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AFTER distributing thousands of gifts to star-struck kids for almost half a century is this Britain’s longest serving Father Christmas?
Ray Hulse ,67, has been playing the bearded bringer of gifts since he was just 18-years-old and has been spreading festive joy to people of all ages for 49 years.
Thousands of gleeful kids have graced his knee and he has distributed hundreds upon hundreds of gifts to make Christmas dreams come true since 1962.
Grandfather Ray, from Bridgnorth, Shropshire, created his first grotto at a simple Ford garage – with people coming from far and wide to offer Santa their Christmas wish list.
“I started out there,” said Ray. “Then I did one in a scout hut and it just grew from there. At first, I had to borrow a costume. But it soon took off and became so popular that I had my own costume made.”
“I used to ask for donations, I used to raise around GBP15 in old money.
“But it’s got better and better since then. I’d raise money for the Church of England’s waifs and strays, then I started to do it for other charities.
“I wouldn’t like to guess how much I’ve raised down the years, but I imagine it must be around GBP50,000.”
As the years rolled on, Ray took his roll as Santa more seriously. He built his own sledge, and put the registration plate Santa 1 on it.
And the bearded wonder admits he has certainly become a lot more professional as the years have gone by.
The hospitals Ray visits this year will all provide him with gifts to give to the sick children, which is a far cry from the early years when he used to beg high street shops for freebies for him to take around the wards.
But one thing that hasn’t changed over five decades is the feeling the experienced Santa gets when he dons the famous outfit and says ‘ho ho ho’.
“The magic is in the expressions that you see on the kids’ faces,” added Ray. “That’s the reward.
“I have a few questions that I always ask, like ‘What would you like for Christmas?’ And I try to involve the parents. I’ll ask the kids if they had a real fire, then if they say ‘yes’, I’ll ask whether it was lit by their mommy or their daddy.
“Sometimes I’ll joke with them, and tell them that they were naughty last year because their mommy or daddy left the fire burning and I burned my bum. Or I’ll tell them I came down their chimney and got covered in soot.”
And the long-serving Santa, who has three grown-up boys with his wife Kath, 70, has plenty of tricks up his sleeve for children who doubt whether he is real or not.
“A lot of these modern houses don’t have chimney pots, so I tell the children that Santa has a magic key,” he added.
“I ask if they want to touch it, the expression on their faces when they are touching my magic key is extraordinary. It’s those little touches that make it special for them.”
Ray says he has no plans to slow down or retire and, as long as his reindeer are fit and healthy, he’ll be flying through the skies.
And not only has he been entertaining children over all these years, Christmas- loving grown-ups have also sat on his knee.
Last year, a 25-year-old man from Oswestry visited him and asked to have his photograph taken. Two businessmen also visited him and asked him to bring them a Range Rover since they had been good.
“I said, ‘where do you want me to leave it? On your roof?’ The men laughed, and said ‘No, the drive will be fine’,” added Ray.
“You have to think on your feet, when you’re playing Santa Claus.”
And that same year was very special for his two-year-old grandson, Charlie Palmer-Hulse, who sat on Santa’s knee for the first time without realising it was his own grandfather behind the big white beard.
“He was very good,” added proud Ray. ‘He is a little bundle of joy. He saw me for the first time as Santa last year and we’ve got a photo in the hallway.
“He hasn’t pointed at it and said granddad so I hope he doesn’t recognise it as me.”
Ray’s favourite memory from the last five decades is of being Santa one Christmas morning. “I was walking up Ludlow Road with a pony and trap and it was when they had the old milk churns, back in the 1960s,” he said.
“There was a with the milk churn on the back of a lorry coming down the Ludlow Road, delivering milk. He stopped and slapped the side of his face and said ‘Am I really seeing Father Christmas walking up the road with a pony and trap?’ He asked if I was real and I said yes. He said ‘Keep up the good work’.”