This story is taken from a recorded interview and is transcribed with very little editing to preserve the details.
John Prior, Santa Claus at Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton, UK.
“My earliest memory of Santa Claus, I suppose is the same as every other child, you just get told it by your mother. I certainly wasn’t taken to see Santa Claus because I was a baby in World War Two, visiting Santa wasn’t something that you did, you know. I’m retired from my main business, I’ve been an actor in my time, I’ve been an Arts Council bureaucrat in my time and I could go on for a long time talking about what I’d been. But I’m a retired old man now and I do this at Christmas time.
I work for a company run by my daughter, putting Christmas grottos into shopping precincts basically and it can be a fairly debased thing being Santa Claus. I’m working with a colleague, we do different shifts. We try to be as close to one another as possible in terms of the myth that we pass on to the children. The task you set yourself, you work as Santa Claus helper, and of course Santa Claus can’t be everywhere, he’s magical you know, he can be very small and go through a keyhole, a letter box, what have you. But he can’t be in more than one place at a time, so he does have to have helpers. Sometimes he’s the one that’s in the grotto. Sometimes it’s me or one of my friends helping him out because he can’t be everywhere at the same time and everybody wants to see him at Christmas time. So what one hopes is that the children one see’s, believes that this time it’s been really Father Christmas that they’ve seen.
It’s very hard work but it’s very fulfilling. What you find yourself doing in this job is, you become a kind of family therapist. You have three minutes with a child and their family and they come in and they could be the ideal nuclear family all believing in Father Christmas, all wanting to make the most of Christmas. It could be a fractured family, could be dad has just got the child for the day. Somehow you need to suss that out because this child is going to have more than one Christmas, one with their mother and one with the dad, you have to kind of celebrate that fact. You try to get the parents going out feeling that they’ve had something that’s certainly worth the hour and a half wait they’ve had in a queue to come and see you.
Sometimes people just want to come in, just take the photograph and go and some people are willing really to engage with Santa Claus. Sometimes you can do a bit healing, [laughs] perhaps I’m flattering myself, I don’t know.”
Beyond Work is a project by Curtis James and documents humans at work using words and reportage photography, with no judgement or glorification. It’s an attempt at unearthing the social, cultural and functional world of work that’s invisible in everyday life.
This work is about looking at and observing everyday life, and in turn inspiring people to be more aware and sensitive to the needs of humans at work.