A trip to Santa’s grotto is on every child’s Christmas wish list. Gayle Ritchie becomes an elf for a day and meets the big man in red…
The children’s eyes light up with excitement as they wander through the enchanting grotto, bedecked with twinkling fairy lights and festooned with decorations.
They follow me as I guide them – while taking on the role of a smiling, rosy-cheeked elf – deep into the heart of the festive den.
It’s here that they find Santa relaxing in his armchair beside a glowing open fire, surrounded by mountains of presents.
“Ho ho ho!” booms the jolly bearded fellow. “Merry Christmas.”
The visitors, 21-month-old twins, Finn and Poppy Killen from Perth, then get the chance to whisper into Santa’s ear and tell him their hopes and dreams for the big day before being each being presented with a special gift.
The adorable pair are delighted when Mrs Claus gives them a cuddle and helps them tear the wrappers from their presents.
As a child, I missed out on meeting Santa but now, in my new role as one of his little helpers, I can thoroughly recommend a trip to the big-hearted fellow’s magical grotto.
My elf duties on this occasion are at the Dobbies garden centre just outside Perth, which boasts an impressive setting for the festive fairy-tale.
I’m sporting a pair of red and green velvet boots complete with jingling bells, pointy hat, tunic and red tights; I definitely look the part.
But this is my first time elfing so I get a little advice from Mrs Claus (aka Dobbies community champion Alison Dowe).
“It’s an elf’s job to make sure that a child’s visit to Santa’s Grotto goes as smoothly as possible,” she beams.
“You’ll manage the queues, keep children entertained while the wait, and guide them through the grotto to meet Santa.”
En route to the grotto, there are intriguing nooks and crannies, tinsel-covered trees, toys, edible treats and and valleys carpeted with snow, all begging to be explored.
Each area tells a story – there’s the tale of Paula the polar bear, Freddie the fox and Robbie the robin, as well as that of Dobbie the reindeer.
Taking Finn and Poppy by the hand, Mrs Claus and I wander through the winter wonderland, gazing in awe at the display.
I then strike up a jolly rendition of Jingle Bells, much to everyone’s amusement.
As we approach the grotto, the kids seem somewhat daunted. It’s dark inside and there’s a man they’ve never met wearing a red suit and a huge white beard.
Maybe they’re a little young to understand what’s happening because their wee faces crumple and the tears start to flow…
Luckily, after a few minutes of cooing and coaxing, they start to smile and the enjoyment factor cranks up a notch when I help Santa select pressies for them.
It’s also an elf’s duty to be on hand to take photos for families and ensure the grotto looks at its best, so I spend a little time dusting down toys, hanging tinsel and shooting cute pictures.
The grotto appeals to all ages, and visual merchandising manager Susan Welch has gone all out to make it as family-friendly as possible.
Of course, Santa and his elves must undergo intensive training before they invite people into the grotto, with special Santa Schools being run at Dobbies stores across the UK.
“It can be very awe-inspiring for some wee ones when they come into the grotto, but the elves are really welcoming and friendly, putting them at ease,” says Mrs Claus.
“Whether children want to chat to Santa about their hopes for Christmas day, have him tell them a festive story, or simply enjoy opening their gifts, it’s a fantastic experience for everyone.
“It’s very personalised – each child gets an age appropriate gift and the family is free to take as many pictures as they like.”
Inside the grotto, children get the chance to send a letter in Santa’s postbox (and they’ll get a letter back within a week), and they can also buy and personalise wish baubles and hang them on the special Wish Tree.
Once kids have visited Santa, they can enjoy a Christmas-themed treasure hunt round the store, collecting festive stickers along the route.
It’s a wonderful experience and, if you’re not yet feeling festive, a trip to Santa’s grotto is sure to spread the Yuletide cheer. Merry Christmas!
Santa’s Grottoes are open at Dobbies stores across the country until December 24. A trip to the grotto includes “one-on-one” time with Santa plus a gift. Opt for the standard package (£6.99 per child) or upgrade to a LEGO branded toy (£10.99 per child). Advance booking is recommended.