In an era when every self-respecting town centre of any size had at least one department store, no December shopping trip would have been complete without a visit to Santa’s grotto. The experience left most small children with a smile on their face and a cheap toy, while the store owners were equally happy with the additional profits. But for the bit-part actors and bar staff who usually filled the roles of Father Christmas and his elves, seasonal cheer was harder to find.
Disgruntled with the long hours and low rates of pay, not to mention what they saw as the dreadful exploitation of children’s fantasies for profit, a group led by American former Rhodes scholar and community activist Ed Berman took matters into their own hands. The protests began in early December 1969 when activists dressed as Father Christmas and his helpers started giving away toys outside Whiteley’s in Bayswater.
Whiteley’s had been London’s first department store and, it was claimed when it opened in 1911, the largest shop in the world. More than 6,000 staff were employed in the business in the 1890s, even before its move to enormous new premises in Bayswater, most of them living in company dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7am to 11pm, six days a week.
But when the 1969 protest made little impact, Santa and his helpers took their campaign to Selfridge’s in Oxford Street, where they marched up and down outside the store with placards. A spokesman, most likely Berman himself, told a journalist that their picketing was against non-union labour and ‘any store that would charge admission for a child to see Santa’ (Kensington Post, 19 December 1969).
Not everyone took their fairly inoffensive public stand in the true Christmas spirit. Not convinced that their picket line had been mounted in pursuance of a trades dispute, the police arrested twelve-costumed protestors, nine men and three women, and charged them with obstruction.
There is no record of the trauma suffered by any small children who witnessed two uniformed officers from the Met leading Father Christmas off to a police cell. But the Santas did not give in easily. As new year dawned on the 1970s they formed a trade union. The Brotherhood of Father Christmas and Santa Claus submitted its application to register as a union to the Registrar of Friendly Societies (which then performed the role now carried out by the office of the Certification Officer) and began a lengthy correspondence over its proposed structure and objectives. The paperwork is in The National Archives.
The application suffered a number of rebuffs (the Registrar’s staff objecting to the word ‘blah’ in the union’s proposed objectives as ‘meaningless’), and it is not clear whether or not the application was eventually accepted. However, the rule book barred any member from claiming to be the sole and genuine Father Christmas, and created a general secretary role with the title ‘Super Santa’.
Alas, this did little to convince the legal system that theirs had been a legitimate industrial dispute. In April 1970, the Selfridge’s Twelve appeared before Marlborough Street magistrates, Berman in his Santa outfit, and were each fined £10 plus £2 costs. From the bench, magistrate Edward Robey declared that ‘what had really occurred was a demonstration in fancy dress for the entertainment of children and passers-by’.
Sadly, nothing more appears to have been heard of the Brotherhood of Father Christmas and Santa Claus. But interest in pay rates for this much put-upon group of workers continued. Twenty years later, pay researchers at Industrial Relations Services continued to conduct regular surveys of their employers – which equally regularly reported that Santas were able to command higher rates than their helpers. But even these surveys ended as department stores ceased to employ their own Santas, with most outsourcing recruitment to the same small group of employment agencies.
As for Ed Berman himself, he went on to a long and productive career in community theatre and social activism, his Inter-Action organisation playing a leading role in initiatives from community media to the launch of the first city farms. Christmas Santas and their elves, however, continue to struggle with low pay and long hours (at least for one month a year); and indeed their situation may have worsened, with many Christmas grottos now to be found not in cosy toy departments but in muddy fields, with Santa’s elves facing the nightmare task of herding fractious families around often less-than-festive winter wonderlands across the country.