Christmas is a special time for all, but especially for children. The most important part of the Christmas experience for a child is their visit to the Jolly old man with the red suit and big white beard who we all fondly call Fr Christmas or Santa Claus. It is not only a visit to tell him what is wanted for Christmas, it’s a visit to confirm how good the child has been or how good they need to be, it is a time to acknowledge that they need to think about preparing for the night of Christmas eve. The Christmas experience starts here for the child, the magic and the memories for the future. Adults will tell you of good and bad experiences of their memories of visits to Fr Christmas. These same adults want to make the experience for their children even more magical than their own experience.
Not all children cope well with the visit despite planning it well. Children with additional needs such as autism can find the visit to see the Jolly old man in the red suit and big white beard to be stressful rather than magical. The queue with other excited children becomes too much, the noise, the numbers, the organisation of the queue, the unfamiliarity of the whole thing. Questions that don’t get asked such as why are we queuing, what for, when will it be our turn, how long will it take, who are we going to see. This process is difficult for all children but for some these questions are enough to become overwhelmed and for the whole trip to be abandoned with families returning home frustrated. Some families would not even attempt a trip of this sort.
At Aunty Agatha’s in Kenilworth some of the issues highlighted were considered during the sunshine months when the thought of Christmas to most was a long way away. They wanted to create something that was not just a visit but an experience that was all inclusive to children regardless of whether they had additional needs or not. A focus group was consulted and the question asked ‘What makes a successful visit to Fr Christmas?’ The responses were interesting and included short queues, the environment needed to be relaxed and big enough to fit a family, with interesting things in the room to see and to explore. Fr Christmas had to have a good quality suit and beard with a ‘back’ story as to why he’s there in the first place.
So the concept of Fr Christmas’ control room began. Fr Christmas was looking for somewhere to set up and following some work completed on the shop during October, he chose Aunty Agatha’s in Kenilworth to set up camp. The store room was transformed into a room with easy chairs, a fire place, cushions and throws to sit on and feel. Draws with pom poms, keys, shapes, wood, pine cones in to feel, explore and touch. CCTV of the North Pole so that Fr Christmas could keep an eye on the reindeers and Elves. Pictures of the Elves on the wall along with clocks with differing time frames across the world. Lights of different types some fixed some twinkling. A real Christmas tree with small bells on in front of a light curtain. The room is wheelchair friendly and big enough to fit a family of 3 or 4 children, parents and grandparents. Queuing was out of the question so appointments were made via the web site, 20 mins on a Saturday and up to 30 minutes on a Sunday. A short questionnaire is requested which asks some questions about the children and their individual needs.
Fr Christmas himself had to try on several suits before the outfit was agreed upon and the timings were discussed. What will Fr Christmas do for 20- 30 minutes?
The time is tailored to meet the needs of the children who start off with the option of exploring the room with or without Fr Christmas present. Everyone sits down with a mince pie or biscuit while the magic book is consulted and Fr Christmas and the Children talk about the information in the book which is unique to them. If the children find communication difficult, Fr Christmas talks about his elves and reindeer and the love of his life Mrs Christmas. Some are amazed that Fr Christmas knows so much about them, some expect him to know this. After asking what he should bring them for Christmas, he moves on to Christmas eve preparations and that’s when Fr Christmas talks them through the Christmas eve pack.
Last thing is the photo opportunity; parents can take as many pictures as they like in any part of the room so that they can secure what we hope is a magical memory.
Aunty Agatha’s have worked hard to try and see the visit to Fr Christmas through the eyes of the children to ensure that all regardless of needs have the opportunity to have a magical experience. Fr Christmas has a great responsibility to ensure that he helps the children to have a unique experience and maximise their enjoyment to keep the magic alive not only for the 20 – 30 minutes he is with them but all the way through to Christmas eve as they remember the visit while making the cookies and ringing the bell before bedtime. Hopefully the children, parents and grandparents will want to re-visit the experience with Aunty Agatha’s for many years to come.