PLAYING SANTA’S ELF ON MY BIRTHDAY
Turn the calendar back. One year…two years…four years…eight years…eleven years…wait…STOP!
What does an eccentric old lady do on a birthday that falls smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season?
Why…play elf for Santa.
And so Elf Carolyn was reborn. Reborn, because when my children were little I assisted Santa Claus (a. k. a. Daddy Monte, my husband) in his Christmas morning role as Santa.
The children would rise with stockings hung on the fireplace mantle or on the end of their bed, and then the family would gather for a breakfast of treats. At some point, Monte would slip out of the room, go to the basement, and don his Santa suit (it was a fake beard then, whereas now he could play Santa with his real beard).
Once donned he would pick up the sack of Christmas presents (left there the night before by the real Santa), climb the stairs, and knock on the closed doors. The kids would answer his knock…but then, that was many years ago.
In 2000 the kids were grown, out on their own—one married with one child, the other living in Munich, Germany, working on a post-doc program. Monte and I lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania where he was pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Connellsville. I worked for a local newspaper as a freelance writer.
My editor—Ed Cope—suggested an assignment. I could spend a couple of hours helping Santa at a mall and write a column about it. What he didn’t know was that the assignment fell on my birthday.
Celebrating a mid-December birthday is often an afterthought, an inconvenience, amidst baking, shopping, church activities, travel and all the hoopla accompanying Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
One year, when my children were youngsters, they played Santa’s elves. I sewed their costumes from scratch, using brightly patterned fabrics I searched the sewing stores for. Now that it was my turn I searched my closet for something appropriate. I found a red dress, a green and plaid vest (which I had sewn years before), green tights and red slip-on shoes. Then I dug into the storage cabinet to rummage through the Christmas items, where I found a red Santa hat and red, green, and white crocheted drink coasters. I tacked the coasters on the hat. To complete the costume I tacked my children’s hand-knit stockings on the skirt of the dress to substitute as decorative pockets.
Before I started my assignment the head elf gave me limited instructions. I was to sit by Santa and listen to conversations or greet children waiting in line.
A four-year-old boy was first. All he wanted for Christmas was a teddy bear—just a teddy bear. Two nine-year-old cousins were brutally honest: No, we don’t keep our rooms clean. Santa suggested that that the girls had something to work on. He gave them a coloring book and admonished them: Make sure you clean your room. A twelve year old requested a Christmas tree with stockings on it.
Ed and Monte attempted to catch this event on camera. Ed was more obvious, needing photos for the column. Monte stayed hidden in the crowd.
Several children shied away from me, a stranger wearing unusual clothes.
My friend Phredfred the (professional) clown once described to me how upset he became when parents pushed screaming children at him. I’ve seen parents push children into Santa’s lap, and felt sorry not only for the child but for the insensitive parent. After all, is Santa different from a clown in a terrified child’s eyes? Could he be even more intimidating than I?
I suggested to the mothers whose children demonstrated apprehension or fear of myself of Santa that that they stay with their children during the visit.
Later, when Santa took a brief break (which he did every two hours), he spoke about how he soothed reluctant visitors: You do what you can to assure the kids you won’t harm them. You reach out and pat their hands, high five, comment on something they are wearing. Forcing a child can traumatize them for years.
Shades of Phredfred.
Santa has other moments that aren’t truly joyful. Some are sad experiences— like the child who said he only wanted Matchbox cars because his parents couldn’t afford anything else or the parents who belittle their children.
But the enjoyable moments overtake the sad ones. Once, a man proposed to his girl friend in front of Santa. Another time, teenagers who visited proclaimed, with giggles: We still believe. A twelve year old requested a Christmas tree with stockings on it.
Santa imposters must follow specific rules, including the exclusion of negative words and statements. He can only ask the child questions about positive behavior: did they pick up their toys or eat their meals. And what they want for Christmas.
Santa credited both the elves serving with him and the mall customers with encouraging him in his task. He told of an eighty-year-old man with a walker who visits every morning, asks about the night before, and brings foil-wrapped candies for the Santa staff.
My time was up. Before I left I took my turn to talk to Santa. I have the photograph to prove I sat on his lap—even at the age I turned on December 10, 2000!
The experience with Santa was so pleasant that I now wonder: Is there a Santa nearby who would enjoy having an eccentric old lady play elf on her birthday? She comes with experience!
Writer celebrates birthday as Santa’s merry elf, Carolyn Holland,Tribune Review Fay-West section, Dec. 17, 2000, A2