The little English market town I lived in as a child (Wantage), offered many Yuletide activities, such as Christmas bazaars, school nativity plays, carol singing round the huge Christmas tree in the market square, and children’s parties hosted by churches and assorted political parties. (My parents voted Labour, but I was not averse to going to the Conservative one as well, as a ‘guest’ of a friend whose parents were of that political persuasion.)
The town did not, however, have a Father Christmas Grotto. For that we had to go to Reading, specifically, to Heelas’s Department Store. Now known as John Lewis, Reading, it is still called Heelas’s by the older locals. Heelas’s was founded by John Heelas in 1854, following the success of his first shop in Wokingham, and was originally a place to obtain linens, woolens, silks, and the like. By 1877, it had become a department store, and started doing Christmas Grottos in 1890 – which means more than one generation of our family went there.
My mother recalls that, circa 1924, a visit to Father Christmas’s Grotto netted her a pair of twin dolls, which, since she was a twin, pleased her greatly. Impressed her, too, because they weren’t raised together, so how could Father Christmas have known that? She remembers a King Neptune’s Grotto, as well, circa unknown, that could have been a Christmas display, but might have been from another time of year. (Not knowing that, ninety years on, her daughter would want specific details for a blog, she didn’t keep notes.) To get to the Monarch of the Sea, children sat in a submarine type vessel with pictures of fish, jellyfish, shells, seaweed and other ocean-type scenery moving past them to give the illusion they were moving. The Father Christmas Grotto I liked best was the 1963 (?) one, which had kids crawling through an igloo tunnel to fetch up in front of Father Christmas (possibly the one pictured above – he looks familiar), who presented me with a pair of binoculars that actually worked. Returning home, I found I could stand at my bedroom window and bring my friend Peggy’s house in the next street in quite close.
I haven’t been in England for Christmas in decades, so I don’t know if the Father Christmas Grottos of today are still as interesting or elaborate, but the ones of the past were definitely enchanting.