When does the Christmas run-up officially begin? The shops generally start putting selection boxes on the shelves on Easter Monday, whereas I tend to do the bulk of my shopping at 9pm on December 24th. The usual indicators are Slade on the radio and quizzes in the papers – but in Croydon, the real milestone was the Taberner House lights.
This 1960s monolith was the hub of the council’s activities and every evening during Advent, the office lights would form a Christmas tree on one face, and a cross on the other. There was always a rumour that it wasn’t going to happen this because of pressure from Muslims, Wiccans or whichever religious group was being demonised that particular year; but happen it invariably did.
The other indicator was the grottos. Santa was Legion in Croydon, managing to appear simultaneously in Allders, Grants, Debenhams and occasionally more random concerns such as Woolworths. I swear I even saw a grotto once in Freeman Hardy Wills; nothing says Christmas quite like a pair of plimsolls.
The Allders grotto was the big daddy of them all. By the time December rolled around, Allders would sport a toy department that was the match of any in the West End, with the high-end Lego and Action Man accessories that you normally only glimpsed on the back page of 2000AD. A visit to Santa started with a lengthy queue, followed by a guided tour through an enchanted forest / winter wonderland inhabited by a mixture of static and prototype animatronic characters.
And then – wonder of wonders – a sleigh ride. This involved sitting for a couple of minutes on a mothballed coin-operated ride whilst a cyclorama whizzed past. Then, more tromping through the magic realm before meeting the man himself. Invariably, this was the sort of employee you get in any job, the ‘wacky’ one who ends up in the Mr Wimpy costume on a sweltering Saturday in July. He’d give you a couple of sweets, a badge, and a muttered curse before you were escorted to the not-very-magical exit.
The best thing about this was that it was free – so you would generally loop straight back to the start and do it again. You could manage upwards of four visits before the staff tumbled to your game.
Grants also had a free grotto but this was a simple affair housing Santa Archetype #5 (Fat, hungover, smelling of stale Metaxa Brandy with optional erection) but you got a princely gift – a cassette of fairy tales on the Warwick Label. These came in handy for storing your expanding collection of pirated ZX Spectrum Games.
And Debenhams? Alas, I never got to see it, for it required payment. But stories crept out; of an actual train ride, of foxy assistants in Santa mini-skirts, of astounding presents (feverously imagined as train sets and hoverboards whereas the reality was probably a set of injection-moulded pan pipes).
It was never the same after the Drummond Centre came into existence; just a bearded bloke, surrounded by plastic teddy bears, sitting nervously on top of what used to be the fountain and praying that they’d remembered to turn the lasers off.