It was a clear, cold winter night in the village square as people gathered round the old clock tower to sing carols. The bells were ringing and the candles were flickering on the stallholder’s barrows – hot chestnuts, mulled wine, small toys and sweeties, crackers and trinkets. Children’s laughter and calls of delight filled the air as people hustled and bustled jovially past one another.
I didn’t know many people but soon found myself caught up in the mood of good will. This was a well-known and much enjoyed local custom that happened every year and many came from neighbouring towns to join in. As the fair slowed down and the crowd thinned I made my way back to our house near the river, it wasn’t far and my body was warm from the hot drinks and cooked delicacies.
After about a hundred yards or so I saw an old cloth sack lying in a heap under one of the streetlights. I was going to walk past it, after all a sack is only a sack and of not much interest to me, but it caught my attention because it moved. I stopped and stared at it quite sure my eyes were deceiving me. But it moved again. There was no noise and nobody else was around. Then it jerked and almost hopped.
With curiosity on alert I took a step forward held it by the collar and to my surprise easily lifted it. I squeezed the sackcloth and could, I was sure, feel fabric inside. Moving away from the street lamp and into the shadows I opened it. It was difficult to see but it seemed to be red with white trimmings, pulling a little harder out came a Father Christmas outfit.
There was a red and white trimmed hat with lots of bushy white hair and beard attached to a pair of gold rimmed spectacles. A set of red trousers and matching jacket with deep red shoes completed the uniform. I took it home.
Once through the front door I put the bag on the floor and went to stoke up the fire. When I turned, I saw to my astonishment, that the Christmas uniform was out of the bag and hanging in mid-air.
It seemed it was waiting for me to try it on. I did as was beckoned and it fitted like a glove although it might have been more convincing had I had a larger girth. I peeped at myself in the looking-glass that hung in the passage way but instead of a reflection there was a lady’s hand passing me a large glass of brandy and an envelope within which was the instruction, “Hand this to the man waiting outside your front door.”
I took the glass and sniffed and tasted it suspiciously, it was warm and strong. I drank it without further ado and watched as the hand faded away. I read the note again and quickly opened the front door, and what I saw defied belief. There in front of me, parked on the narrow, dimly lit street was a small red and gold sleigh with a soft velvet seat. Fur rugs and cushions were neatly stacked on the floor whilst a quiet hum leaked from hidden speakers, the sound of humming angels susurrating from the undercarriage.
Beyond, old Rudolph stood patiently watching over his crew who were busy stretching their legs before being re-attached to the sleigh, their breath winding up into the night sky, little bells jingling on their harness.
A small man dressed in a dark blue, wool overcoat and gloves with a matching chimney hat appeared from behind the sleigh. “Good evening Father Christmas, Chichester.” he said: “May I welcome you aboard?”
He took the slip of paper from my hand and helped me into my seat.
“Please make yourself comfortable. There are drinks and canapés in the armrests, the seat is heated and the rugs plentiful. We will be flying for sixty-three moments across a clear, sapphire sky. The stars, he rhymed, are in their constellation and will guide us to our destination.
“And what or where is our destination?” I enquired closing my house door and climbing aboard. He smiled conspiratorially but gave no answer. As the sleigh edged its way out of the small street it effortlessly started to climb. Clearing the bank of the river it then followed the direction of the water gaining speed as it ascended into the night sky. I settled into the seat, fixed a strong drink, pulled the fur around me, ate some canapés and gazed at the sparkling star.
The gentle rhythm of the reindeer’s canter, the creaking of the chassis and the heavenly music mixed with the swish of warm air that came from the sleigh gently manoeuvred me into a suspended animation. A gentle nudge from the chauffeur brought me back into play. “We will be arriving in four moments.” I could see a large gothic looking castle getting closer and bigger until we flew low over its roof, swung round and landed on a lawn without end.
In the half-light, I could just make out a handful other sleighs with their trusted steeds lazily taking no notice of anything beyond their nose bags. “Looks like you have brought me to a party,” I said to my pilot. He was feeling a bit more helpful now that we had arrived.
“It is the annual British celebration of our Saint Nicholas hosted by the Prince of Philanthropy. There are six Santa’s who have qualified and you are one of them,” my companionable driver informed me. “But I am not qualified for anything of the sort. There must be some mistake.” I looked for the chimney hat but he had disappeared.
Tall torches burnt marking out the walk from the field up to a draw bridge lowered for the evening. Once over the moat the double wooden doors of this intimidating citadel with its giant golden knocking rings on either side of a keyhole big enough for a cat to get through, swung open. I was drawn inwards like a sailor to the sirens. This was the offspring of a Gormenghast and Hunyadi union; a great Gothic-Renaissance folly.
As I stood adjusting to the dim interior a small jocular fellow with white wavy hair and wearing what looked like long johns and a vest welcomed me with a hearty hand-shake and a merry laugh. “Follow me.” His voice was so deep it made Leonard Cohen sound like a soprano.
We crossed the hall, went down a long winding passage over a little bridge spanning an internal stream and finally up a steep set of well-worn stone steps. At the top my guide stopped and turned to look at me. “It is good to see you Father Christmas Chichester. Follow me. By the way, my name is Niko.”
Niko was clearly in a leading mode, no walking side by side. He seemed to be hardly touching the ground as we swept down another long corridor and with a theatrical bow he pushed open a door made from old apple wood and bid me enter. “Behold!’”
Here was a ballroom of magnificent proportions with an army of statues and gallery of portraits. Marble columns stretched towards the sky holding up a series of vaulted ceilings and a collection of chandeliers hung on chains seemingly materialising out of a scented mist.
Heavy tapestries absorbed the candle light keeping the room warm. A soft silence filled the space. My jolly chum let me absorb the scene before directing me towards a small group of people sitting in a row of thrones, one was empty. “Please take a seat,” he said, pointing to a vacancy. “These gentlemen are the other finalists.”
“Finalists?” I asked. “Finalists of what?”
“All will be revealed shortly. Now if you will excuse me I must go and put on my own habit.”
I sat down at the end of the row of other Santa Clauses exchanging polite smiles of greeting but no more.
I had time to reflect on the oddity of it all and found that everything seemed perfectly normal. It was simply a British ceremony celebrating something that Santa’s obviously celebrate. I had no idea what it was all about but it didn’t matter. The room with its inimitable atmosphere and genial company fed my sense of being profoundly content.
It was not long before a fanfare sounded. A trio of Elves stood on a balcony and blew out a tune of freshly minted notes that fell to the ground and melted away.
Standing on a stage was my jolly friend dressed in his appropriate Father Christmas regalia. He bowed and then raised his hands indicating that we six Santas should stand. We obeyed in harmony.
“Gentlemen. As you know (I didn’t) each year at this time we gather votes from all our British friends who have put forward their favourite candidate to win a SANTA. Again, as you know (I still didn’t) the six finalists meet in this room fit for a King to hear the result as to whom has won the coveted SANTA, or to give it it’s full name, the Seasonal Award Nominated for True Altruism.”
Our host paused to collect himself.
“Tonight, we have one finalist from each of the following counties; Staffordshire, Roxburghshire, County Antrim, West Suusex, County Powys and the Isle of Man. Their names have been written on a piece of paper, folded and put into this red hat trimmed with raw white cotton.” Our host paused again this time taking a swig straight from a bottle which I took to be rather blunt but there again everything was mad, He went on, “Now it is time to ask Mother Christmas to come to pick and announce the chosen county taken from the hat.”
A lady of fine stature, appeared from the shadows, unquestionably British. She was Boadicea, she was Vera Lynne and Jane Austin, she was Francis Nightingale and Queen Victoria. She was some lady. As she sashéd across the polished floor we father Christmases left our seats and cheered her onto the rostrum. An aide passed her the hat of folded papers, the band stopped playing and the lights went out save two spots. One lit our hostess the other was trained high up into the eves where a black eagle with a gold chain collar was perching.
She announced: “Welcome to The Seasonal Award Nominated for True Altruism. The SANTA award is, as you know, conferred on a Father Christmas picked randomly from a list of six. What starts as nominations from all the counties of the United Kingdom ends up in this hat filled with just six finalists. They are all the winner, they have all impressed, reassured and collectively projected the raison d’etre of Christmas.
“However, it is traditional that only one name is taken randomly from this hat and that name is the ultimate holder of the SANTA award. It is then up to the holder to dedicate his victory to a charity of his choice, after which we, the Father and Motherhood of Christmas will support and promote whenever, and wherever we can, the chosen Charity.”
We waited as she played for time standing stock still with eyes tightly closed. Suddenly, she clicked her fingers and the magnificent shiny bird who had been perching patiently in the eves dropped down and swooped across the room, then gliding over the hat he snatched a single piece of paper with his claw.
The invisible band began to play as the bird, followed by the spot light, circled close to the ceiling. Then the Eagle made one more pass and let the note fall into the waiting hand of our Mother Christmas then, with a few strong beats, disappeared back into the darkness.
I looked around the room and although it was dimly lit the proportions of the venue were prodigious. It was warm and made me think of heating bills in the North Pole. Of course, I knew all this pageantry and who-ha was nonsense. I owed it to the maker of the mulled wine in town who had surely laced his potion with something stronger than grape juice? But I was happy to surrender to the groove and what happened next was a glorious finalé.
Our illustrious “Mother” unfolded the oddment of paper, held it up and announced, “The winner of this year’s SANTA is…,” with a distant roll of drums, a series of high-pitched calls from the eves and with all lights off except the single down-lighter, the announcement was called out, “Father Christmas, Chichester.”
The lights came on and I was surrounded by a mixed bag of Father Christmas’s wishing me well and waiting for my acceptance speech.It was time for me to announce the charity to which I dedicated my win and who would benefit from Father and Mother Christmas’s input.
Pulling myself together I happily announced, “My charity of choice is, THRIVE. This received a strong round of applause and I continued, “THRIVE uses GARDENING to bring about positive changes in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable.’
Glasses of Champagne were liberally poured and clicked.
After more clapping, hand shaking and back slapping with calls of “well done, congratulations, and “good choice” the room was soon swimming in music coming from the invisible orchestra playing popular seasonal tunes.
After we had each taken a turn at waltzing our noble Mother Christmas around the hall, Niko or as we had gathered, Father Christmas, called for silence and the room became quiet and still. Slowly he began to sing, his mellifluous voice rendering that old Coots and Gillespie favourite; “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”
It only took a few bars before we all joined in.
“You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.”
It was a chilling breeze that awoke me and as I looked about I realised I was back in the familiar surroundings of our home, lying on the bed with the curtains and window open and an empty champagne glass in my hand. I felt cold but rested and sober. The clock ticked quietly and the radiators battled for effect. It was dawn and a milky sun struggled with the clouds outside.
I blinked trying to remember what had happened on my way home from the carol singing. My other hand was tightly holding on to something. I opened my fingers and in my palm, was a small white medal embossed with SANTA 2017. Outside the church bells had just started peeling reminding its congregation to attend the Christmas service.
If you would like to make a donation to Thrive please contact:
Thrive 2107. Charity No.277570. Company No.1415700
The Geoffrey Udall Centre, Beech Hill, Reading, RG7 2AT.
Tel 0118988 5688 [email protected]