Stuck for fun? Rent a Santa

Sophie McBain speaks to a professional Santa about the highs and lows of the job.

When I meet Santa he’s wearing an orange baseball cap and tucking in to scrambled eggs in the self-consciously trendy rooftop café at Shoreditch House in east London. I feel relieved that Santa – or Damian Samuels, as he’s known for 11 months of the year – gave me his number beforehand. I’d felt confident I would be able to pick a professional Father Christmas out from the crowd, but Samuels is only 40, and has salt-and-pepper stubble rather than a long white beard.

Less unexpected is that the modern jobbing Santa has a PR representative, who has warned me that he doesn’t want to “spoil the magic” – as if my elder cousin Simon hadn’t done just that some time in the early Nineties. It was around this period that Samuels first put on a Father Christmas suit, having been promoted from an elf in the Selfridges grotto. He was just 21.

“The irony is, it’s almost a young man’s game being Santa, because you need the energy and performance,” he says. “It’s really hard work, you sweat profusely, and you’re knackered. When you’re doing a three-hour shift you have to be as jolly at the beginning as you are at the end.”

For most of the year, Samuels, like many professionals in this line of work, is an actor. Since setting up his own firm, Rent-a-Santa, five years ago, he has been in charge of a small troupe of Santas, and says he prefers to hire trained actors, who are more convincing than untrained lookalikes. Unsolicited job applications start trickling in from October. “There are a lot of average Santas out there,” he warns.

A few weeks ago he held auditions for which he invited candidates to dress up, belt out a convincing “Ho, ho, ho” and read “The Night Before Christmas” to an elf pretending to be a child.

“As an actor, you forget that what you say in an audition really sticks and I’ve never been on that side of the table before,” he says. “You can say one thing that really puts people off.”

One hopeful lost the gig when he mentioned he suffers from nosebleeds, another when he confessed to swearing a lot.

Being a professional Santa is not a bad job for an out-of-work actor. Samuels didn’t want to disclose exactly how much members of his team are paid, but says it’s never less than £175 for an hour’s work. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t make money out of this, but you do make people’s day. I’d much rather do this than work in a call centre.”

A successful Santa can expect to get some exciting invitations. Samuels’s most memorable experience was performing at Paul McCartney’s Christmas party. “I had Paul McCartney singing ‘Jingle Bells’ at me. One of the Beatles, singing ‘Jingle Bells’ at me! Then McCartney, who I’m a massive fan of, was taking pictures of me. It still freaks me out now,” he says.

There are unusual requests, too – the couple who asked for a Santa to bhangra-dance into their Indian wedding, the men keen for him to disturb them as they proposed to their girlfriends, or the parents who ask for Father Christmas to walk past their window to give their kids something to boast about in the playground.

When he’s dressed in his finery – a costume made by a tailor who specialises in priests’ cassocks – Samuels feels he’s spreading joy wherever he goes. “If you’re walking in the street as Santa, everyone hoots their horn. Cab drivers wave, bus drivers wave, the coolest kid on the street will wave,” he says.

Yet nothing quite spoils Christmas like playing its principal character. “I think I say the word ‘Christmas’ around a hundred times a day from August,” he says. “The last appointment on Christmas Eve is the best, because everyone’s really happy and I’m really happy. I get into my Addison Lee car, rip off my beard and think: ‘I don’t have to do this for another year.’” 

Santas in London. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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