My first job in Chicago—my first job as a college graduate, for that matter—was as a Christmas elf for Marshall Field’s in its final year of existence. My best friend and I drove here from Baltimore in a little Penske truck so that she could pursue her improv dreams at Second City. I tagged along as a directionless 22-year-old with an English degree.
We were exceptionally clueless when we arrived. Our apartment didn’t have a phone book, so we didn’t know whom to call to install internet (this was before smartphones), and the library wouldn’t let us use its computers without a library card, something surprisingly difficult to obtain if you don’t yet have “official” mail (i.e. bills; don’t even try using your lease) to prove your address. So we spent a lot of time checking our email at the Apple Store and combing Reader ads. It was here that we saw the call for elves. We both had a passion for costumes, performance, and Christmas, so there was really no question about whether or not we should apply.
The wait to see if we’d be chosen was agonizing. One of the first things people ask me when they find out I was an elf is whether I’ve read David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries”? Of course I have—I’m a huge Sedaris fan—and the passage that resonated with me at the time spoke to this post-interview purgatory: “Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.”
As much as I thought being an elf would be good fun, I had enough self-awareness to realize the promise my generation had been fed—“Anything is possible with a college degree and a dream!”—was looking less and less likely to be true. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even have a dream at that point, just a degree and an honor society membership; but that should have been enough to get a job. Right? Yeah, right. We’d been handing out resumes all over the city for weeks without any results, and it was utterly discouraging. Disillusionment really is the first step in adulting. When we finally received the phone call welcoming us to the Cozy Cloud Cottage, we were over the moon.
“But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.”—David Sedaris, “Santaland Diaries,” from Barrel Fever (1994)
When people bring up “Santaland Diaries,” what they really want to know is whether or not it’s an accurate description of the elfing experience. Yes, it is, though his costume was infinitely better than ours. We were given an oversized felt hat, like a jester might wear, and an apron. An apron! These glum trappings were nothing like what Zooey Deschanel wears in Elf. We immediately detoured to the nearest craft store for Christmas trimmings to jazz up our bland elf hats, subsequently taking our first steps toward our status as the Cozy Cloud Cottage’s most spirited employees.
While holiday movies might have misled us, Sedaris did not. Each day, we were assigned to be a greeter elf, usher elf, photo elf, or register elf in Santa’s home on the 5th floor of the Marshall Field’s department store. Or should I say Santas’? To keep the seemingly endless line moving, Marshall Field’s had three different Santas receiving children at any given time, and it was the job of the greeter and usher elves to keep kids from wandering off and catching sight of multiple Kringles—effectively shattering their young hearts and Christmas dreams in the process. No pressure!
I preferred being a photo elf, but this also meant dealing with the worst individuals to come through the cottage: the parents. Lots of kids were thrilled to sit on Santa’s lap, but just as many were terrified and began wailing as soon as they were lifted in his general direction. The best parents, and these were the minority, took the tears in stride and embraced the photo as an authentic moment; the worst made their red-eyed children force pained grimaces, I mean smiles, for their wallet-sized proof of Christmas cheer.
Worse still were the white parents who gave me a meaningful look when taken to our black Santa—played by a very sweet young man named James—and whisper, “Oh, we wanted to see a traditional Santa.” I had encountered this very scenario in Sedaris’ essay—we’d even received training for how to handle it!—but it was still shocking to witness. These parents typically claimed it was for “continuity” in their annual holiday photos, yet remained oblivious to how seeing two different Santas in a six-minute span might be more disconcerting to their children than a change in skin color. I can’t recall a single child having a problem with Santa James, though. Kids get it.
There was a surprising lack of holiday enthusiasm in the Cozy Cloud Cottage. Most of Santa’s helpers were there for the meager paycheck—fun fact: my last two bounced!—rather than the festive experience, but that didn’t deter my roommate or me from giving it our all. Because of our abundant Christmas spirit, we were frequently sent to work in Daley Plaza, along with Elf Steve, who was incredibly bighearted and Jewish. It was nice to get out of the hectic department store and into the crisp air of the Christkindlmarket, Chicago’s German Christmas market. We worked in a shed-like house beneath a giant Christmas tree fashioned out of a small forest of live pines, with a particularly obnoxious Santa. He’d memorized part of a scripted Santa spiel from, you guessed it, “Santaland Diaries” and was so committed to reciting it in its entirety that he’d talk over (or ignore) the children on his lap. He’d also steamroll any high-tech request.
“Sorry, but I’m just a toymaker. My elves are a little behind in technology and have not yet figured out how to make an iPod. They are better at making traditional gifts.” There’s that word again, disappointing children in a whole new way. Nevertheless, the parents ate it up and would slip a $5 bill into his hand, mouthing “Thank you!” as we tucked their $10 Polaroid into a commemorative frame.
When no visitors were in our little house, Santa Jeff would make inappropriate comments and pompous observations, and—because he wasn’t allowed to wander around in his suit—send us to find him free food in the market, though its underpaid workers couldn’t afford to give their goods away (“Just tell them it’s for Santa,” he’d say). Usually we’d just go talk to O.C., the friendly security officer who claimed his initials stood for “Out of Control,” but sometimes we’d spitefully scrounge up some schnitzel for the fat man. The day a child peed on Santa Jeff’s lap, soaking his velour pants and temporarily dissolving some of his innate smugness, was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Though my roommate and I could not afford to heat our apartment above 55 degrees that winter, this gleeful memory was one of many that helped keep us warm.
Julia’s (a.k.a. Gumdrop the Elf’s) Nontraditional Holiday Favorites:
I love pretty much all the Christmas classics, but here are a few others I try to work in each year.
Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy
Did you know that the plot of Toy Story first appeared here in 1989? It did, right down to the flashy space ranger—only in this case it’s Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids. She is fierce.
Will Vinton’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration
Dinosaur hosts lead viewers through an animated collection of carols, including an excellent performance by the California Raisins.
A burglar (Denis Leary) takes a bickering couple hostage, inadvertently helping them rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
A Matter of Principle
A PBS Christmas special from 1984 starring Alan Arkin as Flag Purdy, a man forced to reexamine his priorities after his family rebels against him and gets a Christmas tree.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
I try to read this slim children’s book every year. It features the Herdmans (“the worst kids in the history of the world”) and a scene involving a pussy willow that will haunt you forever.
Blue Heaven, by Joe Keenan (chapters 11–13)
This Wodehouse-style comedy never fails to make me laugh out loud. It centers around two people’s ill-conceived plan toget married for the wedding gifts. These three chapters take place during an unforgettable Christmas party wherein (spoiler alert) a Nativity scene is brutally massacred.
A Boy Called Christmas, by Matt Haig
A charming middle-grade novel that imagines Santa’s origin story.
“SantaLand Diaries,” by David Sedaris can be found in both Barrel Fever and Holidays on Ice.
Christmas Caravan, by the Squirrel Nut Zippers
Christmas Songs, by Mel Tormé
A Christmas Together, by John Denver and the Muppets
“Six to Eight Black Men,” from David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall
Sedaris’ rendition of Holland’s Christmas story is easily my favorite holiday essay he’s written—yes even more than “SantaLand Diaries”—but it’s best when he recites it.