Kristoph stood outside the long queue for ‘Santa’s Grotto’ in the food court of Manchester’s Trafford Centre. Marion was winding through the rope chicane with Rodan at her side. The child wanted to see Father Christmas.

That had proved easier than it sounded. Rodan wanted to see the REAL Father Christmas. She rejected the one in the grotto on Christmas Station because he was too thin. The one at the St John’s Centre in Liverpool had the wrong sort of beard. At John Lewis’s they had queued for a half hour before even entering the very elaborate ‘North Pole’ staffed by slender female elves in green satin dresses. Rodan had sat on the man’s knee and talked to him earnestly for several minutes before accepting the ‘free’ gift that Kristoph had paid for in advance. She let the elf escort her back to her parents.

“No,” she said, shaking her head in a resigned tone.

“Well, never mind. We’ll try another one tomorrow,” Kristoph promised her. “I’m sure we’ll find the right Father Christmas eventually.”

“I know you will, papa,” she answered him.

And that was what had brought them to the Trafford Centre, after trying every grotto in Merseyside - because she had faith in her foster father’s ability to find the real Father Christmas.

Well, this one was certainly elaborate, Marion thought as the next group of children were let into the grotto, carefully counted through by one of the elves. Rodan was second last of this batch. She clung a little tighter to Marion’s hand as they stepped through the ice cave entrance and walked around a series of animatronic tableaux with polar bear families dancing around a Christmas tree, snowmen children hanging up their stockings around a fireplace and penguins ice skating. Christmas songs played over the sound system all of the time, of course. Marion was becoming thoroughly accustomed to the choice of songs by now. She had heard at least six different versions of Frosty the Snowman and several more of Jingle Bells in the course of the quest to find the real Father Christmas.

They came into a room decorated with icicles and twinkling lights where the children all sat on a soft rubber mat and the parents had chairs at the back. Everyone was given cardboard three-d glasses with which to watch a fifteen minute film called “The Magic of Father Christmas” which was projected onto a special screen. Most of the children were bowled over by the three-d effects. Rodan was polite about them, but she was used to holovids. Marion disliked wearing the glasses. They made her head ache. She took them off and closed her eyes until the film was over.

When it was done, the lights didn’t all come back on, only some golden star lights around the door. The elves encouraged the children to clap and cheer as a figure in a bright red coat entered the room carrying a sack of gifts. He sat in a chair that the elves placed in front of the film screen.

“Hello, boys and girls,” he said. The chief elf signalled to the children and mouthed the words they had to say.

“Hello, Father Christmas,” they answered in chorus.

“Have you all been good children this year?” Father Christmas asked

“Yes,” they chorused.

He sat and chatted to them as a group, about the importance of being good because he knew exactly who was naughty or nice. He told some jokes about reindeers and got the children to sing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer with him, prompted by the elves. Marion was not the only parent who wondered where it was all going.

Then it was time for the children to sit on Father Christmas’s knee, not to tell him what they wanted for Christmas, but to have their photograph taken. The elves told the children to check the ticket they were given when they came in and come up as the number was called.

Rodan looked at her ticket and then the one belonging to the boy sitting next to her and quietly swapped tickets. Marion wondered what that was about until she realised that it was the last number and the other children would have gone when it was her turn.

The other parents had gone, too. Marion waited by the exit where two of the elves were complaining in low voices about the length of the queue and proposing to cut the sing-a-long and get each session done faster. Meanwhile Rodan approached the Father Christmas holding up her ticket.

“Do you know my name?” she asked him.

“Er… no,” the Father Christmas answered, a little taken aback. “We don’t do names. The ticket number is for your photograph and free gift.”

“It’s not a ‘free gift’,” Rodan pointed out. “My papa paid £12.50 for me to come in, and £8.00 for mama who doesn’t even get a gift. And if you were the real Father Christmas you would know my name, and you wouldn’t be thinking about taking that lady in that elf costume to the pub after work. You look very nice, and I am sure the other children enjoyed the show, but it isn’t what I was expecting at all.”

“Oh,” the Father Christmas answered as the elf in question hurried out of the grotto. “I… am very sorry about that. Umm… do you still want a photograph? It’s part of the package. And you can choose either a cuddly reindeer or a jolly plastic one.”

Rodan stood next to Father Christmas for the photograph and chose a small stuffed reindeer from the bin by the exit. She took Marion’s hand and they both went back to Kristoph who brought them to the food court for hot chocolate and turkey baguette sandwiches before heading back to the TARDIS parked outside the shopping centre disguised as a rather nice car.

“That one was a complete disaster,” Marion admitted to Kristoph when Rodan was having a nap on the console room sofa. “They made it so blatantly commercial. The video was annoying, and surely the idea of meeting Father Christmas is that intimate chat with him, not a group session.”

Kristoph admitted that he had no experience of meeting Father Christmas as a child. His was the first household on Gallifrey to celebrate the festival, after all.

“Where DID this idea come from, anyway?” he asked. “About finding the REAL Father Christmas.”

“She saw a film last week when we were visiting Li,” Marion explained. “Miracle on 34th Street – the original 1947 version with Maureen O’Hara as the mum and Natalie Wood as the little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa. She was convinced that it was all real, and now she wants to meet the real Father Christmas, too.”

“And all these jobbing actors in body suits and false beards aren’t putting her off?” Kristoph asked. “That one yesterday in the shopping centre in St Helen’s would have made an unbeliever out of me.”

“I was very unimpressed with that one,” Marion said. “He smelt of cigarettes, and just look at the ‘gift’ that she got from him. We paid six pound-fifty for the ticket, and this is a cheap plastic doll from Poundland. It still has the price sticker on it.”

Rodan hadn’t been especially interested in any of the gifts, but neither Marion nor Kristoph were entirely sure what she WAS looking for. They just knew they had to keep trying until Rodan was satisfied.

“Maybe we ought to be strict and put a stop to it,” Marion suggested. “This definitely qualifies as indulgence. We promised her grandfather that we wouldn’t do that.”

“I think we passed that point of no return when we arranged to bring three horses and a riding instructor home from Ventura and built her own private riding school in the meadow,” Kristoph pointed out. Besides, I’m more than a little curious about where this is all going. What WILL she accept as the real thing?”

“So am I, but we will have to stop sooner or later. There are hundreds of Father Christmas’s on Earth at this time of year. What are the chances of finding one Rodan accepts as real?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Kristoph said. He turned to the console and programmed a new destination. “Why don’t you get a nap, too, and then you can both choose a new outfit to go out in when we get where we’re going.”

He gave no hints at all. Marion kicked off her shoes and laid down on with Rodan. She fell asleep easily, worn out by a day of festive shopping experiences.

When she woke, Rodan was already washed and changed into a new dress and coat. Marion looked at the outfit and wondered why it seemed familiar.

“It’s a duplicate of the one worn by Natalie Wood in the film ‘Miracle on 34th Street,” Kristoph explained. “She found it in the Wardrobe. There’s a very nice dress for you, as well. We’ll be ready when you are.”

Marion went to the Wardrobe and found the dress as well as a warm winter coat, both of the slimline style worn by Maureen O’Hara in the same film. Marion tried it on and thought it looked perfectly right on her. She liked the feel of the authentic American silk stockings and the court shoes with low heels worn with the outfit.

“A very pretty pair of ladies,” Kristoph said approvingly. He took Marion’s arm as they stepped out into New York city on a crisp December day in 1947.

“When the film was made?” Marion asked.

“Exactly,” Kristoph said. “And here we are in Thirty-Fourth Street, home of Macy’s, the biggest department store in the world, apparently.”

Marion didn’t know if that was true or not, but it was a huge building and a curiously familiar one. She had seen that film so very many times during her childhood Christmases. Standing there, now, she felt as if she was in the film. She looked up at the elaborate entrance with R.H. Macy and Co. in relief carving above the door, topped by a beautifully gilded clock and flanked by Roman or Greek marble ladies whose heads held up the pediment above them.

“Yes,” Rodan said. “This is right.”

They went inside the bustling store where the more affluent shoppers of New York in the post war era were busy preparing for a sumptuous Christmas.

Marion didn’t need to do any shopping. She had already bought everything she needed in Liverpool, including presents for everyone on a very long list of friends and acquaintances. The sole purpose of this trip was on the eighth floor – the toy department.

There was no ‘grotto’ made of fibre glass and no animatronics. There was nothing in the way of a show for the children waiting in line except a mechanical puppet theatre with tinkling music. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus as he was known in America, was sitting on his gilded wooden chair on a small podium. He had elves, of course, male and female, dressed in red and green, who helped in the smooth running of the line by asking the names of each of the children as they came close to the front.

“It’s all right,” Rodan said to the lady elf who asked her. “He’ll know my name if he’s the real Father Christmas.”

“Well, sure he’s real honey,” the elf answered. “But he sees so many little girls and boys he sometimes forgets. That’s why we ask.”

“He’ll know,” Rodan insisted. “If he’s the REAL one. I think he might be. He looks real.”

The elf bit her lip uncertainly and looked at Marion and Kristoph. They both smiled sympathetically. The elf moved on to the next child in the line while Rodan stepped forward in turn to meet Father Christmas.

“Hello,” he said to her, reaching to lift her onto his knee. The lady elf whispered something in his ear and he nodded, before continuing his conversation with Rodan in a low voice. Neither Marion nor Kristoph could hear what was being said. Of course, Kristoph could have listened in telepathically, but he thought that it was Rodan’s private business and there was no need to pry.

“Well,” Father Christmas said, eventually, lifting her down from his knee. “It was very nice to meet you, Rodan. Have a very merry Christmas, my dear.”

“You, too, sir,” Rodan answered. She smiled and went to join her foster parents. They both looked at her expectantly.

“Yes,” she answered. “That was the real one.”

“Really?” Marion was surprised. “How do you know?”

“I just know,” Rodan insisted. “He was real.”

“Mission accomplished,” Kristoph said. “Now, shall we find a nice restaurant with a view of the Empire State Building and have lunch, or should it be tea? I am a little mixed up about today. I’m not sure how many lunch times we’ve had, already.”

“I’ve forgotten, too,” Marion said. “But apparently there IS only one REAL Father Christmas.”

She glanced back at the gentleman in the white beard and red suit who was attending to another young customer. He was almost indistinguishable from all of the other Father Christmases they had seen. The purpose of this one was the same as all the others – to bring customers into the store.

But Rodan believed he was the real thing, and that being so Marion was perfectly ready to believe, too.