It appears even Santa hasn’t been able to escape a video call this year!
During the festive season, local writer, actor, poet and storyteller Alan Barrett would usually be suited up – complete with the famous white beard – appearing at various locations in the local area.
This year, however, with restrictions meaning that children are unable to see Santa in the usual way, Alan had to adapt the way in which Father Christmas interacted with local children.
Boothen resident Alan, who is also Cultural Champion for Stoke-upon-Trent, has been capturing children’s imaginations for two decades, and at this time of year he can usually be found in the grotto at Affinity Staffordshire.
This year, however, with many Christmas events cancelled, Alan decided to use Zoom, Facetime and Whatsapp video calls to say hello to lots of boys and girls across North Staffordshire.
“I’ve been doing Santa for 20 years,” said 64-year-old Alan, “and usually at the moment I’d be doing a lot of grotto work, but sadly that’s been cancelled”
Thankfully, this month, Alan was able to secure a festive role at Blakemere Village in Northwich.
“It’s really nice at Blakemere,” he continued, “because there’s a walk around for families to do together. “It takes about 45 minutes, and then they see Santa and the elves at the end, who perform a little show.
“You can’t have the same photo with Santa that parents might be used to, so instead, they try and line their child up when Santa is on stage to get a photo with him in the background instead.”
But for those unable to see Santa in the flesh, Alan’s virtual grotto was a welcome addition to their festive celebrations this year.
Alan set up a booking system to make things fair, and for 10 full days he surprised lots of little ones with a video call from the big man himself – and Alan didn’t charge a penny.
He said: “It’s been a tough year for a lot of people with many on furlough or losing jobs, and they might be struggling now.
“Some families might have three or four kids and unable to afford a Santa visit for each one.
“I didn’t lose out on anything, I have my own kit, I just wanted to do it and make the children smile.
“I did it for 10 days and then I have a day off on Christmas Eve, so I’m going to go through my reserve list of people who missed out the first time, so that will be really special.
“I’ve had children showing me their Christmas tree and decorations, and showing me the cookies that their mum was making. You get to be part of the family and that’s really special.
“It’s a lot of fun and after a tough year, this is what people want and need. It’s a bit of normality at Christmas”
Over the years, Alan says he’s heard a lot of stories and had a lot of festive requests from children. But the most special experiences come from making a real difference to a child.
“I learned Makaton thanks to Naomi Owen, a Makaton tutor who created HeyJude Makaton, as a way to communicate with her son, Jude,” explained Alan.
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“Makaton is a way of using speech and signs to communicate. For example, ‘hello’ is a circular wave with your right hand.
“One year, a boy came to me with his mum, who told me that he was 10 years old and was an elective mute. She wasn’t sure if he still believed and said he was very shy, but I said that even shy children deserved presents. We tried some Makaton and three days later, after queueing up for an hour, he came to see me again, gave me a gift and said, ‘even Santa deserves a present’.
“Another year, a little boy asked me to make his dad better, which of course I couldn’t do, and as Santa you have to be honest with the children.
“I told him that that wasn’t really something I could do, but I would speak to the right people. His dad must have been in the hospital because he said he wanted him home for Christmas. Three days later, on Christmas Eve, about 15 minutes before we were due to close, the little boy runs back in and his dad was with him – he had recovered.
“It’s really touching and rewarding – I’ve had the loveliest experiences.”
As well as his festive gig, Alan has also been volunteering this year by driving for Meals on Wheels.
He said: “A lot of their volunteers are elderly and have been shielding so I’ve been helping out and it’s brilliant.
“I saw the other day that Stoke-on-Trent has been voted the kindest city in the UK and it doesn’t surprise me.
“As Cultural Champion of Stoke-upon-Trent, I could name 50 people off the top of my head who are doing amazing things in our local area.
“There’s a lot of good in this city so we need to stop focusing on the negatives.”