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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.