I must start with a confession. I watch Elf every Christmas. It has become our family Christmas film and Will Ferrell’s complete unadulterated daftness as Buddy never fails to make me laugh. The character’s sheer innocence and excitement about Christmas is infectious, and this is so very true for children. Elementary school prinicpals need to keep that in mind.
And we have to be aware of the impact when that bubble is burst, as in one memorable scene of the film when Buddy sees that the store’s Santa is not the “real” one: the disappointment is massive.
For younger children, in particular, the visit of Santa to their school is hugely exciting. If you are called upon to play the old guy, you want to make sure that they are not disillusioned like Buddy – you’ve got to nail it.
Know your audience
As is the case for any good thesp, it helps to know your audience; preparation, preparation, preparation, darling. Check who you can and, more importantly, who you definitely can’t speak to. Prepare for tricky questions such as “why have you got dark/no hair?” Make sure you can fit into any chair you might be asked to sit on and make sure you give the right cards/presents to the right children.
Don’t downplay it
A grand entrance will raise the excitement levels. When I was growing up as a forces child, Santa would pitch up astride a fire engine or even once, very memorably, in a helicopter. Wow! We were so excited, but this feeling turned to disappointment because he sat miles away at the front of the hall and called out just a few names from each class to collect the class cards.
So for a great experience for the children, Santa needs to get in among them.
Being convincing is not always easy and children have an image of the Santa they want to see. A good Santa “shape” helps so unless you are blessed in that department, padding may be required. Crucially, have an exit plan such as “my reindeer need their lunch” or “my reindeer are round the corner and I’ve left them on double yellow lines”. Don’t overstay your welcome or the wheels will start to come off.
For five years, I was Santa at my previous school’s neighboring infant school. The first time I did it, I didn’t really know what to expect. Maybe a bit of jovial “ho-ho-ho”-ing, a “Merry Christmas!” or two, handing out some presents and that would be it.
No such luck. I quickly became tongue-tied and couldn’t see from under the hood of my costume. It didn’t go well, especially when one little girl peered rather too closely at me and said, “I know you. You teach my sister.”
Some helpers steered me away at the end but the oversized hood was my downfall and I didn’t notice the very unforgiving hall door. A swift sherry in the principal’s office afterwards revived me and eased the pain.
So no one was more surprised than I was when I was asked to return the following year. I trotted across the road and delivered, if I say so myself, a barnstorming performance of jollity and joviality, helped by a new costume that allowed me to navigate through doors and around dining hall chairs without any help. The die had been cast.
After five years, I had realized that for any appearance to be a success one has to try to make sure that:
• The costume fits. It will probably be itchy and, truth be told, pretty musty as it is unlikely to be washed from one year to the next. Insist on a clean outfit.
• The beard covers everything. There’s nothing worse than visible elastic or showing anything that can identify you. Santa would never have bare arms, and a watch that can be seen is a definite no-no.
• You can see where you are going. See above.
• You don’t try to eat anything wearing the beard. Ever.
• You practise deepening your voice and developing the laugh. Be careful not to sound like Sid James, though.
• You have a mint or two beforehand. Otherwise, don’t breathe on them.
How do you approach it?
Some may prefer method acting and feel that they have to immerse themselves in the character. They can find themselves worrying about everything: what is my motivation? How would Santa be feeling at this point? How would he react to a problem?
For many, the overriding attitude will probably be “how the heck do I get out of here as quickly as I can without causing any damage?”
Others will just go with the flow and find that they enjoy it so much they want to stay (they may almost have to be dragged out the hall).
I would suggest you pull on the big black boots and just try to be the Santa your children would want. Simple as that.
Remember, no one likes a Scrooge...
If you think schools should be serious and that this sort of thing has no place in education, then you clearly have never taught elementary-aged children, nor been one.
Christmas is something that dominates elementary schools from October onwards, so fighting it is pointless. And why would you want to? Stop being a Grinch and get a little of Buddy in your soul.
This is an article from the 11 December edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here