AS he peels off his frost-crusted goggles, Father Christmas has an unmistakable glint in his eyes, gleaming azure against his snow white beard, as he breaks into a familiar cry of "Ho, ho, ho", writes William Scholes.
The reason for his jollity stands before us, tethered to the faithful team of reindeer, once again led by Rudolph. The 2022 sleigh is, Father Christmas reckons, the best yet. It has comfortably exceeded expectations during winter trials at Team Santa's top secret test facility north of Lapland.
Each year, drawing on the lessons of centuries of experience, Santa and his crew of elf engineers carefully develop a new sleigh for the specific demands of the following Christmas.
This year they've shunned the high-tech carbon fibre and titanium construction which has so far characterised all of his 21st century sleighs. Instead, they've returned to a traditional wooden structure.
The sleigh's chassis is crafted from ash while the frame is mahogany and the cladding a mix of specially selected larch and pine. The runners are aluminium, coated in super-slippery next generation nano-Teflon.
As before, Apple CarPlay is fitted - Santa loves his tunes - along with a bespoke Google Maps system running on the largest touchscreen yet developed for any vehicle.
"Donner and Blitzen are wonderful navigators and timekeepers, and have never let me down," explains Father Christmas.
"But having Google Maps on board gives an extra layer of reassurance. I find I need that more and more the older I get."
During the course of the Irish News's exclusive visit to Father Christmas's engineering base - the present workshop is located elsewhere - he explains that after years of lightweight sleighs, he wanted to go back to a hefty wooden model.
"There's a wonderful precision to the new sleighs - they're so stiff that they remain super-stable in even the tightest turns and on the steepest roofs - but I missed the slight flex in the chassis that I used to be able to feel in the reins," says Father Christmas.
"We've got that back now, and that makes the sleigh more enjoyable to drive. The reindeer weren't thrilled initially because they have to work harder to accelerate and brake a heavier sleigh millions of times as we deliver presents to boys and girls all over the world.
"I think the lightweight sleighs made them a bit lazy, to be honest. But they've responded well in pre-season training - Rudolph devised a new fitness regime, and they admit they're enjoying the sensation of pulling a traditional wooden sleigh."
Father Christmas is, of course, a citizen of the world and rarely has to worry about customs declarations, passports and dealing with border checkpoints.
He has, however, developed a special Protocol Bypass Device to help extricate himself from situations where he's backed himself into a corner he doesn't know how to escape from.
Brexit had been a worry a couple of years ago, but sensible negotiations seem to have largely overcome any obstacles, he tells me.
"We had to change our delivery route in the western European quadrant for a couple of years, but it turned out that the Irish Sea border was really over-hyped and there wasn't too much for me to worry about," says a relieved Father Christmas.
"The elves did have arrangements in place to stick custom declaration labels on all the parcels, but we didn't have to do that in the end. Vets did have to give the reindeer a quick inspection at Christmas 2021 - Blitzen was particularly upset - but we're past that now."
And with that, Father Christmas heads off for a post-test debrief with the reindeer. As you read this, the elves will be loading the sleigh and Rudolph and co will be tucking into protein shakes and isotonic drinks.
And Santa? He'll be resting ahead of the busiest, most magical and special night of the year.
There'll be magic in the air when Santa visits and he'll be gone before you know he's even arrived. But if you do hear the gentle peal of bells somewhere high in the starlit sky, you'll know who it is - and that his sleigh is made from mahogany.