‘Are you a real elf?’ asks a little girl. ‘Yeah,’ I lie
Patrick Freyne dons an elf costume to work alongside Santa in Arnotts for the day
Elf Patrick Freyne with Santa Claus at Arnotts. Photograph: Alan Betson
The cornerstones of “elf training” are spelled out in bullet points.
They include: Be entertaining, positive and happy.
Help create the magic of Christmas.
Be aware that the toys are made by the elves in Santa’s workshop.
[Know] the “history of Father Christmas.”
The last one is: “Take part in the Arnotts Postal parade at weekends – where the elves from the grotto parade through the store with a brass brand as they march to one of Santa’s special post boxes to collect the letters for Santa. ”
Santa is the elves’ boss, and he arrived here on November 19th in an ornate horse-drawn carriage alongside television star Baz Ashmawy and his mum and a family from the LauraLynn charity. This makes Santa sound like he’s a bit of a prima donna. For the record, he’s not. He’s softly spoken and surprisingly down to earth. He looks a lot younger than his 676 years. Sometimes he forgets his age because he’s so old, but some know-it-all child (Santa doesn’t say the word “know-it-all”) will always correct him. And when he gives his age there’s always some canny regular (“A believer, but one of the lads”) who’ll go. “That’s right! He said 675 last year.”
I am wearing an elf uniform – a green velvet hat with a white bobble, a big green velvet jacket with a black belt, a fluffy white collar and candy-cane piping along the pockets. I forgo the pointy boots and the stripy tights the press liaison person is unwholesomely eager to get me to wear because I just don’t think I have the legs for it. Anyway, why can’t elves wear cords? It’s the 21st century.
Despite this sartorial faux pas (the press person is not pleased) I fully commit to the role. I recite the name of Santa’s reindeers and decide to go by the elf-name “Elf Starshine”. Then I go out to Santa’s grotto to discover that the other Arnotts staff largely wear Christmassy jumpers with inbuilt Christmas lights and I feel very overdressed.
Outside the grotto, there are life-size baubles and a headless gingerbread man designed to allow children to pretend they are a gingerbread man in photos (not to ward off gingerbread men with the threat of decapitation). There’s an area with colouring books. Santa’s grotto lies behind a red curtain flanked by “highly trained” elves. There’s a newfangled ticket system so there’s no real queue. People come at the start of their shop and take a ticket and then they get a text 30 minutes before their visit is due.
I make conversation with one of my elf colleagues, a smiling young man who has worked for several years as an elf at the Dundrum Shopping Centre. He’s proud of his elfing career, though he has encountered job interviewers who have asked, “Is being an elf a real job?”
He’s pretty committed to his elfing. “I was Elf Buttons for a while,” he recalls. “Then I was Elf Sparkles.”
And now? “Elf Dave,” he says. Arnotts, it turns out, doesn’t rename its employees the way Dundrum Shopping Centre or Anglo-Irish aristocrats do. I resolve not to tell him that my name is “Elf Starshine.”
I am introduced to Santa, but not until after I’ve made another faux pas. “How many Santas are there?” I ask.
“There’s only one Santa,” says the press person cheerfully.
“Yes, of course,” I say. “But when this Santa is on a break . . .”
“There’s only one Santa,” says the press person.
“Yes,” I say, “But surely to comply with local labour law he must have some ‘helpers’.”
“There’s. Only. One. Santa,” says the press person.
Santa hangs out in a sort of wooden cabin with reindeer ornaments, a painted fire, a post box filled with letters and a large golden throne, which is, to be fair, the only bit of ostentation I can see. Like I said, he’s sound.
“How long have you been coming to Arnotts?” I ask.
“A long time,” says Santa. He has a kind, soft voice and his eyes widen as he talks. “I was here in 1843.”
The press lady does a quick mental check. “He’s right!” she says with glee. “Arnotts was opened 175 years ago next year. It was opened in 1843.”
“But how long have you really been here?” I ask.
It’s really 175 years, he says, before describing a less salubrious grotto from olden times that sounds a little like Arnotts in the early noughties. There’s a lot of commitment to the Christmas ideal here at Arnotts. Even the photographer who has only been here two weeks says she commutes from the North Pole, which, if true, will surely anger Irish photographers.
The Arnotts grotto is free to visit, though they do ask for a voluntary donation to the very important LauraLynn charity. The only other catch is that as you leave you are offered the chance of buying some photos and this costs €15. This feels like a bit of a trick, because if you see a picture of your beaming or crying child nestled next to Santa and you don’t want to buy it, you are basically a bad parent.
It’s hard not to be happy being at Santa’s grotto. I stand across from Santa so children get to see my disappointingly unSanta-ish face first, before turning the corner to beam at the real deal. I talk to them as they leave. There’s a rule in the Irish Times that journalists can never “misrepresent” ourselves to members of the general public, so don’t tell HR about the following interaction or I’ll be fired.
“Are you a real elf?” asks a little girl called Laylabelle Whelan.
“You’d better say ‘yeah’,” whispers her mother, Nicole, who has, she tells me, been bringing her here since she was a baby.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Are you Santy Claus?” asks a smaller girl named Sophia Kenny.
“No,” I say, though frankly this should be obvious. She’s just been talking to Santy Claus.
“When you were little were you still an elf?” asks Laylabelle.
“Yes,” I say, but, uncomfortable with my web of lies, I change the subject. “What did you ask for from Santy?”
“I asked for a Barbie camper van,” says Laylabelle.
“I can go under the water with goggles,” says Sophia
“Me to,” says Laylabelle. “I like swimming. We’re going swimming.” I have no idea how we got on to swimming.
“I watched a movie about elfs,” says Laylabelle, and she begins outlining the plot of the film Elf in significant detail.
“I like your suit,” says Sophia. “Pink and purple are my favourite colours.” I am not wearing pink and purple.
“My favourite colour is pink and blue,” says Laylabelle. I have lost control of the interview.
Santa, in contrast, seems quite at home with mad child nonsense. “I put soothers on the Christmas tree for the baby reindeers,” says one child and Santa doesn’t bat an eyelid or shout “That’s ridiculous why would Santa hire BABIES!” as I am tempted to do.
No, he talks softly to the children and high fives them and sings happy birthday to them (when appropriate, he’s not doing it to confuse them) and tells them to practise going to bed early and then gives them a badge indicating that they’ve been to see Santa.
There seems to be a consensus that most of these children are “nice” as opposed to “naughty” but I don’t see any of Santa’s data on this (I’ve put in an FOI) so I have to take his word for it. Babies wail. Toddlers wander around the room with wild looks on their faces. Four and five year olds answer questions in monosyllabic awe. Teenagers – yes, teenagers – stand sullenly behind the parents who are using them as props and have collected Santa pictures of their offspring for every year of their lives. Because, yes, a photo is always posed for at the end.
“Cheese!” says the photographer or, controversially, “Bananas”, and then, if necessary, she squeaks a plastic toy that triggers some ancient predatory instinct that fools wayward toddlers into gazing at the camera.
Nine-month-old James Ebbs is taken aback by Santa and starts to cry. He is not the only one (“There are always a few criers,” says Elf Dave stoically) but his grandmother Mary Ebbs can’t understand it. “The only time that child cries is when he wants his dinner or his tea,” she says.
She advises Santa to put his glasses on and this seems to work, possibly because as an alpha male James no longer finds “nerd” Santa to be a threat.
Afterwards Mary still can’t understand it. “See! He’s not afraid of you,” she says to me as Jamie gazes silently up at me. His judgemental gaze seems to say, “I’m on to you, ‘Elf’.”
“He can do a high five,” insists Mary. She pushes James’s hand towards mine and we sort of fist bump.
“His nanny has him spoiled,” says James’s mother Sinead. They were in hospital for Christmas last year. “I went up for my six-month check,” says Sinead, “and they said I had an infection and I ended up staying in hospital for 2½ months.”
“I brought her up her Christmas dinner at the hospital and we all went up, the whole family,” says Mary. “She was the only one in the ward. All the other grandchildren went up with the presents. She had her dinner and her glass of wine.”
Mary has what Sinead calls a “shrine” to her grandchildren in her house – pictures of them with Santa, all their drawings. “This is Jamie’s first Christmas,” says Sinead. “We’re going to make it a good one. He’s my one and only. I was told I wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally and then it just happened. He’s my little Christmas miracle.”
Jamie is not the youngest child I meet today. 13-day-old Saoirse Cahill “knows exactly what’s going on”, says her mother Sinead, before admitting: “Okay, she slept through it. Everyone is very excited because she’s the first grandchild, so we got a little picture of her as a present.”
Santa has had people come in on the way home from the maternity ward. And, on the other extreme, last week they had two octogenarians in. “An elder couple whose children had grown and decided to come for old times sake,” Elf Dave tells me.
“They must be nearly as old as Santy,” says a woman named Fiona Tierney, who’s waiting with her kids, James (10), Calum (13) and Megan (17).
“He’s 676 apparently,” I say.
“He doesn’t look a day over 432,” says Elf Dave.
“Eighty years old,” says Fiona shaking her head. “That’ll be you in a few years Megan.”
Megan laughs. They take a half-day from school every year to come to see Santa. “I say to Megan, ‘This has to be the last year’ and she says, ‘No mam, we have to go.’”
Does he remember you? “Yeah, I think so because there isn’t that many that size goes into see him,” says Fiona.
Malahide folk Des and Barbara Whelan have 21 years’ worth of pictures of their brood with Santa. Their oldest, Robert, is 21 and works as a barman. He can remember freaking out at catching an accidental glimpse of Santa through the curtain when he was five. “It’s getting a bit tired now,” he says. “But it’s for them really.” He points at his mother and little sister Martha.
“How do you find it?” I ask his teenage brother Max.
“Painful,” he says.
“I suppose it does keep the magic alive,” says third teenage brother Andrew.
Eleven-year-old Mia Shine has been coming here since she was a baby and gets a snow globe every year. “We have a lot of snow globes,” says her mother Fiona. Nearby, the McDonald children are considering the question of whether cookies or mince pies are a more appropriate Christmas snack. Their dad is a soldier stationed overseas and he’s coming home on the 21st. “That’s when Christmas begins,” says their mother Roisin.
Aaron Morgan and his parents David and Jacinta are discussing Santa’s beard. “It was real,” says Aaron.
“As real as that man’s there,” says David, pointing at my Elfin mug.
“But you didn’t touch it,” says his mother.
“No,” says Aaron.
Is beard-mauling a hazard? I ask Santa. “There are occasions when they want to pull the beard to check it,” says Santa. “Oh yeah. They usually say ‘Are you the real Santa?’ I never say ‘yes’. I say ‘What do you think?’ Then they want to try the beard. I say, ‘Don’t pull too hard!’”
Eye on parents
Santa never promises anything. There are times when a child comes in with a list and he says, “That’s a lot of ‘ands’!” He keeps an eye on parents to see if they’re shaking their head vigorously at present requests and he always says that Santa doesn’t bring pets. What’s the strangest thing a child has asked for? “Oh they’re all strange!” he says and his eyes widen once more.
It’s pretty hot in the elf costume. Santa, I notice, takes healthy swigs of water between child visitations. Elf Dave says that “children are infectious” referring to their enthusiasm but I agree in the sense that I have begun to cough and splutter. I don’t think I have what it takes to be an elf. How does Elf Dave stay so jolly?
“You have to be jolly!” he says, as though even asking this question is sacrilegious. “It’s in the job spec . . . You have to make it as magical as possible. You see people come in sullen with wet hair but [then they] look at the snow globes and ginger bread men . . . This is a really happy space. It’s not long before you turn the frown upside down and I don’t like cliches usually. Ah, I’m a giant child myself when it comes to Christmas, so every time I bring a child in to Santa it’s like I’m going to Santa myself.”