When I was growing up, I knew Christmas was really and truly on its way when my mother whispered those magical words "We're off to meet Father Christmas". Such excitement would then overtake my sister and me to the point we could barely speak.
Dressed in our Sunday best, my mother would take us on the number 14 bus, all the way to Piccadilly Circus. She always made sure we went in the late afternoon, so that by the time we reached central London we would walk along Regent Street and turn into Oxford Street, craning up to admire the Christmas lights in the dark December tea time.
Cold and rosy cheeked, we would push our way through the thronging crowds of Christmas shoppers in Selfridges and get in the queue to meet the great man himself.
There was always a tremendous series of window displays fronting Oxford Street, and then the actual lead-up to the grotto inside itself invariably took my breath away.
Coming away from my encounter with such a great figure (indeed, having sat on his lap – no chance of that these days) I would know for sure that Christmas was coming.
But these days it's all so different.
Sometimes, I think organisers trying to set up Santa Grottoes have gone too far the other way. Of course we all know Father Christmas can't be everywhere at once (he saves that magic trick for Christmas Eve alone) but sometimes I despair at the commerciality and organisation of it all – not to mention the rip-off nature of some grottos.
Rewind just two yuletides ago to the lamentable excuse for Lapland which appeared in the New Forest. Less than two weeks after it was opened, following over 2,000 complaints and with Fr Christmas and his elves being punched by angry customers, the site was closed down.
And in my time, with three children, I've sampled some of the best, and worst, of Father Christmas visits.
There was the time my friend Jill and I, four children in tow, quite literally fell on top of Santa, so small was his department store grotto. We'd already walked past him twice, sitting in a large chair surrounded by a few sad cut-out reindeer, before we looked back and spotted him.
"Hey ho Father Christmas!", yelled Jill as she yanked the children back to see him. He tried his best, poor man, but you could see his heart wasn't in it. Clearly the 4pm shift is a hard one, if you've been "ho-ho-ho-ing" since 10am.
Another year we decided to go large, and took the children - now five of them - to see Father Christmas and his elves in the "crystal grotto" of a vast and impressive 18th century landscaped garden.
The setting was perfect; we trooped through the dusk for half an hour or so, getting muddier and colder, but excitedly singing Christmas songs at the top of our voices as we got closer to the Big Moment. But as we neared the grotto, a six foot smiling snowman jumped out from the bushes to accompany us the last few yards.
My friend's daughter – who some six years later is still terrified of anything dressed up – ran screaming into her mother's arms. My husband, gamely taking charge of the situation, tried to bundle the snowman out of sight. All he succeeded in doing was wrestling the enormous white mass to the ground and rolling around on the floor with him – in a most unseemly fashion - for a few moments. The sight of the snowman trudging sorrowfully off, whilst Hannah screamed for merry England, is something I laugh about every Christmas.
And how times change. This year Selfridges invite your child to board the Santa Express for a magical journey to Lapland. But just so you can rest in your bed at night, know that his elves are all CRB checked and if you don't like the picture of you and your child with Fr Christmas, there can be two more attempts. Somehow, it's lost its magical sparkle for me.
However, after many years of research, we've finally found our all-time favourite "Santa encounter".
You ride a real steam train across the fields in the dark, arriving at Santa's station to be greeted by a twinkly old man dressed in green, dripping tinsel from every part of his being. He leads you off across the grounds to a cosy room where you're invited to buy charity raffle tickets for some fabulous prizes – hand-knitted toilet roll cover with doll, anyone?
Then you wander through Santa's workshop, where another twinkly old man invites you child to knock nails in a piece of wood – he's repairing Santa's sleigh and they haven't heard of health and safety in this neck of the woods. And then, before you know it, Mrs Christmas comes to find you, and ushers you into the great man's (decidedly chilly) cabin. I think the year before last it was the REAL Father Christmas – my children certainly think he was. For one thing his white beard was real, and he spoke in a quiet commanding yet friendly tone. Even my husband and I were star-struck.
Anyway, if visiting Fr Christmas isn't enough to build up the suspense these days, there's one other thing the whole family can do on Christmas Eve which is guaranteed to get the most sceptical of children excited. Log on to www.noradsanta.org. Here, courtesy of the North American Space Defence Command, you will be able to track Father Christmas and his reindeer as they race about the world, dropping off presents. Believe me – it's addictive.
And if you're still keen to find the perfect Santa, here's our guide to the best of Santa's grottoes throughout the UK.
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