderson) to welcome the children before they saw Santa: "I look after the Naughty and Nice List for all the boys and girls who come up and see Father Christmas. Of course, all of them are on the Nice List - even though some of the parents look surprised! By the end of Santa's stay he will have seen more than 7,000 children.
"They write their letters before they go in or before they leave, putting their name and an e-mail address. And Santa will respond with his own e-mail to confirm he has got their letter. It's important they get that follow-up afterwards, because it adds to the overall sense of a magical visit."
Lilah-Liberty was still under the weather, but she loved this Santa and was on his knee in the blink of an eye. He relaxed her, not an easy thing to do with a child who still thinks she may vomit at any moment. Relaxed her so much, in fact, that she was soon chatting away and discussing reindeer with him.
This was Danny Carthy: "This is my third year as Santa. I'm a folk singer. I actually sing folk songs for children and I belong to a group called the Twitters. We were singing in Dundalk and the agent who books the Santa for here (he also books the one for Victoria Square) saw the rapport I had with children. Christmas is special for children and music is special for children - particularly folk songs. He asked me if I had ever considered being Santa and that's how I got the role.
"Children are stunned when they see me. They literally believe that I am Santa. It's how you react to them, how you get them to respond to you. You don't even need to ask them what they want for Christmas. For once they see you and know that you're real and the beard's real and that you care and respond to them, then that's all that matters to them. All it takes is a smile and a bit of honesty to make them feel comfortable.
"I don't ask them what they want for Christmas. I just ask them if they've written their letter yet and posted it. Then I tell them there's an elf comes here, picks up their letters and takes them to the North Pole, where Mrs Claus and other elves get everything prepared. That's all they need to hear."
Did I learn anything from this? Well, I discovered that it doesn't matter if you're called John, Kevin or Danny: all that matters is that for those few brief moments you are THE Santa for every child who crosses your threshold. But make sure the beard is real! These three had it nailed and every child I saw coming out had clearly been "dusted" with wonderful memories - and the parents looked just as happy.
I loved it. It made me feel better, for something a little bit special rubbed off on me over those two days: "Yes, Alex, there is a Santa Claus."
Oddly - and I'm not joking - at one point I actually thought I was interviewing THE Santa. But that's my secret and my magic moment.
The saintly origins of a very modern icon
The original Santa Claus is believed to have lived in Turkey in the 4th century as the bishop of Myra.
St Nicholas, as he became known after his death, had performed miracles for children and was awarded a feast day on December 6.
Around the same time that St Nicholas lived, Pope Julius I declared December 25 as a celebration of the baby Jesus and eventually St Nicholas’ feast day became associated with Christmas.
Traditions evolved that he would visit houses on Christmas Eve and children would place nuts and fruit around the house to welcome him.
Eventually Dutch settlers brought St Nicholas, known as Sinter Klass, to North America. This evolved into Santa Claus.
At first he was known as a tiny man who flew a sleigh pulled by eight miniature reindeer and crept down chimneys to fill children’s stockings with gifts.
Santa Claus was tradtionally depicted as a man with white hair and beard dressed in green or brown, trimmed with white fur.
The red and white Santa Claus first appeared in an illustration on the cover of The Country Gentlemen in 1921, drawn by Norman Rockwell.
The image was further made popular by a series of CocaCola advertisement in the 1940s.