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Santa's secret Little helper, it's our Ivan Little!

Going undercover on an intrepid mission, Ivan Little shadows Father Christmas at a charity grotto to discover what kids want under their tree this year

Happy-go-lucky Oisin Doyle's twinkling eyes sparkled just that little bit more as Santa Claus revealed that he knew a thing or two about Northern Ireland football star Neil Lennon, who comes from the schoolboy's hometown, Lurgan.

In Father Christmas's anything-but-grotty grotto at Belfast City Hall, Oisin informed the man in the famous red suit that he loved playing football for Lurgan Celtic.

To which Santa remarked that he was aware that Lennon, the former Leicester City and Celtic midfielder, had once played with the same Lurgan team before hitting the heights in football across the water.

At that point, eight-year-old Oisin looked at his dad, Colm, in amazement and whispered: "Santa knows Neil Lennon!"

I was privy to the exchanges the other night after I went undercover with a ringside seat to witness the magic that only old St Nicholas can create as dozens of excited youngsters came to the Children's Cancer Unit Charity (CCUC) grotto to meet the main man of the festive season.

Their parents knew that their donations for a present and a photograph of their kids with Father Christmas would help less fortunate boys and girls in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Santa and I could, of course, have been separated at birth, with the white hair and white beard together with the not-undernourished paunch all contributing to the mirror image.

The big guy's boots would be hard for any mere mortal to fill, but I was happy to become Santa's 'Little' helper in a role that saw me returning to the City Hall just a few years after taking part in the switch-on of the Christmas tree lights geared up as the Waterfront pantomime Dame, Lady Mama, who needed considerably more padding in considerably more regions than Father Christmas.

The Narnia-themed grotto, tucked away in a corner of Belfast's bustling festive market, was small but beautifully formed, and its snow-covered walls and festive tree generated a Christmas cracker of an atmosphere for the children who queued patiently for their chance to greet Santa.

Inside the grotto, which wasn't in the least bit Claus-trophobic, a team of elves helped keep Father Christmas on the right track as his youthful visitors bombarded a bemused Santa with requests for presents that sometimes mystified him.

One or two of the kids were nervous as they first set foot in the Christmas box, but their shyness quickly vanished.

The first boy to arrive was two-year-old chatterbox Vincent Lee, from the Ormeau Road in south Belfast, who was dressed for the part in a jumper with a flashing red-nosed Rudolph emblazoned on the front.

In typical small-world fashion, it turned out that Santa's friends socialised in the same Ormeau Road hostelry where Vincent's parents, Robert and Ann, held their son's christening party.

Vincent said he wanted Go Jetters toys for Christmas, and Santa's elves were quickly able to tell Father Christmas that they were characters from a children's TV series on CBeebies.

Next in was the aforementioned Oisin Doyle, who, after getting over his initial shock at the Neil Lennon connection, revealed that he was a creative soccer midfielder who also enjoyed playing Gaelic football in Lurgan. Oisin, a Barcelona and Celtic follower, told Father Christmas that he wanted an iPad for Christmas - confirming Santa's suspicions that youngsters of today might just be more interested in laptops than Lapland.

Oisin confided in Father Christmas that he was buying mum Jocelyn perfume and dad Colm after-shave as their presents.

Later, three generations of the same family from east Belfast all looked suitably pleased to see Santa.

Bridget Beattie, from Four Winds in the south of the city, called in with her granddaughters, Carly and Chelsea, and her great granddaughter, Tia, who is six.

And the youngest member of the party wrong-footed Santa with her request for Heelys, which he later discovered had nothing to do with the former Northern Ireland goal-scoring legend, but were in fact special skates with wheels on them.

Tia, who said she'd been on her best behaviour all year, told Santa that she was planning to leave out carrots on Christmas Eve for Rudolph, but wasn't quite sure what the reindeer's boss would want.

Great-granny Bridget smiled as Santa intimated that he wouldn't be averse to a tincture made on the north coast of Northern Ireland that might make his nose as red as his reindeer's hooter.

The small-world syndrome reared its head again with Tia and her family as one of Santa's elves, called Cheryl, realised that she was related to them.

But it wasn't just Tia who had a special request for a festive present - Bridget joked that she wanted a "wee man" for Christmas and Santa undertook to find her one and asked her who might fit the bill.

"As long as he has a few quid, he'll do," laughed Bridget.

The Lough family had come from Carrickfergus to meet Father Christmas and to visit the market, where they were bouncing after feasting on kangaroo burgers.

Five-year-old Zade and 11-month-old Eli Lough made themselves right at home in Santa's house.

Borrowing an ice-breaking panto question from May McFettridge, Santa asked both of the children if they were married, or had a partner - a question that was normally answered with an indignant "no".

But Zade, who wore a Rudolph beanie hat during his visit, caught Father Christmas on the hop by disclosing he has a girlfriend.

"And she's older than me," he said impishly. "She's six." He proudly named her, but Santa decided to keep her identity to himself.

But proving that not all modern-day children want modern-day computers or Xboxes for presents, Zade told Santa he wanted Lego for Christmas, but he politely asked if it was possible for him to receive Ghostbusters and X-Men-themed Lego.

A quick glance in the direction of the elves - and Zade's parents - confirmed that it was a request which might just be granted.

Zade, who said that all Eli wanted for Christmas was a surprise, assured Santa that he would leave him a mince pie and orange juice on the night before the big day on Sunday.

Zade is a member of Glentoran's youth academy, but said his number one team was Manchester United - even though Father Christmas said his preference was for another team in red and white, Arsenal.

Dad Joel Lough revealed he was a Liverpool fan, but before the football chat ran into extra time, the elves brought in substitutes to say hello to Santa.

Seven-year-old Tara Lismore, from Jordanstown, said she also wanted Lego for Christmas, this time from the Friends' Amusement Park range, and she added she would like a toy kitchen as well.

Not all the children who dropped in to touch base with Santa were keen on publicity.

Which was sad because an effervescent two-year-old boy was the most fanatical of all Father Christmas's fans in Belfast. Dressed head to toe in Santa clothing, the youngster literally threw himself into Father Christmas's arms and wouldn't stop hugging him and pulling on his beard.

His six-year-old sister was kitted out in an elf costume, and she pointed out a motif on the jumper that said she was Santa's number one helper.

Several of the younger children were with their older siblings, who didn't quite share the wide-eyed wonderment of the occasion, but assured Father Christmas they would do nothing to spoil the fascination of their brothers and sisters with the festive fun.

By the time Santa finally leaves his grotto today, it's expected that it will have raised thousands of pounds for children suffering from cancer in the Royal.

All the money goes to the charity, formerly known as the Northern Ireland Children's Cancer Unit Fund, and is used to care for children in the province who suffer with all forms of childhood cancer and selected benign haematological conditions.

Around 50 new patients with malignant conditions are seen every year, and a similar number are assessed for benign conditions such as sickle cell issues and low blood count.

The unit is an integral part of the UK's Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group, which has contributed substantially to the improved survival rates of children.

If treated in time, 80% of children survive cancer and 90% survive blood disorders.

The CCUC funds new equipment and resources such as two new under-construction isolation units, as well as staff training and research for the 31-year-old unit at the Royal, the only place in Northern Ireland that children can be treated for cancer and which costs the charity £200,000 a year in funding.

The executive director of the charity, Jacqueline Wilkinson, said the grotto at the Christmas market has taken hard work, but had been rewarding.

A group of children who are receiving treatment at the Royal were brought to the grotto recently and met not only Santa, but also his reindeer.

Father Christmas also visited children in the outpatient's centre of the cancer unit.

"It's wonderful to see the looks on the children's faces when they catch sight of Santa for the first time - it makes everything worthwhile," said Jacqueline.

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