The Christmas’s of my childhood meant only one thing – the Lewis’s Christmas Grotto.
It was generally accepted that the Lewis’s department store in Leeds not only had the best toy department of any department store in Leeds (half of the top floor no less) but also went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to Santa’s Grotto every year.
The Co-op on Boar Lane had a go every year but always fell a long way short of the standard set by Lewis’s, even as a four year old you would stand there in the Co-op Santa’s Grotto and murmur “This is bloody rubbish mother”, they’d have snow made from white bed sheets, old pottery elves and dwarfs that had seen their prime sometime before the war and who didn’t move in any sort of mechanically-assisted way, and a Santa who clearly knew that he was a simply a Santa-in-Disguise whereas the Lewis’s Santa was always, like Coca-Cola, The Real Thing.
Every year my mother and some other random mothers from the street would drag us kids down to town and make our way up several escalators to the top floor to rush quickly past the row upon row of toy displays, “but mum, THATS what I want for Christmas, look …”, to the rear of the floor (very clever from the marketing department, get the kids to walk through the toy displays first) where a dark gaping doorway loomed. Manufactured from timber stoothing and plywood it was brought out from storage every Christmas season and repainted in that years theme, and outside the dark foreboding arched grotto doorway sat a fairy at a desk taking money from people.
“Half a crown without a present, five shillings with a present”, blackmail at its worst for which mother, having stood in a queue with a thousand other mothers and their offspring, would risk shame, indignation, the tut-tutting of the other mothers in the queue, and the half hour of screaming tantrum from their own kid, if they didn’t spend the full five shillings and go for the present option.
Once inside the grotto we would wander through winter wonderland displays of snowy landscapes and animated animals (usually squirrels, usually the same squirrels that you saw last year) for what seemed like an age, this was the Premier League of Santa’s Grotto’s, every other Santa’s Grotto that I visited paled into insignificance compared to the Lewis’s Santa’s Grotto, this really must be what it was like to visit Santa in his home at the north pole, and there was no doubt at all that the Lewis’s Santa was indeed the real Santa, you could tell because he had a real beard and all.
And then you approached the ultimate conclusion of the Grotto and you could always tell when you were getting close to Santa’s chair as the screams of those kids who’s mother had refused to pay the extra half crown for a present would grow louder as they were dragged along the floor out of the Exit archway without stopping to speak to Santa or receive a present from one of his fairies.
Fortunately our mother would never scrimp on the “Speak to Santa” option and so we always got to sit on his knee and mumble to him what it was we wanted him to bring down our chimney on Christmas Eve, I don’t know about anyone else but I always found it to be a terrifying ordeal to have to walk the few paces to Santas chair, step up onto the rostrum and be lifted up onto his knee, my head would drop to the floor, fingers would be thrust into mouth, face would flush and I’d secretly wish that I could be anywhere else but here right now.
“Ho-ho-ho, and what do you want for christmas little boy” the elderly red suited imposter would boom
“mmmmmmmmmm” I’d mumble something that even I couldn’t understand, having fingers in mouth and all
“Pardon ? Speak up sonny, Santa can’t hear you, ho-ho-ho”
“I said, mmmmmmmmmmmm”
“Whats he saying ?” Santa would ask our mother
“He wants a Magic Robot” she’d advise and his fairy assistant would pretend to scribble something on a Santa list
And then as soon as it began you’d be lifted off Santa’s knee and shoved out of the way by the next kid who always seemed to be wearing a leather ear-muff cap and not be at all afraid of Santa, you’d be led to a counter at a window in the wall where another one of Santa’s fairy helpers would brusquely ask “Boy or Girl?” and you’d wonder how Santa ever managed to complete his Christmas Eve rounds properly with idiots like this fairy helping him, you’d imagine them stood on the roof of your house with the fairy holding the list undecided whether or not it was a boy or a girl who lived here while Santa insisted “No, it was definitely that boy who wanted the Magic Robot” while the fairy changed her mind yet again…
The toy would always be something insignificant, something that Lewis’s had been otherwise unable to sell that year and it gave all the mothers the opportunity to stand outside the exit archway of the Grotto and gossip and natter about how the plastic toy that their child had received was not worth the extra half crown they’d just paid while we kids stood around waiting for their complaining to stop so that we could browse the toy department for ever in search of that one “big” present that our mothers had promised was on Santa’s list this year.