In my youth I had some interesting jobs over the holiday breaks. My mother ran a temporary services agency that provided not only labor, secretaries, and such, but also had some seasonal gigs. The litany of temp jobs I took during this era included several secretarial jobs (one of which taught me that some people who make a lot of money and boss people around don’t know how to alphabetize), a stint separating lug nuts and hubcaps from their packaging, a gig as Twinkie the Kid (read: “Twinkie the Kid”), and many other jobs with varying levels of difficulty and humiliation. But my personal favorite was this: I worked as an elf. No, that’s not a typo; during the Christmas season, for three years in a row, I was one of Santa’s elves.
There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes at Santa’s Village that most people don’t get to see. First, there’s the training program, which includes lectures on why it’s important for Santa to be sober, how to handle crying children and testy parents, and studying up on the latest hot trends in toys. There are lessons on how to apply rouge to Santa’s cheeks and keeping a false beard in place, too. For the elves, not only are we taught how to support Santa in his role as this jolly icon, but how to use the instant camera that snaps photos of children (and a surprising number of adults) in various states of holiday joy and seasonal depression.
There are several rules to learn as well, such as only one Santa can be visible to the public at any time. One must always refer to Santa as “Santa” and never slip and call them by their real name. Where you can grab an unruly child appropriately. (Note: The answer is not by the ear or holding them up by the back of their belt, though at times this can be tempting.) Elves don’t cuss, even when peed on or bitten. Elves don’t wear denim… ever. And above all, never promise a child they will get what they ask for. This last one can be difficult as, while waiting at the front of the line, many children bargain and negotiate with the elves like death row inmates on their final appeal.
The elf and Santa costumes are re-used year after year, and at the end of the season nobody seems to take the time to wash them before stuffing them back in their boxes for another eleven months. They stink, and require a good cleaning and dousing with deodorizer when unpacked. A wise elf or Santa will get to the costume fittings very early so they will have their pick of the costumes as they are handed out. The costumes are also “one size fits all” — one of the greatest lies ever told for any item of clothing. With my petite stature my elf apron hung down well past my knees and had to be cinched tight with the cord to prevent my human clothes from peeking out underneath it’s blousey draping. And the elf shoe covers would flop around as I walked, making me look a bit like a scuba diver walking up the beach with flippers on.
We had a few memorable Santas during my stretches as an elf. One of my favorites was a twenty-four year-old young man named “Steven.” Steven by no means had the portly figure of the traditional Old Saint Nick and required a lot of padding to fill his suit. Steven was one of those rare individuals that is a truly kind and caring person. He had immense patience with all of the visitors who came to sit on his lap and a sense of humor about everything, from having drunken holiday revelers crowd onto his lap to get a picture to having a kid wipe his snotty nose with Santa’s beard. He made a point of listening very carefully to every child, making notes on what they said and often passing along their requests to their parents as they were leaving. When a snow storm hit near the end of our shift, he refused to let me get on the city bus for the long ride home across the bridge, a trip which was over an hour on the best of days, and drove me all the way home, completely out of his way.
One of the most memorable Santas was “Milt.” Milt was an appropriate age for Santa (and then some) and didn’t require nearly the padding that Steven did. He had a doddering manner of speech that included many, many questions for his young visitors. By the time Milt was done with each child, he had performed a complete interrogation, including their likes and dislikes, school, family, pets, favorite foods, favorite colors, their friends, and even their take on current events, before ever arriving at the crucial question, “What do you want for Christmas?” This made for a very long line of tots awaiting their spot on the old man’s lap. He also had an apparent sleep disorder that resulted in him falling asleep in the middle of a sentence, or while awaiting his next supplicant, and he would have to be shaken awake with a snort and a start. On one occasion this resulted in his false teeth falling out and shocking some poor, unsuspecting youngster.
Then there was “Jerry”. Jerry had been a Santa for over a decade, and was a “pro” – and he made sure everyone knew it. He had an authentic long, white beard, a “round little belly” and a special pair of gold, wire-rimmed glasses that he wore during his role. He also had his own suit, disdaining those that were provided for the job. He had a lot of advice for the other Santas which was the cause of much strife in the Santa’s Village break room. I guess most Santas don’t like being told that they need a breath mint before visiting with the children. And they especially didn’t like it when Jerry would approach them in the dressing room and assist them with adjusting their costumes without being asked. Jerry seemed to think that anyone who had to strap on a belly pad and a silky white beard was a poser. He also took his role to heart when it came to imposing his will on the elves, insisting that we perform menial tasks for him in front of the crowd. One favorite of his was to tell us to “give these boots a shine” while pointing at his feet as he greeted the crowd and was about to enter his little Santa hut. We were expected to rush forward with clean white cloths and kneel at his feet, buffing his “professional” Santa boots. He also had a habit of giving the elves nicknames throughout the day. Many of these seemed to be modeled on the names of the “Seven Dwarves”, which was bad enough. But when he called me “Tinkles” one day I had to ask him to stop.
Elves endure grueling, long shifts, dealing with people at their best and at their worst. They handle the same questions over and over with a smile and happy tone day after day. Elves are the unsung heroes of Santa’s Village, making sure everyone gets their turn and doing everything possible to get a decent photo for the family album at a moment of total stimulus overload for the kids they’re photographing.
Here are a few additional observations from my time as an elf:
- A lot of adults come to see Santa, most just to get a picture but some seem to really be enthralled with the experience.
- Too many candy canes can make you sick. (Don’t try this at home. Trust me.)
- Only about one in twenty kids under five cry and scream in Santa’s lap, but many others stare at him in mute silence and absolute terror for the duration of their stay.
- Don’t try to give a kid a broken candy cane. This is, without a doubt, the worst mistake you can make.
- No matter how long the wait is in line, it’s too long. By the time the kids get to Santa many of them are close to a meltdown, whether they wait five minutes or two hours.
- Fake snow is a nuisance. It gets in your hair, your shoes, your bra, and many other places you don’t want it.
If you visit Santa this year, make sure to give the elves a pat on the back, too. Santa may be the star of the show, but without us elves he’s just be a fat old man holding strangers’ kids in his lap; most people go to jail for that, you know.