When I was six years old my Mum and Dad decided that they were earning sufficient money that we could all start going away for Christmas, that being summertime in New Zealand. Their choice, that first year, was to head for a seaside camping ground. My Dad had consulted all of his mates to find what he called, ‘A good old fashioned family place’. Finally he decided on a distant camping ground which he booked a space in for two weeks commencing on Christmas Eve. It was a choice that was to prove so successful it was repeated every year after that as my family’s annual pilgrimage. Borrowing a tent and trailer my parents packed it with everything possible, and on Christmas Eve we set off.
Now in those days I was younger and still a traditional believer and follower in the conservative values. One of these was that Santa Claus leaves presents on Christmas Eve for all good little boys and girls. The problem was we were moving into the camping ground on Christmas Eve, so how would Santa track us down? Should we write a letter? As my brother and I were both at school we could write okay, as long as we had help with the spellings. But would it get through in time? The North Pole was a long way off, and we knew nothing of the postal service apart from the postie passing our house each morning and leaving the little flag up on our mailbox if he left us any mail.
Mum found out about our concern and told Dad. He got my brother and me together and assured us that he would personally make a phone call to Santa from the camping grounds in sufficient time to divert the sleigh to the correct location. We were impressed by what our Dad was promising us, but were a bit dubious on how it was to be done.
The journey to the camping ground was a long one back then, lots of motoring along dusty country roads with stops to let the old car cool down what with the unaccustomed load of family, trailer, and camping gear. ‘Soon be there,’ Mum kept promising as the car wound around yet another corner to reveal more hills and sheep, but no sea.
It was getting towards sunset when we finally arrived. The grounds’ owner had a small weatherboard home with an office sign over his garage. While we kids got out and looked around Mum and Dad went in to pay, Mum warning us not to stray before they disappeared inside the office.
Looking round we could see that there was a kids’ playground with slides and swings that looked promising, while in an adjacent paddock some kids and parents were having a game of cricket. The sea was only a few minutes’ walk away and it all looked very exciting.
Mum and Dad came out of the office with the owner who pointed where we were to go. ‘Nearly there, boys,’ Mum said with a laugh as Dad drove to the far end of the grounds and stopped by a peg with ‘47’ on it.
‘This it for the next two weeks, kids,’ Dad said, and we all started emptying the car boot and trailer. We assembled the tent and annexes fairly easily- thank goodness we had rehearsed it six times on the front lawn in daylight the day before. Then after a good meal of Mum’s sandwiches and lukewarm tea out of a thermos, two Coleman lanterns were lit and the beds made up.
My brother and I were to sleep in the annex, a promising adventure in itself with rustly canvas sounds whenever the wind blew. With everything set for the night my parents made their introductions to the neighbouring campers while my brother and I lay on the strange camp beds and whispered together. Our whispering was only about one thing, how would Santa know where to come? Had Dad forgot about making the call?
Finally my brother plucked up enough courage to climb out of bed and go interrupt Mum and Dad’s, ‘quiet drink with the new neighbours.’
‘My God! Almost forgot,’ I heard my Dad boom. ‘Get your brother, boy. We’ll soon get this sorted.’
In the days before cell phones the camping ground was blessed with a single pay phone. It was situated in a red painted phone box under the solitary light. This stayed on all night in the middle of the grounds so that campers could find their way to the ablutions. However this single light did not really illuminate the ground underfoot very well, so there was danger of tripping or stubbing toes. And it certainly did not drive away the really scary shadowy places we had to go through. So armed with a torch and a fist full of small change from Mum’s purse, Dad led my brother and I in our pyjamas down to the phone,
‘You boys wait out here,’ Dad directed and then he stepped inside the phone box and pulled the door to leaving us to watch through the glass windows. To our surprise he dialled the North Pole without consulting any piece of paper or phone directory. We were impressed, and even more so when he got through straight away, with none of the usual problems that went with making toll calls overseas in those days.
‘Hello?’ My Dad had a stentorian voice and it boomed out through the closed door. ‘Hello? Is that the North Pole? I want Santa’s secretary please.’ My brother and I trembled in anticipation and fear. What if Dad got it wrong? What if they did not take sudden changes of address?
‘Yes, it’s Mister Parker here, Mister Elf, Mister Steven Parker. Just want Santa to know there’s been a change of location for my boys.’ My dad then gave a long, detailed description of the route we had driven from our home, and where in the camping ground our tent was. By now I could see there were a number of heads popping out of nearby tents and caravans to listen.
My dad then gave landing instructions. ‘Should be no problem landing the sleigh on the beach, Mister Elf, plenty of room,’ and he nodded vigorously in response to something Santa’s secretary said. Then he concluded with, ‘And a Merry Christmas to you as well, Mister Elf. Nice talking to you, cheery-bye.’
Dad hung up the phone and stepped out of the phone box to a scattered round of applause from the nearest tents and caravans. My brother and I were a bit surprised by the applause, why were they doing that? Dad just grinned and led us back to the tent. ‘All sorted, boys,’ he told us on the way, ‘Santa will definitely be here tonight.’
Later, tucked up again in our camp beds, we heard several men pop in to introduce themselves to Dad and congratulate him on his phone call. ‘Clever idea, mate. Might try it myself next year,’ one said. It pleased me that my Dad had thought of it, which meant next year the other kids in the camping ground would not miss out on their presents either.
Of course there were the presents in the morning, just inside the flap of the annex where Santa had left them. Other kids had got their presents as well, and I wondered how Santa had known about where they were sleeping?
The phone call to Santa by Dad was repeated every year after that. His idea was copied by other dads to the extent that the camping ground owner had to draw up a roster for the phone’s use on Christmas Eve to fit everybody in, otherwise some phone calls to Santa would not get made until after midnight.
That first holiday was a great success, and our family decided they would go to the camping grounds every year. After a few more years we got our own tent and other camping gear, and a trailer to carry it all, and we became very sophisticated campers. We were the first to bring a TV for instance.
Dad stopped making the calls to Santa once we got old enough to realize what was going on. But my brother and I still liked to go down to the phone box and listen to other dads making the calls, but our Dad’s had still been the best.
Once I left home I didn’t go on the family holiday every year again until I got married. Then Belinda and I became regular holiday campers meeting up with Mum and Dad there every Christmas. And once we had our daughter, Eve, I became one of those dads making the calls to Santa on Christmas Eve. That gave me more pleasure than I could ever imagine, so at times I think I looked forward to it more than Eve did. I still have vivid memories of her little face pressed up against the glass windows, wide eyed as she watched and listened to me.
That was all a long time ago of course and cell phones have now made the phone box obsolete, but the camping ground’s new owner has kept it. And even though there are no wires connecting, strangely it still works for those special Christmas Eve calls. Because it is only for special calls it now has a sign on it saying ‘Santa’s phone’, and its use is restricted to calls by parents. That’s to stop big kids ruining the illusion.
It used to be only Dads made the calls, but times have changed, and brought a lot of solo parenting, so there are mums making calls now.
I don’t go there over Easter but I am told that then the sign gets changed to one saying ‘Easter Bunny phone’ and its use guarantees delivery of chocolate eggs. Some parents have even been heard using the phone to contact the tooth fairy, and it’s available all year round for that.
What would make my Dad happiest, if he was still around, is the small plaque screwed to the wall inside the phone box that says it was my Dad who made the first inaugural call all those years ago. The camping ground owner put the plaque there the Christmas after Dad died. I told the story about Santa’s phone at his funeral, standing alongside Dad’s coffin with its draped New Zealand Ensign and his war medals. Most of the people in the church had heard the story before but they all smiled in fond remembrance of my Dad, and his kind ways.
There’s a clipboard outside Santa’s phone box that you book your time on, ‘Calls restricted to five minutes only please’. I’ve got a call booked early, for seven p.m, this year. Last year I left it late to book and could not get on until nearly midnight. Eve, my daughter, was not amused at the grandkids being up so late.
It was their first year with us at the camp, and her youngest was just old enough to understand about Santa. I told my daughter she or Mike, her husband, should make the call but she declined. ‘No, Dad,’ she told me, ‘it wouldn’t be Christmas without you on the Santa phone. You always did it best of all the dads when I was a kid.’
She’s wrong of course, my dad did it best, I just copied him. But I just had to hug her for saying that anyway.
About the author
Peter was born in London but his family emigrated to New Zealand when he was a teenager. In middle age he set out to be published. Now retired Peter enjoys not getting up early to go to work and dreaming up more stories.
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