When I saw an online ad that said, “Seeking Elves For Seasonal Position,” I admit, I was pretty excited. Not only did I fill out the application and provide a full resume, I also attached a cover letter with reasons why I would make the perfect elf:
“With over six years of experience working with children, I have full confidence in my ability to be an asset to your elf team!”
In my defense, even as a freshman in college, I was still a big kid inside. I was envisioning my elf experience to be like a scene out of an iconic Christmas movie. I would hand out candy canes to smiling kiddies, hoist little boys and girls onto Santa’s lap, listen to bubbly recitations of toy-filled Christmas wish lists, and push gleeful children down a slide into a sea of puffy, cotton clouds. As a Christmas elf, I would have the power to make so many childhood wishes come true. I would be part of the spirit of Christmas!
I showed up to the first day of training at Macy’s flagship New York City store. Getting in character, I practically skipped all the way there. When I entered through the huge golden doors of the mega-retailer, I was bombarded by sales people wearing Santa hats trying to sell me luxury bags I couldn’t afford, and the overwhelming scent of perfume.
“Where do I go for training for SantaLand?” I asked a sleepy looking security guard.
“You have to go through the employee entrance around the back,” he explained.
The employees’ entrance was much less festive. A group of six of us elves-in-training shuffled into an elevator that travelled silently up a few floors. As the elevator dinged, the elves rushed off like sprinters responding to a starting pistol. I sped along trying to keep up before finally making it to the “SantaLand” entrance.
“Are you here for training!?” A spritely young woman wearing elf ears and pointy shoes asked.
I nodded. She gestured to a group of ten or so elf hopefuls waiting for orientation; a tour of what we came to know as the “Christmas Maze.”
It was a long, dark zig-zagged walk way with handrails on each side, colorful, Christmas-themed decorations and people dressed in furry, animal costumes. Some of the decorations were huge, talking machines– like a Christmas tree that blinked and wished passersby a “Merry Christmas!” Honestly, it creeped me the hell out — the darkness, the unexpected HAPPY HOLIDAYS! wish from a man in a bunny suit and that damn blinking tree. I still have nightmares about the tree.
“This is one of the elf stations where you will be greeting children,” our guide explained. She pointed to a square taped onto the floor, literally just a box big enough to stand in.
We were instructed to stand in each station and switch after 30 minutes. Then we were taught the rules of proper elf etiquette:
1. Never touch the children.
2. Never give them anything to eat or drink.
3. Most importantly: never leave your elf station.
Then, the orientation elf pointed out the other stations carefully positioned throughout the maze– some were hidden in “fairy bushes,”one was next to fake cut out of a pack of elves– to my horror, there was one right beside the blinking Christmas tree.
“Some of the kids get very anxious because it can often be a two-hour wait to get through the maze, so be ready to greet them with smiles!” said the elf leader. My smile was beginning to fade.
“And here is the most important part!” our elf leader continued enthusiastically, “This is what the kids have been waiting for– the chance to take a picture with Santa.”
We were warned that any wrong move at this point in the maze up could cost us our jobs, because if you messed up and revealed that multiple Santas were sitting in the different booths, the children could potentially be scarred for life and so would their parents who were paying big bucks for the Santa/child photo op.
The whole thing felt weird and artificial to me, but I was still determined to try to give kids happy memories of Christmas.
After an hour on the job, that desire quickly dwindled. A child broke down in tears because the bunny scared her when he screamed “Seasons Greetings!” After two hours as an elf, my stomach grumbled and my legs ached as I listened to that godforsaken tree repeating “HAPPY HOLIDAYS!” And that was only the first day.
The problem with my SantaLand experience, and many like it in malls and department stores all over the world, was the inherently false belief that we can make, sell or buy the spirit of Christmas. Parents, children and holiday workers alike participate with the best of intentions– we want to create happy holiday memories. Most of us are left pretty disappointed in the end.
Spirit can’t be manufactured. We can force experiences and and memories. We can buy presents and tell our children that material things can make them happy, and perhaps they will believe it. But after a child spends an hour or more in a dark maze, to be quickly shuffled away from Santa before barely finishing a sentence, it becomes obvious that this whole thing, that they thought brought them joy, is nothing more than a sham.
On my last day at SantaLand, I was tired of following the rules of elf etiquette. I was tired of wearing pointy ears, standing in a box and plastering a ridiculous smile on my face. I was tired of fake Christmas. I saw a little girl standing in line with her mother and three other siblings, crying inconsolably. Judging by all of the bags they were carrying, they had pretty arduous shopping day. I had candy canes in my pocket, and even though I wasn’t supposed to give them to the kids, I knew what I had to do. I walked over to her, leaving my elf station.
“You want the colorful one or the red and white one?” I asked her.
“I think the colorful ones are sweeter,” she replied, wiping her tears.
“Wanna come see something with me?” I asked.
She nodded slowly. Her mom gave me a polite smile of approval. I took the little girl’s hand and led her over to the talking, creepy tree.
“Merry Christmas!” It shrieked.
“That is pretty weird,” the girl said.
I nodded in agreement and we both laughed.