LESS than two weeks before the biggest night of the year for him, Santa Claus is looking jolly. But, while you might think that’s typical of the big man in the red and white suit, it’s been a tough year for Christmas Inc and, in an exclusive interview with Business Day, Claus concedes he’s had to keep his wits about him to maintain a sense of “ho, ho, ho” during the past 12 months.
“And just when we thought we were seeing the Northern lights at the end of the tunnel as the final month of the year drew closer, I received a call from the White House the other day warning me that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks was planning to release details of our current gift list on the internet,” explains Claus, in a tone that’s momentarily more woeful than ho-ful.
“Can you imagine the consequences? An absolute dearth of surprise on Christmas morning for millions as they open their gifts around the world? There’s no prize for guessing who is in pole position on my ‘who has been naughty list’ this year.”
2010 began on a difficult note for Christmas Inc when, with attention focused on melting ice caps in close proximity to its head quarters in the Far North, the company received calls from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to reduce its carbon footprint.
“Look, we’re as committed to safeguarding the planet as anyone else is, but there’s not a great deal more we can do to reduce emissions and protect resources from within our business,” he says. “The elves have been using wood from sustainable forests for toy-making for years and our gift-wrapping is all recyclable. Following discussions with the SEC in February, however, we did put the reindeer on a special diet.”
The recipe for the new feed was developed by the University of Alberta in Canada and is said to reduce methane gas emissions in livestock by as much as 25%. Claus is pleased with the outcome thus far and says initial tests indicate the institution’s claim about their formula is “not just a lot of hot air”.
Reduced burping from Blitzen and less flatulence from Vixen were not enough, however, to allay concerns expressed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) regarding the risks associated with the reindeer passing through foot-and-mouth infected areas in South Korea, where more than 100 000 livestock have died due to an outbreak of the deadly disease in recent months.
This required a trip by Claus to Botswana recently where he successfully secured sufficient inoculations against foot-and-mouth from that country’s new vaccine laboratory, which was opened in Gaborone by president Seretse Khama Ian Khama earlier this month.
“We were very worried about the OIE’s concerns because we accept that, when it comes to the safety of animals in travel, the buck stops with them,” says Claus. “You can imagine our relief when we were able to collect the vaccines from Botswana. You might say we’re “deerly” grateful to your neighbour.”
In fact, Claus has visited southern Africa more than once already this year. He and Mrs Claus were among the organising committee’s VIP guests during the World Cup, an invitation the couple only accepted once Fifa president, Sepp Blatter had agreed to withdraw the football association’s condition that prohibited the flying of reindeer-powered vehicles within a 12 km radius of World Cup stadia.
“I tried not to get my stockings in a knot,” chuckles Claus, as he recalls the run-in. “Sepp and I have locked horns over similar issues before and he was smart enough to step down on this one before anyone was seriously red in the face. Hopefully, he won’t come up with any similarly nutty regulations in Brazil in 2012.”
Aside from providing excellent, live entertainment for him and his wife, the World Cup, he says, was also greatly enjoyed by the elves and fairies, who followed the tournament on television back home.
“They were captivated by South Africa. By the time we arrived home, Sugarplum Mary had perfected her midriff-baring Shakira moves and was Waka-wakering all over the place, barefoot and wearing a short skirt. The elves had built a vuvuzela assembly line, convinced the raucous instrument would top the list of requests for Christmas. What’s more, they continued to watch and read as much about your country as possible even though the soccer was over.”
This resulted in one particularly baffling incident. Some months after the World Cup, Claus noticed a souring in attitude among members of his work force: “The elves looked strangely disgruntled and Pepper Minstix, who has particularly low elf-esteem, muttered that he and a couple of the other helpers would like to talk to me about “the nationalisation of Christmas”, a notion they’d come up with having followed the antics of the African National Congress Youth League in your country,” he says.
“I was dismissive of the idea and expressed my disdain in no uncertain terms. The elf responded, “In that case, we’ll toy-toy”, which I put my mind to rest, given that making toys is what the elves are employed to do. And, after a curious couple of minutes of jigging energetically outside my office, the little group threw their little arms up in the air and went back to work. I didn’t hear anything more on the matter.”
But it hasn’t all been smooth sleighing since then. In addition to the recent WikiLeaks threat, Claus and his team have had to deal with late-in-the-year challenges posed by an onslaught of letters of request, sent primarily from Ireland, Spain, Greece and Portugal.
“I suspect that people in those countries were hoping for some other redemption before Christmas but, with their economy still faltering, panic has set in and our mail room is still flooded with requests, chiefly for huge sums of money from members of government.
“Because we don’t like to upset anyone, Mrs Claus and I discussed the benefits of appointing a customer experience officer or CEO to interact with all the hopeful individuals. Unfortunately though, we found that Cell C and Nando’s had already snapped up the most qualified comedians. So, there’s going to be some disappointment on Christmas morning. That’s the case too, for all those South Africans who’ve written letters requesting a new rugby coach for Christmas, I’m afraid.”
Despite the elves’ predictions regarding vuvuzelas, Claus reveals that the most prevalent gift requests this year include the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad, with many of the applicants undecided about which of the two they’d prefer to receive.
“I don’t think I’ve seen such indecision regarding which is best since the Coca-Cola and Pepsi wars began a century or so ago,” he chortles. “But actually, since I am an old-fashioned guy with minimal understanding of technology, you’d be just as well off asking Rudolph to suggest the best device for your needs. He unquestionably has a better nose for that kind of thing than I do.”
Commenting on the rigorous gym programme that helps ensure he’s physically strong enough to meet the challenges of his job and especially Christmas eve, Claus laughs once more, “Of course, I have to work out diligently. The global population is larger than ever. There are stacks of chimneys to navigate. So, hey, if you’d like to be naughty and save me at least one trip, I wouldn’t try to dissuade you. For sure, I wouldn’t say ho, let alone ho, ho, ho!”
(First published in Business Day in December 2010.)