I have to admit I’m disappointed with Father Christmas. We meet at the bar of the Fasano hotel in the Ipanema district of Rio. He is dressed in a pared-down version of his trademark red suit, topped off with a pair of sunglasses. His beard is trim. His hair is tied back in a ponytail. He’s got a bit of a tan.
But it’s not the bobbly red hat I’m missing. He’s relaxed-jolly even- and I sort of hoped that beneath all the ‘ho ho ho he’ might actually be a bit of a grumpy bastard.
‘I’m never late,’ he tells me. ‘It’s unprofessional and there’s no apologising to kids. The little buggers stay wide awake all night. I couldn’t justify it.’
He arrived at the week-end with a Louis Vuitton bag (who does he send his letter to?) on a Virgin Atlantic ticket- no reindeers in sight. And I suppose this is what intrigues me most about him. Even without the carols and the trappings, he’s still Father Christmas. How is this?
‘It’s in my blood, not my beard,’ he winks cheekily.
But this is not altogether true. Born to a grocer and a housewife in Lapland in 1941, the last of four children, he had a happy if unremarkable childhood. Average at school, he still knew he was destined for something special. Sure enough, one day a silver-haired old man appeared at the gates and said it was time.
‘I knew immediately who he was. It felt right.’
But on the particulars of his training he is unapologetically reticent. The toy factory is the public face of the festivities but one senses that there’s more to the Christmas tradition than a bunch of elves on a production line and a large hessian sack. The reindeers, for intance. Is Rudolph really so well-loved by his peers?
‘There’s always a thirst for dirt,’ says Christmas. ‘People want to hear the reindeers are bitching or I’m downloading porn. One day I’m kissing married women under the mistletoe, the next I don’t even exist.
O.K, maybe I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t asked a few gals to sit on my lap and tell me what they want for Christmas. But I was a lad then and learning the ropes. Still had to wear padding.
Only round my middle, mind- make sure you leave that in,’ he adds.
This gets me thinking about the future and who he’s showing the ropes to now. But he sees it coming and heads me off at the pass, wanting to talk instead about his work in Africa. Or rather lack of it.
‘I’d like to take my sleigh to the Third World but there are serious logistical issues, as you can imagine. The chimneys I can work around but my big mincemeat belly is who I am and I can’t go thrusting that into the faces of deprived children.’
So Christmas intends to test-drive an initiative in 2010 whereby he downgrades the more ambitious of the Christmas wish letters, passing on the savings to a Secret Santa trust fund for the needy.
‘I don’t like to interfere with dreams but I can’t say I enjoy dropping ponies off in whopping great mansions and it’s not just because they’re heavy.
It seems an outrageous idea but the parents may have to buy some of the presents themselves.’
This balanced attitude seems to sum up Christmas well. He’s a large man with no greed. A snow bear who likes to catch some holiday rays. A larger-than-life character with a humble outlook.
Before we part I want to ask the biggie. The one about his impossible Christmas Eve workload. But somehow it seems the wrong question, like asking God how he can be 3 people in one. Should we even want to unravel the man from the myth?
Father Christmas takes a long sip on his Caparinha.
‘Just let yourself believe,’ he smiles, looking me in the eye.
And I’m not disappointed any more.