Santa's little helpers

Last updated 11:42 21/12/2013
Toby Beaglehole
Cameron Burnell

TEAM SANTA: Toby Beaglehole oversees NZ Post's team of letter readers and writers who wade through thousands of letters to Santa.

Lindy Pacey
Cameron Burnell
CHRISTMAS CHEER: Linda Pacey's Christmases are geared around serving a lunchtime feast to hundreds.

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Christmas is nigh and the jolly gent is packing the sleigh, happy in the knowledge he is not alone in spreading the joy. DIANA DEKKER searches out some of Santa's little helpers.

Being Santa is not easy. It calls for stamina, and the incumbent is no longer young. All those kilometres, all those heavy presents, and that long white beard to keep in order on the journey - no-one can be expected to do it without a little help. Millions of letters need to be answered, millions of requests considered.

Across New Zealand, before the day even comes, people are carolling, cooking, wrapping and delivering to make his job a little easier. Some of Santa's little helpers gear up months before, planning community Christmas lunches and deciding how best to flag his arrival with ever more extravagant shop window displays. Here are a few of them . . .

*****

Toby Beaglehole is Santa's representative at NZ Post and, in return, the grand old man is a loyal supporter of NZ Post. Where the volume of snail mail generally is down, letters to Santa still flood in every year. There were around 120,000 last Christmas and Beaglehole expects the tally to be about the same this year.

"Santa's doing all he can to support letter mail, " the 42-year-old says. "He even wears our colours, which is pretty good of him."

Sometimes Beaglehole's letter-writers, beavering away on Santa's behalf, are overwhelmed with work. They're faced with whole classloads of 30 or 40 hopeful correspondents. There is a carefully crafted reply but every letter-writer who includes an address gets a personal response before Christmas. Beaglehole orchestrates the team that helps with the letters, and he has more onerous duties during the year as the seriously titled General Manager Business Performance and Optimisation.

Twenty per cent of Santa's letters come in via a form on NZ Post's website, an electronic development that has matched a surge in requests for electronic gear like iPods, iPads and other tablets.

Sometimes the requests are copious enough to call for an individual sleigh, such as this one: "dear santa can i please a slushy maker and robo fish and lego freind, s and adventure time stuff, microchargers, chocolate santa and christmas lollies, floorstanding foosball table, dreamlights, furbyboom, inkoos, ediblesweetart, helicopter with the control, aquadragons, pool, dolphinride on." That's a worry for Santas's helpers. No kid can be that good.

Some who have been doing their best have more modest requests: "To Santa. I have been very good and I have been trying very hard to stop sucking my thumb. I would like a scooter for Christmas."

And one under no illusions: "Dear Santa, I have not been good, but I want a ball. thanks."

The most poignant and impossible request this year came in a letter that made Santa's scribes shed a tear. It was in the form of a wish to "make my koro [grandfather] come back to life cause he was cool he used to give us lollies and ice cream and we used to ride in his wheel chair it was fun. But please Im begging from the bottom of my heart if you can make him come back life but if you cant can you at least say hi to him for me please."

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And, as he's probably one of Santa's favoured, what does Beaglehole's own letter ask for?

"A large snapper on the end of my fishing line in the Marlborough Sounds. I'll be there on Christmas Day."

*****

Every Christmas Day for more than quarter of a century Lindy Pacey has got up bright and early, kissed her kids - until they were grown-ups and gone - and disappeared down to Wellington's Aro St to make the day shine for a mix of the city's lonely, needy and altruistic.

For the past 50 Christmases, a swarm of helpers and helped have packed the Aro Valley Community Centre Hall for Room at the Inn's Christmas lunch.

The lunch, she says, is quite simply necessary. This year they're catering - everything donated, all services volunteered - for 300.

"I'm very passionate about it, " the 62-year-old says. "It's very important, and carries on the work of founders Keith Brown and Pat Finco. They started something that was needed in the city

"We always have it at the Aro Valley hall. People know to go there. They have been going to the same place for a long time. They just know, and turn up. Sometimes there are almost more volunteers than people, but that's not a bad thing, people talking to people, all of us talking amongst each other."

All the gear needed for cooking is moved down to the hall before the day. Rob Mayo, volunteer chef for 13 years, does the cooking with help from other charitable chefs. On the frantic morning of Christmas, the lunch is readied. To add to the chaos, more than 100 meals are prepared for volunteers to ferry out, with gifts, to people in the city who are needy and can't make the lunch.

The lunch fills the hall with the fragrant smell of stuffed turkey and steamy fresh vegetables, and goes on "till the last person finishes". The chatter and laughter die away when the final slice of pavlova and cream disappears and the diners wander out, replete.

With such an ambitious catering effort, Pacey expects an occasional hitch

"It won't be perfect, but it will be as perfect as we can have. There's nothing that can't be sorted through. One Christmas Day the power went off when we were doing dessert. I shouted: 'There must be an electrician in the house', and there was, and it was fixed."

The nucleus of Room at the Inn is four dedicated people, including Pacey, who meet and fundraise - "just enough to cover things" - during the year. Four people, she says, is enough. "Any more and you get more complicated."

It is a mammoth job. Pacey, who has a fulltime job as an administration co-ordinator in the forensic services division of Capital & Coast District Health, takes a week off before Christmas Day. As she's heading to Aro St, she usually has a moment of thinking, "Oh, god".

"And then I think, 'come on', and you just do it. It's mostly chattering and checking."

Much later, she goes home, and her family cook Christmas dinner for her - despite the fact that she is already roping in her three grown daughters and two sons-in-law to help with the lunch.

*****

Christmas is best dreamed of tucked up safely in bed with a Christmas tree in the lounge and a turkey thawing slowly in the fridge. But the kids Hannah McQuilkan will clown around for today are in Starship children's hospital in Auckland, sick enough to be in the emergency department but mostly not too sick to be distracted, even just a little, by a clown.

McQuilkan is from the Clown Doctors Charitable Trust, which also fools around happily for sick children in Christchurch and Wellington. She will be dressed in her usual outrageous shocking-pink, sequinned sticky-out dress and tottering on her high-wedged sneakers. It's an outfit appropriate for her clown persona - Dr Strut-Her-Stuff, a would-be top model.

She has an inkling of what she might be doing today - singing Christmas carols - "and getting them all wrong, maybe making crazy shapes with my body and asking what Christmas present I am and whatever they say is right, perhaps ask what they want for Christmas and acting Santa coming down the chimney".

Clown doctors, says performer McQuilkan, make perfect sense in an environment where the real doctors might seem scary and have to do new and perhaps painful things.

"Doctors do try to put humour into their work, but they can't avoid the job sometimes not being particularly nice."

McQuilkan has been clowning for three years and is one of more than 20 clown doctors in New Zealand. She trained for 10 days under a representative of the Austrian-based international clown doctors' organisation.

Clowning for children in hospital combines her background in natural health and her love of performing.

"A friend suggested I audition for a clown doctor and I was initially sceptical. I thought, I'm not a clown. But from the beginning I knew this was what I wanted to do."

She's rostered on at Starship once a week, not always in the emergency department, but often takes on extra shifts.

"We go in pairs. Part of the reason is we have a friend to bounce off against. It's all improvised." She might engage a parent, a child, or a staff member, sensing the situation, so she is mischievous and high-energy if a child is up to that, low-key if they are not, and isn't there at all if they are desperately ill. Sometimes she's called to distract a child from a medical procedure.

She won't be on duty on Christmas Day when the wards are emptied of every child who can possibly leave for the day and realise their Christmas dreams at home - as she will.

*****

A few weeks before Christmas, Santa's world, as imagined by Chris Parker, 60, and his wife, Lindie, 61, is revealed in Christchurch and Timaru in the windows of Ballantynes department store. In Christchurch, Santa is podgily living in a candy factory and his helpers include elves in safety-wear with hard hats and ear muffs - an earthquake- related elf and safety touch.

"It's a bit of a steampunk theme, " says Chris, who's managed to fit in a talking tree and Hansel and Gretel. "Creative carnage, " he calls it.

A nose pressed against the windows of Ballantynes in Timaru almost comes up against the monster red jellybean nose of a startled reindeer, caught mid- flight. Behind him, Santa is practically engulfed in gifts. The sleigh is forging through a sky thick with tinsel and baubles.

The Parkers, with a handful of other creative people, have been setting the Christmas scene at Ballantynes for more than a decade. Each year planning starts with store management almost before the wrapping paper from the Christmas before is consigned to the recycling bins.

Ballantynes is magic for the Parkers in more ways than one. They met there 40 years ago, though they have their own business now, Portfolio Creative.

Window display budgets are not as lavish as they used to be, says Chris, so Santa paraphernalia from previous years is often recycled.

"We turn it into new creations and there is, anyway, a new generation of little tinies coming along who won't have seen them."

On the night the windows are unveiled - November 22 this year - the Parkers always hold their breaths. A couple of thousand people came along this year.

"Towards the end there were sticky fingers all over the glass. It tells us if we've been successful. There's a low-tide mark from the tinies and a high tide mark above from the bigger kids."

*****

Dixon McMillan is a seasoned scene- setter for Santa. Tomorrow night the 70-year-old will give his immaculate baritone euphonium a final quick and superfluous polish and take to the stage in Wellington's St James Theatre for the Big Carol Sing with the rest of the Wellington Citadel Band. There he will play classic old Christmas carols like Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing for the many-hundredth time. Everyone who loves them and can squeeze in will join in.

McMillan has been carolling in Wellington for 50 years, a lifetime of reminding people via the Salvation Army that Christmas is not all tinsel and turkey but a Christian celebration.

He and his colleagues played in the Christmas parade, and, in a smaller group, their festive music has wafted out in Lambton Quay from early in December - "12 to one is our little gig". He has also played in selected supermarkets, including on the forecourt at Moore Wilson's on a Saturday to a crowd "like Picadilly Circus".

He learned to play the euphonium when he was 8 or 9 and living in Napier, and was playing "properly" and carolling with the Salvation Army by the time he was 10. Those were the days. Health and safety regulations barely existed. They toured the suburbs and more rural ares on a flat-backed Bedford truck, sitting on roped-together forms from the Salvation Army hall.

"OSH wouldn't be impressed with the way we did it. It would be a nightmare now. You couldn't get away with it these days."

At 20 he shifted to Wellington, played on the streets at Christmas and in homes for the elderly and hospitals. He's been part of the Big Carol Sing for as long as it has been going in Wellington, so many years he can't say exactly - probably 15 to 20. The free, community singalong is usually held in the Town Hall, currently being earthquake strengthened. The big sing is always packed.

"There have been a couple of occasions when there was a delay because they couldn't fit all the people in. It's a real 'come in and sing the traditional carols'. We might roll out eight or 10. It's not for us to perform, but for people to enjoy singing them."

McMillan's involvement with the band has been "a little while and a bit of fun" and has taken him touring across the world. But at home he never tires of seeing the rapt faces of littlies and their parents at the familiar sounds of Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at his numerous Christmas gigs. "Kids love it."

McMillan probably won't take up his euphonium on Christmas Day. He and his wife's Wellington home will be filled from dawn to dusk with musical chatter from seven grandchildren and their own three grown children and their partners.

"The whole team will be here, " he says. "We might have a bit of a singalong, but my singing is not great. And I won't be doing the turkey."

- The Press

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