Meet Cleve Freckleton, Mother Africa and a children’s story about the true impact of consumerism
It’s been another busy year, and with a cheeky beverage in hand, you’re reclining on a beach and drifting into a dream when your phone rings. It’s the BBC, and they’d like to interview you. Oh, and maybe film a segment for The One Show as well. They’ve found out about your alter ego, and they need to know more. It seems as if your December may not have been as quiet as you hoped.
For Cleve Freckleton, life as a gigging musician and choirmaster turns into something quite different when Christmas rolls around. He becomes Rasta Claus – a fun-loving, steel-drum playing alternative to the usual ruddy-cheeked Santa, spreading his very own message of peace and love across the city.
I spent five straight hours in that chair without even a loo break
Cleve hasn’t always been festivally inclined. A Leeds man since his teens, his Christmases growing up were reasonably modest. “My parents were religious almost to a fault, but it wasn’t so much about ceremony for them. I learnt right from that that Christmas doesn’t have to be this crazy high maintenance thing,” he explains.
“I worked in a special needs school for a few years and one year they asked me if I wouldn’t mind being Santa for a school event. As an entertainer I said of course, but working in the school with children with various degrees of ability and conditions such as autism, I realized that maybe I had to explore the idea that playing Santa in a traditional way could be very confusing to the children. They’re so used to the image of Santa, what he represents and what you expect him to do, so to some degree the creation of Rasta Claus came out of concern to do good by the young people I was working with.”
A one-off favour for the school, Cleve thought nothing of his star turn until he was contacted late last year by friend Faye Kenny, owner of BoomChikkaBoom, the Leeds-based children’s entertainment company. Once again, the call of the red hat lured him in, but it was only after an appearance at Kirkgate Market that he realised how popular Rasta Claus could truly become.
“I spent five straight hours in that chair without even a loo break, it was full on” he chuckles. “I’ve had just as many adults want to be a part of it as children, to lose themselves in the world of play for a moment. There’s silliness and a fun to it, but Rasta Claus is definitely about challenging the notion most children have of ‘what am I getting’. I do have a sincere belief that if we can teach them to reverse that principle and think ‘what am I giving at Christmastime?’ that we can make the world a better place.”
being different is something to be celebrated rather than abhorred
But how does Rasta Claus teach children this valuable lesson of compassion and kindness? Through the magic of storytelling, of course. A trip to see Rasta Claus is no quick perch on the knee and a lollipop – through the tale of Mother Africa and her loss of precious jewels and resources, Cleve teaches children about the true impact of consumerism.
“I was never taught any of this stuff until after I left school, it wasn’t till I was basically an adult that I learnt more about black history and the way the world worked, where my people came from. Of course, I don’t want to make it too heavy, and when you meet any kind of Santa, you expect to get a gift. My little spin is that before they get that gift, I try to explain to them that in order to get something from Santa or whoever at Christmas, there is always a cost in some way, and that giving back to the earth and sharing that joy is so important. So I get them to pop a little bell or a little chocolate coin into the basket, which releases our doll, Mother Africa, who can then give them their present.”
With the motto ‘give a licckle back’, Cleve’s take on Claus is one that he sees to be vital in our ever-growing acceptance of diversity and mindful consumption. “We all know Santa with his rosy cheeks and white beard is a Coca Cola image, nobody is denying it and I don’t blame them, it’s great marketing. “But I don’t have to buy into that” he reasons.
“Somebody asked me where my reindeer were the other day, and I told them that Rasta Claus isn’t into that – he doesn’t like animal cruelty, so he gets his bobsleigh out dere! It’s not something exclusive to me either – I hope that anyone could find it in themselves to be Rasta Claus."
Taking the wave of his new-found success strictly as it comes, Cleve is looking forward to getting back to the beach for his own Christmas Day this year (“Rasta Claus deserves the sun!”), but despite leaving the traditional Santa to do all the hard work on the 25th, he hopes that he’ll leave a lasting impact over the holiday season.
“What it comes down to for me is just good old fashion values of being kind to each other, learning to co-exist with each other, and recognising that being different is something to be celebrated rather than abhorred.” He says. “If people find this inspiring, then I feel like this thing that started out as a bit of fun has become something quite special.”
Visit Rasta Claus’ Pop up Grotto from 11am-6pm at Revolucion De Cuba on December 15th. More information available here