At almost three, my daughter is finally old enough to understand, and get excited about, Santa. She is really looking forward to Santa sneaking down our chimney on Christmas Eve and leaving her a reindeer. Ok, maybe she doesn’t fully understand it all, but she’s certainly getting there.
With this in mind, when I found out there was a grotto at the forest we visit to buy our Christmas Tree, I thought Ebony might like to tell Santa about the reindeer she wants for Christmas. And, to be honest, I was hoping he might let her know that live animal gifts aren’t really in his remit.
We had planned to arrive early, but, of course, arrived in the middle of the day, and sat in a queue waiting to get into the car park. Once we’d parked up, we made our way to the grotto to discover a frighteningly long line of dead-eyed, weary parents and screaming, miserable children. At this point, I wanted to turn back. I didn’t want to become one of those parents, and I really didn’t want to stand in line with the bored, whining children.
It soon become clear that this was not my decision to make. I had promised Ebony she would meet Santa, and so she was going to bloody well do that. We begrudgingly joined the back of the very, very long line. Laurie wanted to know the time, so that we’d be able to calculate how long we would be waiting. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but to any parents about to join a Santa’s Grotto queue, I have only one piece of advice, do NOT look at your watch. It will haunt you, as every hour crawls by, you will be filled with a deep hate and resentment towards Santa, the elves and all the cheap plastic crap adorning the walls of your line. If you’re lucky that is, we didn’t have any cheap plastic crap to look at, we just had row after row of wooden barrier separating us from the other miserable families around us.
After ten minutes of waiting in line, we were able to take a step forwards. I overshot, mistakenly thinking I was making headway, and ended up crotch to bottom with the middle-aged man in front of me. I quickly stepped back again, only to end up behind my starting point. Overcompensating for the unintentional bum rub I had just provided. Fifteen minutes into the wait, another family joined the queue. Finally, we were no longer at the back. Do not be fooled though, we were by no means nearer the front.
Twenty minutes into our wait, our previously excited toddler transformed into a hungry, angry creature worthy only of exorcism. It was at this point that we realised we had left the food in the car. Of course, I could have offered to nip back to the car to grab some snacks, but there was a very good chance that I would not return to the grotto, and would instead be found hours later, shaking and sobbing as I suffered flashbacks from my time in the queue.
So as not to dishearten parents, and put people off joining the queue, the barriers forced us to zigzag our way to the grotto’s entrance. It took us twenty five minutes to reach the first zig. Thanks to Laurie’s helpful timekeeping skills, he was then able to calculate that we were a fifth of the way to the grotto. In twenty five minutes.
The family behind us had two children, one younger and one older than Ebony. The younger, I assume, had more of a victim role in the family, with her older brother taking on the position of bully. The barriers were dotted with wooden boxes that opened to reveal something crap like a mirror, or some mud-stained fluff. Each time we reached the next box, Ebony ran over to have a look only for the boy to shove her out of the way and look himself. Thanks to this little cherub, I ended up having to carry Ebony most of the way.
By the time we had queued up for 40 minutes, I had constructed an email (in my mind, of course) to the organisers with constructive criticism which I thought might be helpful for them to improve the attraction by next year. This included things like clearly displayed wait times, dealing with the overflowing rubbish bins amidst the barriers, and having some elves or other people to make the wait less soul-destroying.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like they had no elves. Every twenty minutes or so a bearded elf would emerge from the grotto, glance across to the end of the queue with a look of sheer panic on his face, glance down at his watch, grimace, and then disappear back inside. It was a joy to behold.
As we slowly zigged and zagged towards the grotto, we noticed that there was a particular section in the barriers where all the children cried. We decided to call this the Cry Zone, and really hoped that Ebony would be able to resist the urge to sob when we finally reached that part of the line. She couldn’t. Almost as soon as we passed the overflowing bin of takeaway boxes and mulled wine cups that made up the entrance of this less-than-desirable part of the queue, she started to sob. She was hungry, and cold, and bored. And she cried for the whole of that zig and the following zag. That was about twenty minutes. Of my one, precious life. There was no consoling her. She wanted to meet Santa, she did not want to wait, she did not want to leave.
Eventually, with our nerves frayed, we reached the end of the Cry Zone. By this time, we had been queueing for one hour and five minutes, twenty of which had been spent holding a crying, angry toddler. And, just to be clear, I hadn’t managed to get a mulled wine before joining the queue. The end of the Cry Zone featured a number of interactive displays and games, all of which were greatly enjoyed for twenty seconds before the boy behind shoved Ebony out of the way.
After an hour and 15 minutes of queuing in the cold, with frostbite taking hold on our toes, we made it to the grotto door. I tried really hard to contain my tears of pure joy as I turned the corner only to discover the MORE WAITING lurking just behind the door. As we waited in line behind my crotch friend from earlier in the day, an overly friendly member of staff desperately tried to make conversation with the tired, trudging, bleary eyed shadows we had become.
Eventually, a bell sounded and the family in front disappeared down an exciting looking path made of Christmas trees and fairy lights. I imparted with a perversely large amount of money for the opportunity to queue for such an extremely long time in such tortuous conditions. Five minutes of attempted awkward small talk later, and the bell sounded again, signalling our turn to enter the mystical forest inside the grotto. Ebony ran forwards, excitedly hurrying past the flashing lights and creeping branches. As she turned the corner, she ran into the bum I now knew so well. Oh yes, another queue. Three families waited ahead of us, staring forwards so as to avoid the inevitable headache caused by the insufferable flashing lights.
I tried to contain my rage, pretending to marvel at the lopsided stuffed penguins inexplicably floating on a Christmas tree, and the terrible poetry dotted around the path. Ebony started to cry again, expressing the emotions I know without doubt everyone in the grotto was feeling.
Just a few painfully long minutes later and we were at the front of the queue, standing awkwardly alongside an elf who had clearly spent all day surrounded by underwhelmed adults and hungry children. All of a sudden, the door opened, and we were able to take our first steps towards the great man himself.
As I turned the corner, I saw Santa sat in a comfy chair, between a beautifully decorated tree, and a crate of gifts. It looked wonderful, and for a split second, it seemed like it had all been worth it. The toddler saw it too, only to her it was terrifying, and she realised that it had all been a huge mistake.
Santa greeted her with a friendly smile which immediately plunged Ebony into a deep and unforgiving terror that she was simply unable to drag herself out of. Santa tried, he really did, but Ebony would not tell him what she wanted for Christmas because she was too busy recoiling from his sparkling eyes.
Eventually picking up on the strength of Ebony’s complete and utter hate for him, Santa quickly whipped out a gift, which Ebony begrudgingly accepted. Mistakenly believing this was his in, Santa suggested a quick photo. I was almost knocked to the ground by the sheer force at which my now sobbing toddler hurled herself into my arms. We quickly fled the grotto as Ebony screamed, "NO PHOTO!" in the face of Santa's incredibly apologetic elf assistant. And then we were out in the cold once again. Less than three minutes after we stepped foot into the grotto, but a whole hour and thirty minutes after we first foolishly wandered into that queue.
The only silver lining to this wasted expanse of time in my life, is that I can pretend the reason she didn't get a pet reindeer for Christmas, is because Santa didn't know she wanted one.