Seeing red

FOR lucky taxi drivers Christmas spirit means the odd bottle of brandy or vodka left in the back seat by over-seasoned passengers. But in Hamilton, New Zealand, Owen Sutton was banned by his taxi company for driving around wearing a Santa hat.

Sutton was fined and when he refused to pay up he was knocked off the roster. "I said to them, 'where's your Christmas spirit?' They said it wasn't part of the uniform. I said, 'for God's sake it's Christmas. Get with it' ".

Sutton also likes to buy a bag of sweets on Christmas Eve to hand out to passengers, but noted that the company will "probably fine me for that too".

He started wearing the hat last year but obeyed an order to remove it. "This time, I thought, bugger it, its only a Christmas hat. It's not like I'm wearing the whole regalia", he said.

Wearing the entire Santa suit can lead to more than a fine, as one German department store Santa found out to his pain.

Stefan Stettler was on his way home from a hard day at the grotto when he started chatting to other commuters while waiting on a train station platform. He asked two men what they wanted from Santa and got the wrong answer.

Police said the two men took Stettler's sack of presents and beat him over the head with it, breaking some of his fingers.

Stettler said he "should have know better but come on, who beats up Santa Claus?" He added that "around this time of the year shoppers seem to have a glint in their eyes and you can just see they are going to go off at any minute".

And it's not just shoppers who can make a Santa's life miserable. Alan Seymour lasted just one hour in his red suit at Santa Land in London.

He was given the sack for refusing to abide by a strict 30 second time limit per child and said he "was hustled out by bouncers". Seymour was accused of losing customers because children were bored waiting in the queue.

"There's no way it can be done in 30 seconds. People were complaining they didn't have long enough with Santa. Children were bringing me lists they had written. They also wanted to have their picture taken."

So who would blame stressed Santas from thinking twice about donning the red suit and stuffing a pillow inside the jacket?

In Perth, Australia, more and more Santas are hanging up their beards. They have become disillusioned with the growing list of rules, imposed by recruiting agencies and shopping centres to guard against litigation.

In many cases, this means they cannot had out lollipops, pat children on the head or put children on their laps without parental permission. They can't have photographs taken with children unless their hands are in full view.

Athol Marsh, a store Santa for 41 years, has had enough and is retiring when this Christmas is over.

"You want to keep a child's dream alive but it's no longer working because of the stupid rules. There are still Santas in stores, but the heart has gone out of them", he said.

"How can you stop a child running up to you and leaping into your arms? Do you just drop them and say 'sorry, against the rules'? Kids run and cuddle Santa because they love the guy in the red suit."

Another Santa who is quitting said that "it used to be a fun job. I used to look forward to it every year, but not any more. The fear of litigation hangs over you because you might have grabbed a kid the wrong way or helped a kid in a wrong way".

Which leads me nicely into my annual plug for the great work of a virtual Santa.

For a number of years now, Tom Murphy and a crew from the wonderful have organised a Santa Strike Force, which delivers donated presents anonymously to children's hospitals in Ireland. "We're like the provisional wing of the elvish movement!", Murphy said. Donations can be made at:

Two years ago, Temple Street Children's hospital in Dublin "was the first hospital we hit", said Murphy, and "to mark the occasion, three of us dressed up in very convincing Matrix gear. Ankle length black leather coats, shades, boots, the whole nine yards.

"The security guard's face was priceless! We left him surrounded by GameBoys, Harry Potter novels and a PlayStation."

And not a red hat in sight.