Words: John Worsey
Professional Santa, Richard Gwenn, has such an amazing story, I can’t add to it. So here it is, in his own words:
“I had a good run, John. The plum Santa jobs start in May, believe it or not, with Christmas brochure shoots. In February, me and Lizzie would pack our suitcases and spend spring at our place in Tenerife. You’d want to put your feet up after all those months in the big black boots.
“When I turned pro, I never looked back. Fitted me like a glove, all the ‘ho ho ho’, making kids smile. Lizzie and me, we never had little ones of our own, so… Yeah.
“Thing is, it’s hard to be jolly when… Sorry, it’s just… With my big waistband, I never thought Lizzie would be the first of us to go… Horrible disease, it is. So cruel and quick. And you can’t…
“It’s just tough to be Father Christmas when you wake up crying. It’s hard to spin tales about the elves when the truth is, you live in an empty bungalow in Emsworth, all alone.
“I put a brave face on, of course. But that first Christmas, the closer it got, the lights in the shops and songs on the radio… I just couldn’t do it. So I cancelled everything. Shut myself in. Just sat there, on my half of the sofa, no Lizzie on the other side.
“On Christmas Eve, I couldn’t stand it. So I got in me car and drove, no plan, and found myself in Pompey, on the seafront. Got out, started to walk, and me legs took me onto South Parade Pier… Honestly, I think I was going to keep walking right off the end.
“And then… The strangest thing happened… I know you won’t believe me. But there was a scrabbling, okay? A scuffling, from the shadows. Stopped me in me tracks. I called out, ‘Is someone there? Are you okay?’
“No answer, but I just knew. So I walked right over, into this dark spot where none of the lights reached, and that’s when I saw him. Quivering, he was, shaking like a leaf. He had part of his harness on, but it was frayed through. Must have happened mid-flight.
“So there he was, this reindeer, and he’d caught a hoof in the boardwalk somehow. I said, ‘Alright mate, I’m here, it’s going to be okay.’ He looked right into my eyes. And he lit up. He glowed, just like they say about Rudolph’s nose, but all over. And I went, ‘That’s it, mate. You’ll be fine. You’re just a bit lost, okay?’
“I’d love to tell you I freed the poor soul. But I just said warm words and the next thing I knew, he pulled his hoof out, trotted up and licked me face, slobbery and full of love. Then he was up, up and away. A shooting star in reverse.
“Straight away, from the other side of the dark place, this bloke said, ‘Is someone there? Are you okay?’ I pottered out of the shadows and there’s this feller with a fishing rod. He went, ‘Weee! It’s Father Christmas.’ And this laugh came out of me, ‘Ho ho ho!’ Right from my belly.
“He went, ‘Seriously mush, are you alright?’ I said, ‘I think I will be.’ He squinted at me and said, ‘Are you on your own?’ I got a bit choked up at that, even though I was properly jubilant about helping that poor trapped reindeer – a reindeer, on South Parade Pier, can you believe it?
“Anyway, that was Rumal. Lovely bloke. Doesn’t really do Christmas, but he loves to fish. Took me back to his gaff, introduced me to the wife, made sure I got warmed up. Properly warm I was too, inside and out, first time in months.
“It was after midnight when I got home. Christmas morning. I walked in the living room. Looked at Lizzie’s side of the sofa. And told her, ‘Love, I’m going to be okay.’ Then I pottered over to the window and looked up at the stars. Thought maybe I’d see my reindeer up there, flying past, all glowing. I didn’t. But I whispered ‘Merry Christmas’ for him, anyway.
“And every time I say ‘Merry Christmas’ these days, it means more. Because I’m not thinking of mince pies and presents. I’m saying, ‘I know it can get awful dark. But don’t you forget how beautiful the light can be. Because sometimes people do. So let’s be the light for each other.’”