The countdown to Christmas is firmly on, now that we’ve got those traditional festivals like Black Friday and the first airing of the John Lewis advert out of the way.
So my kids have one priority this weekend – to visit a grotto so they can present a lengthy list of items from the Argos catalogue to Father Christmas.
But I’ve come to learn over the years that visiting a grotto can be a hit-and-miss experience.
If you get a good one – with twinkling lights and Santa really getting into the spirit of things – there’s nothing more conducive to festive cheer, with the possible exception of a large bottle of mulled wine.
Sadly, as I learnt last year, not all grottoes are like this.
Some fall distinctly short on the twinkly lights and enthusiasm front, and would be better advertised not as a Christmas grotto but as ‘A Beardy Bloke in a Shed.’
The one we visited last year was within a well-known attraction which shall remain nameless.
We’d pre-booked tickets and for this had the privilege of queuing outside for twenty five minutes in driving rain, with only a polystyrene cup of weak tea to keep warm.
Eventually we reached the front and were greeted by an elf in a cloud of stale Benson and Hedges and a face like he’d just being given a parking ticket.
He ushered the kids into to a corridor that boasted not one but six doors. This may have undermined Santa’s unique status somewhat but at least meant we didn’t have to wait much longer in the rain.
‘You’re in number four,’ he told us, before we found ourselves in a small cubicle with a man who appeared to be impersonating Jim Royle.
To be fair, you can have the most magical grotto, but unless Santa really gets into his role when engaging with the children, it’s still missing something.
Unfortunately, when we met Santa last year, it was difficult to imagine he’d be auditioning to get into RADA any time soon.
He asked all the pertinent questions - What would you like? Have you been good? Then instructed the kids to look into the corner of the room, at which point he pressed a button and an automated camera like those in in a passport booth flashed into life.
The experience concluded with the presentation of three plastic water pistols, which is obviously ideal for this time of year.
‘That was GREAT!’ my six year old declared. ‘And you could tell that was the real Father Christmas, because he had bits of mince pie stuck in his beard.’