"I'd like a toilet seat, please. Can it be in green?" Whatever your vocation in life, the hours of training cannot prepare you for every eventuality; being Santa Claus is no exception. He could reel off, without hesitation, the names of the seven reindeer that pull the sleigh. But Santa recruitment tests and his list of FAQs had left him entirely unqualified to answer this request.
"It was the earnest look on his face when he asked," explains Santa Claus. "At the time, it was as much as I could do to keep a straight face, but later, on reflection, it was almost heart-rending. This poor boy must have got such a hard time over breaking a toilet seat at home, he'd decided he had better ask for one to appease his parents."
I met several Santas during a peripatetic week around Newham, east London (classified as one of the most deprived boroughs in England), to see how Father Christmas operates away from the commercial glitz of Oxford Street. I am talking to a plain-clothes Santa outside Stratford shopping centre. Stratford Station lies in front, a vast space-age construction, incongruous in its squalid surroundings. Five monolithic tower blocks loom behind, the grey paint flaking off their bleak facades. Santa refused my request to interview him during normal working hours: he didn't want to shatter the children's illusions.
There was certainly no respect for my illusions. It was difficult to equate the diminutive, slightly corpulent figure in front of me with the Santa Claus I had just seen, dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur, leather boots and belt, with a long white beard. I was unprepared for his metamorphosis. There is something slightly discomforting about seeing him unmasked, like walking in on your parents as they lie post-coitally entwined. You know about it, but you do not need it confirmed.
Santa explains that the shopping centre is out of bounds, as he would be invading the territory of a "commercial" Santa Claus. "There's two breeds of Santa Claus," he says, noting my raised eyebrows at his sudden vehemence, "the 'commercial' Santas of shopping centres and department stores, and 'genuine' Santas." He leans closer, a cigarette hanging precariously from the corner of his mouth, and whispers almost conspiratorially: "I used to work in a shopping centre. You can earn between £15 and £20 an hour, but it's unfulfilling. Santa shouldn't make a profit. It's disgraceful. St Nicholas was the patron saint of children because he gave gifts. He didn't expect money for them."
I wonder aloud, provokingly, whether this is danger money. I remind him that the Freeport leisure company has recruited bodyguards, not elf assistants, at its factory outlets to shield Santas from "overexuberant children". Tindi Sobera, the group marketing manager for Freeport, said: "We don't mind a tug of the beard, but last year Santa reported the odd bruise, so we've heeded his call and left nothing to chance."
I ask Santa to describe the most awkward aspect of the job. He muses and reaches up to scratch his now absent white beard: "It would have to be when a child who clearly has a pretty humble background asks for something a bit pricey . . . How can you promise a kid a PlayStation if his parents don't have two farthings to rub together? You know he won't get it and you're afraid to promise it to him, in case he gets disappointed when it isn't in his stocking and presumes he's been naughty. It's like Santa has been so hyped and the kids' expectations are too high."
I ask him what motivates him to play a fraudster. He smiles ingenuously. "Some Santas are different. I get a kick out of seeing the kids' faces. I only give small gifts, but I feel it's a bit of charity. Christmas is a real burden for parents who don't have much. No one wants their kids to be disappointed in them. I can't do much, but I like to feel I help out."
I've arranged to meet another Santa of the genuine breed at his grotto in Leyton. In this impoverished area, one small pink house stands choked between a long row of grey counterparts. "I've been at it for over 15 years now," my host reveals.
I ask him why grottos have been phased out in the shopping malls around here. "It's a shame, really," he replies. "Santas don't want the responsibility of being closeted in a tight area alone with a child. Santa's image took a knocking from the South African case a couple of years ago." He goes on to explain that an ageing Santa Claus was arrested on a charge of paedophilia in Cape Town in 1998.
He shows me an article from the local paper, the Reporter: "Tony Clark, 53, of Kingsley Road, Barkingside, whose five-year-old son suffers from cerebral palsy, raises money during the year from car-boot sales and gets hundreds of children visiting his grotto every year." He says: "You see, genuine Santas do it because of the kids - they love making them happy."
Interested in being Santa next year? To become a commercial Santa, catch a flight to the United States, fork out the princely sum of $200, and you can enrol in Santa school to get ahead of the competition. But don't expect toilet seats to feature in the course outline. That's for genuine Santas.