Cleve Freckleton invented Rasta Claus some years ago as an alternative to the traditional Santa. Now Rasta Claus is a Leeds legend. Cleve tells us more.
Instead of asking,
“What did you get for Christmas?”,
we should be asking,
“What did you give?”
By giving something,
you’re opening up a
gateway to receive ourselves
Tell us about how Rasta Claus came about.
I worked in a special school in Bradford some years ago, as a musician. They asked me one year if I’d play Santa. I’d never played it before. The truth is I’m not massive on Christmas. I was raised in a Pentecostal household but my parents never made a big thing out of Christmas. It was a day when your family got together, you had food – that was it. My mum, in particular, never wanted us to buy presents for her, she’d want us to get things for other people. I used to be a church minister and I was always a bit concerned about the commerciality of Christmas. When my kids were growing up, you’d start seeing adverts for Christmas toys in September! So I agreed to be Santa – but what concerned me at that time was that I don’t necessarily look like the classic version of Father Christmas. Would it be ok? As a bit of joke I said, “I can’t be Santa Claus. I’ll make up a new character – we’ll call him Rasta Claus!” It was totally off the cuff, strictly for that school. The parents, kids and teachers seemed to love it. But for me, it was a one-off, an acting role. I’m a musician, and I’ve appeared on television in a couple of different roles. My stage name is Reverend Chunky! I go on stage, I adopt a character, do my thing, then I’m back to being Cleve. A couple of years later my friend who runs a children’s events business approached me and said, “Cleve would you be Santa Claus for me?” I told her about Rasta Claus and she absolutely loved the idea. So again, I donned the robes and went out there. But this time I had a bit of a philosophy. I thought, what can Rasta Claus offer that Santa Claus can’t? My first thought was he’s different – which allows anybody else who’s different to feel included. The second thing was I had to give him a back story. I came up with this idea that he’s the son of Father Africa and Mother Time. He’s Santa’s cooler cousin. As opposed to this philosophy of getting something for Christmas, his motto is “Give a likkle back”. Said in a very Caribbean way! Children would come and see me and at the start they’d be handed a plastic gold coin. I’d show them a doll of Mama Africa, tell them the story about how Africa was a very rich place and over the years so many people have come and taken away from it. I’d say, “If only I could find someone who could put something precious back into the land, we could restore it and maybe we could make Christmas special again.” And those kids, with their big wide eyes would say, “I’ve got a coin!” and they’d put it in – and at that point I’d say, “Because you’ve put a little back, now you can have a present.” You don’t get a present on the basis of expectation, but because you offered something, you gave a little.
How do children react to Rasta Claus?
It’s amazing. They love it. The truth is, I’m a character. A couple of families now – the children ask for me every year. There’s been a couple of occasions when children have said, “That’s not the real Santa!” What I say to them is, “No, the other guy’s not the real Santa, I’m the real one! He’s copying me!” The reactions are great. The adults really fascinate me. They embrace it. I love that. One of my favourite moments was in Leeds Market, a Muslim woman came up to me and asked if she could have a picture with me. Then she asked if she could give me a hug. When I look at that picture and what it represents, it’s beautiful.
What else do you do with your life?
I’m a musician by trade. During the lockdown that was affected massively. My passion has always been playing and singing. I still do concerts and gigs around Leeds. The greatest fun I have is busking. I’ve always operated on the idea that 1 out 10 people might give you something. And if there’s a thousand people that come by you in a day, you’ve done well. It could be 1 pence or 1 pound. It goes from the sub- lime to the ridiculous. I’ve been paid £50 to sing Happy Birthday to someone; I’ve also received a lollipop from a 3-year-old boy, which to me is worth more than £1000 because no kid gives away sweets! I’ve busked in Leeds, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal – but the place where I’ve made most money in the shortest amount of time is Bradford! I also work with adults who’ve had brain injuries. There’s one particular chap who I work with, he’s Jamaican by birth. I get to cook a month’s worth of Jamaican food for him. It’s massively nostalgic for me because that’s the food I grew up with as a kid. I cook it for my own children and family. But it puts me in the zone. It’s one of my favourite things!
Tell us about your early life.
I was born in London – in Chelsea, at a time when poor people could live there! I left South London to go to Jamaica when I was 9 but came back and lived in Leeds when I was 14. I lived in Chapeltown. My parents were musicians, brothers were musicians. I went to a gospel church where music was constantly being played. In Chapeltown there were bands all over, you could hear them rehearsing in basements and cellars. There was this incredible artistry. Chapeltown’s amazing. Incredible dancers. I worked with David Hamilton from Phoenix Dance. Being a musician, Chapeltown was a great place to be. The years followed on: I became a church minister; I went live in America for a while. In 1999 I was back here. I went full-time as a musician and that was fine up until the lockdown. I had a 10-year residency at the Wardrobe and now I play regularly at the Domino Club.
What’s going on this Christmas with Rasta Claus?
There are a few things going on. I’m pleased to say we’ll be having our first Rasta Claus grotto at Chapeltown nursery. That’s open to anyone. My daughter does all the bookings – I just have to turn up in character! Because I grew up in Leeds 7, there’s a part of me that’s attached to that area. Chapeltown Nursery, the football club at Scott Hall – they’re places that I choose to interact with. As Rasta Claus says, “Give a likkle back” – and that place gave me a lot.
I believe in what I do as Rasta Claus, because I offer something different. Anyone with an idea of how we want the world to change would see the possibilities there. We’ve got to think about things differently - and what better time to do that than Christmas? I’m taking my grandkids to a shelter on Christmas Day, so we can give something back. Instead of asking, “What did you get for Christmas?”we should be asking, “What did you give?” By giving something, you’re opening up a gateway to receive ourselves. We get by giving. I say to the kids, “If you have toys left over from last year, give them away to charity or to other kids who are worse off.” Because by giving away, you’re creating room to receive.
Thank You Cleve for speaking with us.
For more information go to www.rastaclaus.org and search Rasta Claus on Facebook.