By Mary Kerr
Elf and Safety
It’s that most wonderful time of the year again, when twinkly lights and festive cheer fill the air. Christmas classics stream out of speakers in shopping malls and the old familiar sound of what can only be described as small children trapped in tiny airless Christmas workshops, gasping for air as they rush through jingle bells can be heard far and wide.
It reminds me of my own time spent in a dark airless basement of a famous department store some years ago. I was a Christmas elf for the season. It was actually my choice to be there – I was the only elf who proactively sought out the job and therefore, being the only one not from a glamour promotions agency, I was the only one of realistic elf size.
My big plan has been to option the film rights to The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris but because they were in such high demand I thought I’d go the extra mile and show my commitment to the project by becoming a department store elf myself. When, during our training day I realised just how blasé the other elves were, I imagined that hiring an actually proactive candidate must have been an intriguing and potentially frightening prospect for them. The other elves were models who worked in promoting perfume and alcohol and were usually found shooting vodka down people’s throats with little guns kept in their garters. This would be a different ballgame.
The “two most important things to remember as an elf…tits and teeth.” This is how our training day ended. I remember this clearly as the lady who delivered such an inspiring and festive speech had lipstick smeared all over her own teeth. I still don’t understand why she brought up tits but I think she was nudging us to flirt with father to keep them happy. This wasn’t in my contract nor skillset and luckily never called upon as usually the dads would beeline the taller elves. Four elves would be on at any one time, each standing outside one of four identical little cabins ringing our bells for business whilst the children and parents circled us on a giant toy train. They would them disembark and head to their chosen elf. I like to think I was the strong, dependable choice and my main clients were nannies.
There were eight Santas in total. My favourite was Rubin. Rubin was 75 and from New York. I loved him because he believed he was Santa and was so authentic; even when his mind slipped he would remain in character. I used to have to accompany him on bathroom breaks and he would often leave with his trousers still down. I’d rush after him through the beauty hall trying to pull them up and whilst teens snapped away on their phones, he would remain totally oblivious shouting ‘Ho Ho Ho’ as he greeted his fans. The other Santas were jobbing actors. One had modelled himself on Ray Winstone and between shifts would brag about and his role in Kidulthood. There was an angry depressed Scottish Santa who brought an interesting gravitas to the role and then there was Damien. Damien and I shared the same sense of humour and we loved when were placed on the same shifts. We would set ourselves daily challenges of banal objects we could get the kids to ask for and would always aim to take the most epic family photos. I never once let a family go without getting ‘the money shot’ even if it meant resorting to extreme, occasionally dangerous and self destructive comic mime stunts to get a child to smile.
Being an elf is like being one of the 12 disciples. You’re not the big guy but people always seem excited to meet you and you have the ear of the big guy so it feels special. I suppose we were like Simon Cowell and Ant and Dec or maybe Donald and Melania depending on your general outlook on Christmas.
The following year we decided not to return to our Christmas underworld but to take our show on the road. Having not progressed any further with the Santaland Diary rights (due to being distracted my a certain homeless man), when Christmas rolled around again we set up our own Santa-Elf enterprise. It was a ground breaking venture – bespoke Santa home visits and the first company in the UK doing anything like it. We would learn about the children beforehand and get to know what they had done that year that they were proud of that Santa should mention. Often parents would ask us to nudge their child into surrendering their dummies or taking up a new behaviour like not kicking their baby brother. We would then read The Night Before Christmas, sing a few songs and give each child a bespoke gift of around the £10 range. This was our strong business plan we’d carefully crafted out and agreed on until Santa suddenly declared that his mate Steve had scored a deal on some Mr Men books that if we handed out we could make a tidy profit. I totally disagreed with this idea but the books were already on their way and ultimately Santa was the one in control. On occasion I would try and add in some extra gifts I had wrapped but he would ignore them on principle and as my spirit faded I soon dropped into the background. Santa had become a dick.
For six long weeks we continued to bring joy and sparkle into each house and would then climb back into our reindeer mini and sit in silence; him especially grumpy because I still pushed him to learn the names of the kids by heart rather than reading them from his book. There were some moments where we’d occasionally pull it out of the bag, like when we’d open a huge Christmas festival. We’d come on stage and crowds of children would go wild. Damien’s spirits would rise as he imagined himself at The National and for those evenings it would be just like the good old days back in the basement.
As the final week approached Damian managed to secure some gigs where he said ‘no elf was needed’. Fine by me. Then there was the gig where an office Christmas party had requested a sexy elf and he used the elf who used to drive the train in the department store. I didn’t care – but he gave her my bells and that crossed the line for me. We never spoke again. I went off and made a film about a homeless man. He kept on peddling his Mr Men books. Even today as I write this he is still Ho Ho Ho-ing himself out (sorry!) I no longer fit in my elf costume and no longer have to worry about tits or teeth or dark basements. I’m happy to leave that to younger, taller elves but if anyone short has some bells and needs a little green costume – you know where to find me.