A friend from Taiwan once asked me what merry means when we say “Merry Christmas.”
“It’s just an old-fashioned word for happy, really.”
“Then why don’t you just say ‘Happy Christmas’?”
I could only say tell her it was traditional, but while saying “Merry Christmas” may be traditional in the US, the UK has moved on; the standard greeting of the season here on the Surrey-Hants border is “Happy Christmas.” Merry, to the British, generally means something like “slightly tipsy, just to the point at which you feel really cheerful.”
Tradition is the only explanation for lots of things, and is the only answer I’ve found to the question raised in my last post: why do British children believe that Father Christmas lives in a grotto? A website from Finland that offers real-time video from up above the Arctic Circle shows Santa Claus in a wooden building that looks like it could be a tourist information center, or maybe a budget motel. But this is billed as Santa’s office, so perhaps he lives in a grotto and commutes.
I thought that, if I really wanted an answer, maybe I should just ask Father Christmas himself. There are grottos advertised everywhere this time of year. You can Google for them; just type in find the nearest grotto. Might not want to take the kids to “Santa’s Naughty Grotto” at the pubs in the Slug and Lettuce chain, though. Otherwise, I found all the grottos more or less alike, give or take a couple of live reindeer. Elves are standard issue, but you do find the occasional ice fairy or snow queen.
I started at a nearby shopping centre and followed the “Visit Father Christmas in his Grotto” signs. It seemed to be my lucky day. There was no queue, because lots of people were still snowed in. And there was no charge for admission. Visiting Santa in his grotto often costs money here, although if you do have to pay—and I’ve seen prices up to £10.50 (about $15)—then your child can usually count on getting a small present from Santa (which you’ve just paid for, and which probably isn’t worth £10.50).
What they seem to call a grotto here isn’t at all like the cave I picture when I hear the word grotto. This one turned out to be a little wooden building, unremarkable except for a complete lack of 90-degree angles anywhere in its construction—which I suppose it has in common with naturally occurring stone grottos.
I stepped inside. Father Christmas was there, as advertised. He didn’t have an elf, though. He was attended by a pretty young lady in ordinary—mostly black—clothes who said that she’d rather be a vampire than an elf. Her main job seemed to be to take photographs. A tricky career for a vampire, I should think, doing all the photo shoots at night. No chance to do, say, landscapes, then.
The preliminaries to the conversation included the obligatory “Where are you from?” litany I go through at the beginning of most conversations here. (Sometimes I answer “Guildford.” Not only is it sort of true, since our village is in the jurisdiction of Guildford Borough Council, but it worked for Ford Prefect in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he was from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.) When I said I was originally from Kentucky, Father Christmas said “I’m a Houston boy, myself” and dropped into a very creditable Houston accent. It turned out that he had friends there and used to visit them several times a month, a schedule made possible by his job with an airline. So it’s true, then, that Santa can fly.
Usually when a British person I meet tries to do an American accent, the result makes me cringe, but the reverse certainly can be equally true. In any conversation about accents, the first example mentioned of an American utterly failing to sound plausibly British will be Dick Van Dyke as Bert in Mary Poppins—every time, guaranteed, and with good reason. With what the people of the United Kingdom have endured over the years as Mary Poppins re-runs and re-runs (especially at times when lots of children’s movies play, such as Christmas), it’s probably only fair that Americans over here today have to suffer from time to time.
But George—we now know Father Christmas’s first name, by the way—did a very decent job of sounding like a Texan. Then he went back to his own English accent to tell me about what it’s like to talk to the kids. He stresses the importance of being good if they want to get presents. He asks them what they want for Christmas, and can usually tell from the parents’ reactions whether they’re likely to get it, but generally plays it safe with “I’ll see what I can do.”
He’s hampered by lack of knowledge of the marketplace, though. “Most of them have a list of 5 or 6 of those game things, for video games. I don’t know. You have to have a university degree to know what they’re talking about. But I get around it by telling them that this is a wishlist. They can’t expect to get everything on it, but I’ll see what I can do.”
If they ask for anything that’s alive, the script is a bit different. “They’ll ask for a puppy or a pony. I tell them that those things are really hard to wrap and they keep jumping out of the sleigh, so it’s better to ask for those for birthdays or other special occasions.” Subtly, a theme emerges: “And I tell them that if they want to ask me for anything else, toys or games, I’ll see what I can do.”
Then I asked the question I was there to ask: where do kids get the idea that Santa lives in a grotto?
“We tell them that a grotto like this is something we set up so that I can have a place to talk to them when I’m in town.”
Surely this must be confusing for any kid who actually knows what a grotto is. (I looked it up, thinking perhaps the definition “a temporary shelter used by Santa to interview children before Christmas” might actually be there. That hasn’t made it into the Oxford English Dictionary yet, much less “a small wooden building where children can visit Santa, furnished only with an enormous chair for Santa Claus and a little stool for his vampire friend.”
To all of you who celebrate Christmas: I hope you have a good Christmas, happy or merry, or both.