“Just treat me like any other elf.” I make this entreaty to my shift supervisor at Santa’s Grotto in Bluewater shopping mall, Kent. It’s the kind of thing said by television cops in locker rooms: “I know you all think I didn’t get here on merit, that I didn’t earn my stripey waistcoat. But I’m a good elf; I’ve got Santa’s back.” Not that there’s any chance of me coming off as macho: I’m wearing a name-badge saying “Snowdrop”. Nonetheless my request is granted and I spend the morning getting the full picture of grotto life.
Many elf duties turn out to be standard retail skills. As part of my induction day the previous week, I had been shown how to use a credit-card machine, change a till roll, and install paper in a photographic printer. I also learnt elf make-up requirements—red nose and cheeks—and that, although I will be given an elf outfit, I am expected to “put the magic in the costume”. This means maintaining “character integrity”. I can never be off-duty when elf-dressed. If a child stops to speak to me when I’m on a break, I am not Will. I am Snowdrop.
I am told to think of answers to questions that children might ask. Such as: “Why are you so tall?” (Elves shrink as it gets closer to Christmas.) Or: “How will Santa get in my house if I don’t have a chimney?” (He has a magic key.) I devise plugs for any holes in my back story: Santa can ingest all the mince pies and sherry left out for him because he has four stomachs, like a cow; the reindeer can fly because they have tiny propellers in their hooves. I will not be caught out by a sarcastic nine-year-old.
In the event, few children ask me anything difficult. They’ve come to see Santa, not his minion on the grotto booking-desk. It’s soon clear that the delight of a child on chancing upon the grotto is matched by the delight of their parents on hearing that entry is free. Another elf tells me I’m lucky to be doing a shift in late November, when there are still plenty of walk-up tickets available. By Christmas Eve slots are scarce or non-existent, and tempers can fray. It has been known for elves to call security. I trust that, in the interests of dramatic coherence, the guards dress as snowmen and urge parents to “cool it”.
Next I’m switched to manning the grotto door. My duties are to take the children’s “Magic Ticket”—a printout with the booking time—and hand it through the door to another elf. This elf tells Santa the names of the children on the ticket, and hands him presents selected from age- and gender-appropriate sacks. I have to keep an eye on the children left waiting in the queue. Some smile at me excitedly, some stare suspiciously; one crawls through my legs to open the door. I am part children’s entertainer, part bouncer, all elf.
I move on to interior-grotto duty, and get to see how the children behave on the other side of the door. Sometimes their rush to get in is replaced by shyness, reluctance, or even tears. No Santa likes to ask “What do you want for Christmas?” only to have an unnerved child wail “I want my mummy!” Generally though, Santa is treated with awe and reverence. The only hiccup occurs when I have no idea how to pronounce a child’s name. But it turns out that Chole was a typo, so the parents reintroduce Santa to their lovely daughter, Chloë.
Santa’s gifts are all books, and it’s heartening that, despite the children’s requests for dinosaurs, magic wands, pirate ships and fairies, I do not witness a single instance of disappointment when instead they get reading matter—quite the opposite, they seem overjoyed to be handed a present by Santa Claus himself. Their elation is captured by a large, elf-operated camera, then turned into a photo, key ring, fridge magnet or 3D picture, which I print and take payment for. The three- to seven-year-olds turn out to be one-shot wonders, beaming straight down the lens. The parents of younger children often find themselves having to choose from multiple shots of their cherub facing the wrong way.
After this, my final act as an elf feels distinctly unmagical: the grotto is windowless and hot, so once I have hung up my costume I am told to spray it with Febreze. Never mind flying reindeer, the one question no elf wants to hear is this: “Why do you smell?”