It’s the most wonderful time of the year: The time when you stand in line for an hour to plonk your kid on Santa’s lap and hope they stop screaming long enough to take a photo. But if it’s hell for the parents, what’s it like for Santa’s helpers? We asked three current or former mall elves for an inside view.
I was an elf a few years ago — I needed a job, even though it didn’t pay very much. Yes, I wore the outfit! With the pointy hat and the felt clothes. I worked at an outdoor mall, so unless the sun was hitting me, I really didn’t mind — it was actually comfortable. At least I didn’t have to wear those curly slippers. I’ve done lots of acting and spent plenty of time onstage, so the elf outfit never bothered me, although teenagers would walk by and call you “Buddy” or “Will Ferrell.” Sometimes grown-ups, too.
The main thing I remember about it was all the excited or nervous kids. I got used to the ones that screamed. You kind of have no choice, it’s like white noise. It was probably better than hearing the same holiday songs playing. There was a mall speaker pretty close to our North Pole, and it’d play Christmas songs so loudly. The Santa I worked with was pretty quiet around the kids. He was nice, but he didn’t say much. I guess he didn’t really have to. Maybe he didn’t want to mess with the illusion, you know?
To me, it was interesting seeing the people from other countries who would come and get their picture taken. I didn’t realize that people around the world believe in Santa! I thought there was something cool about that.
At the mall where I was, you saw all walks of life due to where it was located and the stores it had. But there wasn’t really that much difference between people — I guess everyone just likes to visit “Santa” and get their picture taken. It’s like it’s the exact same tradition for so many people. Whenever I see Santa at a mall nowadays, I’m glad I only did it for one Christmas, but seeing it again makes me realize it was nice to be part of a tradition for people every year. I don’t miss the repetitive Christmas music though!
This is my first year working as an elf. I’m in college, and I was looking for work during the holidays. It’s a pretty easy job on weekdays, but weekends get really busy. On weekday mornings I do it all: I take pictures, handle payments, give people their photo. On weekends there’s a bigger team so we can work faster.
You’ve got to like kids in this job. Honestly, it’s cool to see them get excited or nervous to see Santa. A lot of them really do cry, especially the little ones! I take the pictures as well, and you’ve got to be good at taking the picture at the exact moment — that’s when you get the least-bad picture if a kid just won’t stop crying. Sometimes if they’re on the verge of crying, if you just shoot quickly and distract them, you can get a surprisingly good shot.
Most of the parents are actually pretty nice, although the Santa I work with told me that parents will get more irritable as it gets closer to Christmas. A few of them are super controlling with their kids, but most parents just think it’s cute to see their kid sitting on Santa’s lap — you can tell it’s sometimes a bigger deal for the parents. The parents with a baby are usually extremely enthusiastic because it’s their baby’s first Christmas and they want the Santa photo. Sometimes the whole family wears matching outfits. We also get a lot of adults who come in — I didn’t realize so many of them get their picture taken with Santa! Like, girlfriends who dress in the same Christmas sweater.
The other thing you need for this job is to like Christmas. It’s always been my favorite holiday — I don’t know if someone could do this job if they didn’t love Christmas. That said, the worst part is probably the Christmas music. I like Christmas music, but you hear the same songs over and over all day…
I needed money, I guess, and I have a photography background. The job is long hours, but on weekends they go by fast because the line never ends. The worst part is maybe parents — they get impatient because the line can move slow. Also, our printer takes a long time to print. People sometimes complain about the price, as if I can do anything about that.
Even though we have a sign right next to the place where parents stand while their kid sits on Santa’s lap, parents still take pictures with their phone. If it’s not busy I remind them not to, but sometimes I just let it slide. To get the right picture you’ve gotta have quick reflexes to push the shutter release at the right moment — you sort of develop a sense of when the best moment is to take a picture if a child is crying, even if you can’t distract them.
I don’t actually interact with the kids much myself — they either walk up to Santa or the parents place their baby in his arms — so I don’t hear what kids tell Santa, but it’s always funny to me when they name off a ton of things to him that they want. I’ve never seen Santa get peed on, like you hear about… at least, not yet.
People usually leave happier than they were when they got here. That’s nice. It’s a big deal to people, and I think a lot of people, especially parents, get stressed out about getting their Santa photo every Christmas. I like helping play a part in that.