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Former engineer and TV commercial actor Bill Martin takes his Santa Claus commitments so seriously he begins growing a white beard during the summer.
The British grandad first donned the Father Christmas gear after his Dubai-based daughter convinced him that he could deliver an authentic version of the festive favourite.
Now the 78-year-old, originally from northern England rather than the North Pole, is in demand for his “ho-ho-ho” house calls and gift giving duties at public events and private parties during his annual UAE “working holiday”, which previously featured a season at Expo City Dubai.
Mr Martin and his wife Mary fly in from South Africa, where they used to run a guest house and safari company before joining a Cape Town theatre school.
Here, Santa gave The National some grotto gossip ahead of shifts on Sunday at Waitrose Community Mall in Abu Dhabi's Khalifa City A, and December 23 and 24 at Depachika food hall in Nakheel Mall on The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
How did you end up as Santa in the UAE?
My daughter, Lorna, got me doing it. We always come for Christmas, for the kids and to see the two grandchildren.
We were out with them and ended up commenting on other Father Christmas’s that we saw. Lorna said to me: “Why don’t you do that? You’d be better than these.”
I looked on YouTube in the beginning, but most of them are American and they go over the top. So, I just act naturally.
But you’re no stranger to donning costumes?
There were a lot of television commercials on when South Africa was really booming. All the winter adverts [broadcast overseas] seemed to be done there at that time. I did quite a lot, for Barclays and Renault, a few medical ones as a more mature person.
We also put on shows at the theatre school. You pick up a lot and get involved in things, traditional shows like Scrooge and Billy Liar which fell in with my persona.
Why go for a genuine beard over a prop?
You see these Santas and you know. Children know if it's not real, they're not stupid.
They'll talk to you, touch your beard and say, “You're the real Santa Claus, aren't you?”
So I grow it especially, starting in mid-June.
I take it off as soon as Christmas is over. My grandson, Cooper, has the opportunity of shaving me on Christmas Day.
I'm usually clean-shaven and short-haired.
Do you ask him to keep it all a secret?
My granddaughter is only one, but my grandson is six and knows. We had to explain to him that I’m one of Santa’s helpers as Santa is too busy to do all the work, all over the world.
My daughter recently asked me to go to his school to pick him up [in character], because the kids would love it. We had to tell Cooper: “Remember, not to say it’s your grandad.”
And how is business?
My daughter is on a chat group. She put it out there I was doing Santa … and I’m booked solid.
My first ones this time [late November] were two schools and now I have an average of three per day. Schools, private homes. I did Christmas at the Hills in Dubai Hills, breakfast with one of the local football clubs.
My son-in-law is a singer who has three gigs during Christmas and I’m working with him.
I did four or five sets a day at Expo in 2022, seven days a week. On UAE Union Day thousands were queuing up. I came out of the dressing room and there was a queue of kids a quarter of a mile long.
I get paid. My daughter does the booking and it pays for our air fares. It’s a working holiday. I’m never really off duty until after New Year.
How do you approach a Santa shift?
Usually I’ll ring the parents before I arrive. They’ll let me in the back door or somewhere so that I can get changed.
I went to one party recently, waited outside. They didn’t tell the kids I was coming. One of the parents put me on the balcony where they’d set up some lights and smoke … all the kids went wild.
The first thing I do is discuss it with parents, or whoever is running the venue or school, and ask them what they want me to do.
Is it tough keeping cool in that gear here?
Yes. I have to change every time because I am dripping [after a Santa visit].
I have the one red coat that I wear and a change of the other clothes, such as the imitation belly and the padding. I bring two or three of those.
Any workplace hazards?
Bruised legs. The first thing parents do is put the kids on your knee. And a lot of kids don’t want to go on your knee – so they lash out with their feet and grab hold of the parents.
Do you ever get mobbed by adults?
I did one in Motor City recently. My son-in-law dropped me off at the main entrance of a busy office block, all dressed up.
I had to walk through to reception and got some looks. Then I was stood in a lift with 20 people who worked in the building – and when we came out they all wanted selfies, and there were more in the lobby downstairs.
What happens after Christmas?
We sold our house about six months ago in South Africa and I built a big camper van there.
So, we’re touring South Africa, and we’ll be heading up to Namibia, the Angolan border, through the Okavango Delta.
It’s nice to come to Dubai, but it’s also nice to come back to the natural beauty