A few days ago, I booked my family’s first Christmas event of the year in a mild panic (“The 3pm slot has just gone. Is 4.30pm too late?).
“I just spent £65 on an hour with Santa,” I said aloud, the fact sinking in.
If you don’t have young children, you might be surprised to learn that tickets for such events are available as early as spring – and some have already sold out.
Slots for Lapland UK, which is in Swinley Forest near Ascot, went on sale in March and were swiftly snapped up, for example. Its guests will enjoy four hours of performances and activities, and time with Santa. Children are also given two gifts, one on the day and one for Christmas Day. Tickets for a Saturday or Sunday in December cost at least £139.
Perhaps it is less surprising that the venture was founded by a former hedge fund manager.
The run-up to Christmas has changed since I was a child in the 90s. Then, a festive event might consist of watching carol singers perform on the village square or being driven by excessively decorated houses.
“Look, a giant reindeer!” I would say.
“A waste of money,” my parents would mutter.
In 2023, there’s a huge selection of celebrations to try – and few are cheap. Families can go for walks bedecked with illuminations, enjoy yuletide afternoon teas, watch Christmas theatre shows and ballets and take part in various meet and greets with The Big Man. You can even take a journey with Father Christmas on a “Santa train” or a “polar express”. Such trips are typically staged on heritage railway lines.
Parents who prefer to keep it simple, maybe with a trip to a grotto, may need to look little harder. The London branch of Selfridges, for example, scrapped its grotto in the early 2010s, when it cost £20 per person. Now, the store offers “Breakfast with Santa”, which is around £60pp.
You might find the more traditional “meet Santa” event at, say, a local garden centre, but beware of the bill. Take Ruxley Manor in Kent. To meet Father Christmas, it is £9 for each child under one, £18 for children aged one or over and £5 per adult. That’s £46 for two parents and two children aged one or over.
If inclined, a family of four could drop a thousand pounds on Christmas entertainment and still be missing out on many of the seasonal highlights.
The event I’ve booked – which includes a child-friendly afternoon tea, a performance, a meeting with, and gift from, Santa in the Mansion – at Leeds’s Roundhay Park, would have come in just shy of £90 had we had a second child. Despite the add-ons, Santa is the main event, and why I parted with that £65.
My vague idea of spending about £200 on Christmas events this year was made reluctantly, but I figured it would cover quite a lot. How wrong I was.
And that budget did not factor in present buying, which, for many parents, will already be under way. On Thursday, toy store Hamleys released its predictions for this year’s big sellers, which include a Disney Winnie & Piglet’s Treehouse (£50), a Beast Lab for £90 a pop and a Tamiya Lunch Box toy truck (£150).
Of course, it is reasonable to ask why parents pay for these Christmas toys and events, if they consider them overpriced. The answer is simple, if sentimental. While I hate to use a term that has long fallen out of fashion, it comes down to FOMO (fear of missing out).
Parents want to see their children point chubby fingers at twinkling illuminations, to smile shyly at a friendly elf, to trot gleefully out of a grotto clutching a present. We want to make special memories with them. We don’t want to miss out, but most of all, we don’t want them to miss out.
My daughter is two. She was only a few months old on her first Christmas, so decorating our tree and playing Christmas songs was plenty of entertainment. A year later, I upped the ante a little with a visit to a shopping centre grotto, which cost £8 for about four minutes with Santa.
It is yet to be seen whether our next meeting with Santa will be worth the price. The success of any day out with children really depends on the child’s ever-changing mood. Yet I find hope in the fact that Roundhay Park’s offering sells out year after year.
There are other events in Leeds and nearby cities that we’ve ruled out entirely, because of the cost. Take spending Christmas Eve at Castle Howard, a stately home in York. Entrance to the attractions, along with afternoon tea for the three of us, and parking, would set us back £177.65.
Then there are those Christmas-themed heritage rail journeys. The Santa Special on the Bluebell Railway starts from £28 for a third-class child’s ticket rising to £230 for a first-class compartment for up to six people. The journey is around two hours. Elsewhere, the Santa Steam Express from Victoria station in London starts from £65 per person, with other options including a first-class ticket for £550, which does reserve a compartment for up to six people. With those funds, I could secure myself a week’s all-inclusive break on a Greek island.
I only expect prices to rise with my daughter’s age. At some point, I will have to draw a financial line in the sand. I’ll have to trust that it is time together that will make Christmas special, and that doesn’t require a stop at Berkshire’s answer to Lapland or a luxury rail journey.