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.’”