Oh what fun it is to ride on a Sikorsky S76A

The holiday season is here, bringing with it Soca Santas, Martiniquan carols, Hindu and Muslim festivals, music and film. Simon Lee on the season's offerings - and his mixed chance to be a flying Saint Nick

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

Glad to see some of you have swapped grey skies, the odd blizzard or two, stuffed turkeys and even the holly and the ivy for a Christmas season in the Caribbean. Don’t worry, we do have carols, crimson poinsettias, endless merry gentlemen (and gentlerwomen), and even if you don’t bump into Santa Claus flexing on the beach you might meet Ms Claus modelling the latest swimwear.

As a bonus, those of you arriving in early November will be in time to witness the Hindu festival of Divali, which, if you’re lucky enough to be in Trinidad or Guyana, will more than compensate for the Christmas-light displays you’ve left behind in the metropolis.

But talking of my childhood compañero Santa Claus reminds me of one of my more ridiculous missed opportunities as an occasional thespian. I can’t claim to have the physique of an Olympic athlete, nor am I a frequenter of the gym or aerobics classes. I prefer sea-bathing, raising a glass of good cheer to my lips, or dancing, to keep the inevitable middle aged vloops at bay. All this is intended to demonstrate without visual aids that I’m hardly the stereotypical stout Santa — but I suppose that’s what pillows were really invented for.

So when the persuasive principal of my small daughter’s Trinidadian pre-school suggested I take on the role of the loveable Saint Nick at the school’s Christmas party, my feeble protests were brushed aside. It didn’t matter I’d never been near a sleigh or thought that the elves were too busy playing with the fairies to bother with me. My argument that my daughter would recognise me and blow the whistle fell on deaf ears. The principal had already seen me strutting the boards in a couple of plays, and, anyway, what kind of father would I be to deprive 20 toddlers of a visit from Santa? My costume would be provided; all I had to do was ring my bell, distribute some gifts, pat a few heads, register some “Ho-ho-hos” and ride out in my trusty old Ford Escort.

In the true spirit of Christmas, I acquiesced. I was kind of disappointed that the costume was traditional rather than tropical, and by the time I arrived at the school, several pillows stuffed beneath my thick red felt jacket, my beard and moustache were already coming unstuck in the simmering 30° Celsius of a mid-December Trini afternoon.

Striding into the schoolroom drenched in sweat, I manfully rang my bell, ho-ho-hoed and took up position with my sack of goodies. Choking on my cotton wool whiskers, I distributed the gifts and only narrowly missed bursting into hysterics as my daughter fixed me with an accusatory glare. Then, with uncharacteristic tact, she decided to let the moment pass. By now Santa was in advanced meltdown, and gratefully raced upstairs to the principal’s private quarters to rip off his glad rags.

When my daughter casually remarked to my wife later that evening that Santa had sounded a lot like Dad, I graciously declined to comment. I also silently swore never to play Santa in the Caribbean again. I stuck by my decision the next year when the principal of a primary school in the Sugar Belt tried to inveigle me into donning red suit and whiskers a second time.

The man had government connections and grandiose delusions to match. He was a progressive, so forget the sleigh and reindeer, the Santa he was hiring would descend from the skies in a helicopter. I pointed out that though it was indeed true I was a veteran Santa, unfortunately I couldn’t oblige, as I had a previous engagement in Martinique.

Quelle bonne chance, I thought a few weeks later, as I headed out for the Christmas season in Fort-de-France: a jazz festival; sumptuous après-concert receptions for the musicians and press which would make a gourmet dribble down the front of his tux; shopping for gifts among the chic Parisian boutiques; and the enchanting Chanté Nöel, Creole-style carol concerts complete with African drums. But amid all the bon temps I did feel a pang of regret — it might have been fun to be a flying Santa. Ah well, next time.

These last two months of the year feature Hindu (Divali), Muslim (Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, falls in early December this year) and Christian festivals, all celebrated in unique Caribbean style. Don’t miss Trinidad’s Ramleela, the folk dramatisation of the epic Ramayana, which is performed in rural villages during the run-up to Divali, and which was acclaimed by no less a figure than St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott in his acceptance speech in Stockholm.

On a more secular note, in November you can also immerse yourself in Bajan culture during Barbados’s month-long National Independence Festival of Creative Arts; in December head for Havana for the International Film Festival and the superb Jazz Plaza Festival.

But wherever you are in the islands around December 25, just scan the blue skies. That might just be me in a helicopter — and, if you’ve been good, who knows what I might have in my bag for you. Joyeux Nöel!