In nearly a decade of playing Santa Claus, 68-year-old Brian McClellan-Dunn has learnt one very important lesson – never pretend to be magic. “They’ll only ask you to prove it,” he warns.
The retired chef has been donning Santa’s red trousers and furry boots every Christmas for the past nine years, originally for Lapland UK and now for Ashdown Forest Llama Park near East Grinstead.
“I was short of cash and thought sitting on your backside doing nothing for several hours seemed a good way to get some. Once I started doing it, the full weight of responsibility dropped on me.”
While it might appear an easy gig, Brian takes his duties very seriously. “You’re sitting there and that child walks in and believes in you totally. The wrong words, the wrong gestures, not being able to speak on their level – anything could destroy that child’s concept of Christmas for life.”
From October onwards, he will watch all the children’s TV programmes to ensure he can talk to the kids about their interests. He contacts the British Toy Retailers Association to find out what the bestselling toys are that year: “There are thousands and you have to at least have a working knowledge of them. The majority of the things they want are a world away from what we had when I was a youngster, but I think knowing what’s current is part of being a good Father Christmas.”
With his long white hair and real beard, Brian is affectionately known by staff at the park as ‘The Real Father Christmas’. “I try to get away from the grotto version of Father Christmas sitting there in a suit. When the kids visit me, it’s in my ‘home’ with a tree and a workbench. They feel so much more at ease with that.”
While he won’t claim to be magic, he’s not adverse to spinning a festive yarn or two. “Parents love it when I tell kids it’s essential they go to bed early on Christmas Eve because when they’re asleep they give out the strongest magic in world and that’s what I use to be able to fly through the air with their presents.”
Thanks to his extensive research, he’s never been caught out by a child’s request but he says it’s important not to make assumptions. “Some kids don’t know what they want so you have to use a little reverse psychology. If I have a boy that’s umm-ing and ahh-ing I’ll often say, ‘I tell you what, I have a load of pink ballet shoes from last year – can I leave them with you?’ That usually kickstarts them into telling me what they really want. But I’ve also had boys who say, ‘Oh yes, that would be great!’ You can’t assume all boys want boys’ toys or all girls want girls’ toys.”
As a child growing up in the Midlands, Christmas was always a big family occasion for Brian. But as an adult, his job as a chef meant he often missed Christmases because he was called in to work. “Now I’m retired I can do this, which gives me another chance to enjoy Christmas and help kids enjoy it too.”
For Mike Childs, aka Santa Mike, Christmas begins in September. “That’s when the Argos catalogue comes out and from then on that’s all I read. The toy pages are essential in my line of work.”
Mike first donned his Santa hat back in the early 1990s. He was taken on by Harrods after his daughter called the London department store and told them she knew exactly the rotund, jovial fellow for the job. When he moved to Brighton, Mike became Father Christmas for the former Hanningtons department store before swapping his sleigh for the Argus Appeal bus.
He now visits schools, care homes and charities all over Sussex, helping to raise funds for local charities and organisations. Although he works flat out through December, he is busiest on Christmas Day when he visits The Royal Alexandra Hospital in the morning before spending the afternoon sitting under a 21ft Christmas tree at The Grand hotel in Brighton.
Brought up “the hard way” by a strict ex-regimental sergeant major father, Mike loves Christmas for the opportunity it brings to spread good cheer and happiness. “It’s only once a year and my aim is to put a smile on the face of everyone I meet, young or old, because no matter how old you are, there’s still a little child inside you trying to climb out.”
He studies his subject fervently, boasting that he has watched every Santa Claus movie ever made – “I watch them all, from the first Miracle On 34th Street to It’s A Wonderful Life. I study the actions and think yes or no in relation to my Santa.”
So which Santa is Mike’s most closely modelled on? “Me?” he says. “My Santa is 100% my own.”
Visit Santa Claus and his herd of reindeer at the Ashdown Forest Llama Park until Monday. Visit www.llamapark.co.uk or call 01825 712040.
To donate to The Argus Appeal, visit www.theargus.co.uk/argusappeal