When Grant Shimmin set out to get an exclusive interview with Santa Claus for today's profile, he was surprised to find it wouldn't require a long-distance call to the North Pole.
The jolly red man was moonlighting as a compliance officer at Fonterra's Clandeboye factory, northeast of Temuka.
Santa appears at my left as I'm standing at the Clandeboye reception sign-in screen. I don't recognise him at first. There's no beard, for starters, and the yellow fluoro vest looks as though it could be hazardous to other air traffic around on Christmas Eve. Then, as he takes me through the instructions to get my entry sticker, I realise this might well be an outpost of his North Pole workshop, and the vest is there to prevent him getting caught up in his elves' frantic rush towards the big night.
It turns out, though, once we get into the nearby boardroom, that he may just have taken up residence in South Canterbury for a while to deal with the heavy demand for public appearances here at this time of the year. He already has nine under his belt, including the Christmas parades in both Temuka and Timaru, and visits to resthomes and kindergartens, and he has several more to do before the big day rolls around.
It has been 26 years since this Santa took up the role, at a time when, he says, there were no Santa appearances in Temuka. That meant his own young daughter was missing out, as were other Temuka youngsters.
It all started out at IGA, a Temuka grocery shop located where the town's public library now stands, but expanded from there to take in other venues, including Paddy O'Reilly's popular dairy, where he sometimes sat inside to meet the local children and listen to their Christmas requests. It was an incident there, involving his own two sons, that told him he was doing a convincing job in his important role.
"I asked them ‘Where's your father?'
"They said ‘We never see him, he's always working.'!"
When his sons, the older of whom has just left school at the end of year 13, were young, he had to change into his Santa suit in a variety of interesting locations, including "telephone boxes, warehouses, cubicles" and even cars. Suiting up at home was out of the question.
There's not a lot of that sort of work still around for Santa, sitting in stores and seeing kids, which has saddened him a little, as has the increase in political correctness associated with his work.
"What really annoys me is that a lot of the parents who are anti-Santa now actually sat on my knee when they were kids.
"I say to some of them, ‘I haven't changed; there's no difference from then to now'."
The recent concerns of parents about children sitting on Santa's knee mean he now offers the children whose requests he receives at kindergarten and company events a choice: "They can sit on Santa's knee or sit beside Santa and have a talk."
Sometimes he will sit and talk to the children in a group, using an old school bell, which he says was "a gift from one of the elves", to summon them.
"We have a big discussion about the things we need for Christmas.
"I'll ask them things like ‘Is the chimney clean? Can I get down? Do I need a magic key?
"Then I'll ask them about Santa cookies and Santa biscuits. I'll ask them if they've made them yet, and tested the baking.
"I'll also ask them if they've got carrots for the reindeer, and what the garden's like, because that's where I'll have to land."
Not surprisingly, Santa gets a few interesting looks from parents during some of those discussions.
But some of his other points for the kids are likely to elicit smiles from mums and dads.
"I talk to them about practising early nights," he explains, adding he also asks children if their rooms are tidy, with no toys lying around that Santa might trip over.
"Some of them will go ‘Yep, my room's untidy' and their parents will agree with me, ‘better get the room tidy'."
Santa has also become expert in reading parents' body language. Sometimes, when he asks children what they want for Christmas, a request for a particularly expensive item will have mum and dad doing a double-take at the back of the room, and he will try to provide some assistance.
"I'll say something like ‘I'm not sure the elves are going to be able to do that' and then we'll talk about a Santa surprise.
"I'll tell them exactly what my elves are trying to do."
And often, he will have them eating out of his hand by the time he's finished, much to parents' relief.
This year, he says, a lot of the requests he has been getting are for "practical, down-to-earth stuff like Lego", rather than technology items, "which I think is very good".
Not all the requests he's received during his 26 years in the job have been as predictable, though.
When asked for the most unusual request he has encountered, he initially says simply "stuffed animals".
Not unusual at all, you might think, until he elaborates:
"Dad shot a goat and he wants it stuffed" is what the child who delivered that one actually said.
Then there was the little boy who wanted a bungy jump. "He wasn't very old, only about 4 or 5," Santa explains.
Not all requests are for gifts either.
"Some want to come back to the North Pole and more or less stay with me for the year.
"They probably think there'll be a lot of toys around."
There's also interest in his domestic arrangements.
"A lot of them ask about Mrs Claus, and what she does.
"I tell them she looks after me, and makes sure I'm well fed."
He's on to his fourth suit now and says they're a great way to keep the weight off, ironic given the popular round-bellied image of Santa: "Jenny Craig has got nothing on me," he says.
That's not surprising, really. The first one came from Denmark and America, and was very much designed for the northern hemisphere winter, so it has required a bit of adaptation.
That's important, because there's no room for distraction in such an important role.
"Once that suit goes on . . . bang, you're it!" he says. "You've got to immerse yourself in the character. I do a lot of jumping around and weaving."
He's also not shy about interacting with adults, especially when he knows them through his work at Fonterra.
"I get a lot of inside info from colleagues [about their children]," he explains. "Some of them become total Santa groupies because Dad knows Santa."
It's a bit of extra effort that's justified because, he says, the company has been "very good" in allowing him the time to be Santa for many others.
And there was a time in years past when he had "three and sometimes four events in one day".
"I don't get paid for it; the reward is the recognition," he explains.
"What I enjoy is the look on the kids' faces."
But probably not quite as much as they enjoy having Santa visit.
- © Fairfax NZ News