The elf service: a spell as Santa’s right-hand man

Sibling squabbling, beard pulling, and parents deciding what to call their newborn: a stint in Santa’s grotto is an eye-opener for a novice elf

Conor Pope as an elf at Santa’s Grotto in Avoca, Powerscourt House, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke

Conor Pope as an elf at Santa’s Grotto in Avoca, Powerscourt House, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Dec 23, 2013, 01:00

When Santa’s people contacted me two weeks ago offering a sit-down to talk about the changing face of Christmas consumption and the challenges the great man has to deal with at this time of the year, it was too tempting to turn down.

Then they said the only way it would happen was if I would dress as an elf and help out in his grotto. So, with a heavy heart, I got out the uniform and headed to the Avoca shop in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

“Ho, ho ho,” Santa says – not unexpectedly – as he greets me. I am ordered to take a position at his right hand, and to wait for Mrs Claus to shepherd the first family through the door. He talks in a deep, booming voice. “Some of the children ask for the oddest things,” he says. “I had one child come in last week who asked for a set of keys, while another wanted an egg incubator to help him hatch chicks.”

Three children come through the door, ahead of their beaming parents. The children are not smiling. They look scared.

Eventually the oldest child, a boy, plucks up the courage to ask for a bike. This pleases Santa greatly. “He wants an X-Rated BMX, Santa,” his dad explains.

Santa nods wisely. The boy’s sister wants some wheels too, but is not so hung up on models. She will be happy with “a pinky-purple bike”.

The youngest child wants a desk. A bit utilitarian, surely? “For all your colouring?” Santa asks brightly. “I’d say you’re brilliant at colouring, aren’t you?” She shrugs in a non-committal way and the family leave. “I think that girls of a certain age are always artists and all their parents always think they are brilliant, so I am pretty safe saying that,” Santa says.

The next family come in, with a little boy and his infant sister. After dealing efficiently with the boy, Santa turns to the infant and asks for her name.” I dunno,” her mother responds, embarrassed. So Santa asks how old the baby is. “She’s old enough to have a name, Santa,” the mother says and turns to her husband. “Will we call her Alexandra?” He nods in agreement and the family make their way through the doors.

Take your tablets
A boy called Dan comes in and is desperate for a tablet. Santa asks him what kind of tablet? “A Google Nexus 7,” the child says immediately. Santa looks momentarily confused but recovers well enough to tell the boy it runs on the Android operating system. The child seems impressed.

“I have to keep up with my customers and some of them are getting very techie,” Santa tells me. “In the old days it used to be baking sets and train sets and now look at us,” he sighs. “Deary, deary me.”

Emma comes through the doors after Dan. She wants something pleasingly old-school: rollerskates. And a guitar. “What kind of guitar?” asks Santa with delight. “A Spanish guitar, I hope, and not one of these electric ones. You’re not going to be a rock girl are you?” he asks. Who knew Santa was so uncool?

There is a gap in the visits as other, more useful elves try to fix the grotto door handle, which somebody has pulled off moments earlier. We talk acting.

“Sometimes kids come in and tell me that I am not the real Santa, that I am just an actor playing a role. Obviously I challenge them on that,” he tells me. “This is the best job in the world,” he continues. “I work for a month and get the rest of the year off.” Not unlike many actors, then.

Tia and Belle come in next. They want watches. They are overawed in Santa’s presence and Santa struggles to get much chat out of them.

“The shy kids are tougher than the criers,” he says. “I don’t mind if they look a little pensive coming through the door. That shows a bit of character. But I do like them to engage.”

There are certain types of engagement he could do without, however. The biggest peril he faces daily is from the beard pullers.

“Older children are less inclined to pull my beard,” he says, stroking it thoughtfully. “But the infants are divils for it, so I have to be very careful there.”

Parents can be a problem too. “Sometimes they burst in and try and stage- manage the whole thing. They are very excited and try to cajole their children into responding in certain ways, and even answer for them.”

He tries to involve the parents sometimes, however. It helps to relax the children. As if to demonstrate, he asks the next mammy and daddy through the door what they want for Christmas.

“I want a handbag, Santa,” she says quickly. “I want the money to buy a handbag,” he says more quickly.

It’s not all laughs. “I think my saddest experience was when a small boy came in and said, ‘All I want for Christmas is for you to make my daddy stop smoking.’ I had to tell him that I couldn’t make anyone do anything they didn’t want to do. Then I suggested he could get his dad Allen Carr’s book [Easy Way to Stop Smoking]. I also had to explain to him that just because I couldn’t make his daddy stop smoking did not mean he wouldn’t be getting a present from me. I think he was happy enough at the end.”

The next girl in asks for a Christmas tree. Her brother is more prepared. He wants “a robot dog and a new scooter”.

A girl follows and asks for a “Designa Friend doll” and Monopoly, while her sister wants a Barbie camper van. Santa knows all about these toys. Their brother wants “this board game called Cluedo”. Santa knows all about Cluedo too.

Family fight
Just before Santa goes for his break, a girl asks him for a slushie maker. He says he will see what he can do and then asks her younger sister what she wants. The bigger girl answers. The pair start squabbling and some pinching ensues. Fighting with your sibling is a brave, perhaps foolish, thing to do when Santa is inches away from you.

Just before the parents have to intervene to stop a full-blown row breaking out, the little girls remember where they are. They stop suddenly and promise Santa they will be good until Christmas Day.

It seems unlikely, but he doesn’t mind. He will stop by their house on Tuesday night anyway. He’s good like that.

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