Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Santas have been used as a way to increase store traffic since the early twentieth century. Most stores open their Santa displays the day after Thanksgiving.

Christmas is supposed to be a time where innocence is celebrated and kindness cultivates kindness. A holiday based on celebrating random acts of kindness, where volunteers bundle up and head out to soup kitchens and food banks. Determined to be more Tiny Tim and less Scrooge, many families collect outgrown clothes and donate them. And the inspiration for all these spontaneous endeavors is sir Nicholas Clause.

Ol’ Saint Nick still works just as hard as ever, even with a giant executive elf team. This team sends out representatives to stores. This means those who wait three hours in line for one 45 dollar photo with the big man, are often photographed with one of Santa’s helpers. These helpers are trained Santa look alikes who report back their findings about wish lists, not unlike their small counter parts, the elf on the shelf.

This winter I, along with a trusty baton twirling icon named June Grooves, formed the elf team at a downtown store. It was everything you could imagine. Screaming toddlers, resistant teenagers and hundreds of babies dressed in overly sparkly and flanneled outfits.

On one of our very first days a little, blonde, pig-tailed girl came running up to Santa, smiling as big as her chubby rosy cheeks would allow. Attached to her was a tube that went into her stomach and connected to the backpack she always carried with her. Her mom told us they had been up all night at the emergency room because the tube had dislodged and now they had to drive three hours home. But that little girl didn’t care, because she made it through the night to meet the man in the red suit who represented hope.

For the most part that’s what it was about, reminding little ones that in even in the maddening world, Santa will still come and the earth will continue to turn. Unfortunately there are instances that do not align with the spirit of Christmas. June worked the days we had an African American Santa. He was only scheduled four days all during the week while kids were in school. If the store’s mission was inclusion, they missed the point. One customer told June, “I’ll come another day because I don’t want to tell my kids that Santa isn’t real.” The store made an attempt, but in the future, effort is needed to insure that it’s not just an attempt, but a success.

The African American Santa, Santa Royce, was kind and inspiring. “He moved up from Atlanta and is now a motivational speaker at churches and community events,” June recalls. “We never had people come so we would just sit and have these great conversations.”

Another helper, Santa Dean, was the perfect Santa’s helper, with apple sized cheeks and a youthful spunk, he was the spitting image. He spent downtimes telling us about his job as an anesthesiologist. He was considering getting a PhD in Santa with a thesis about how important and easy it is for Santas to be healthy. Walks around the store were spent finding odd toys in the store, telling holiday puns and hiding candy canes on the holiday displays.

However, not all Santas are created equal. The Santa that got scheduled the most was Santa Randy. Santa Randy was a retired Trimet bus driver who told us a lot about his motorcycle. Santa Randy had a habit of saying things that were questionable. Calling us “beautiful elves” or “eye candy,” he would leave his arm lingering on shoulders after pictures. He would act first and ask later when positioning people on his lap.

In speaking to June we noted that we were worried to say anything, even though he wasn’t even our superior, just another actor. We had a young female boss, and while she would smile uncomfortably if he made an off comment, she never reached out. I worried that I would be swept aside as being overly sensitive. In the last days leading up to Christmas, Santa Randy spoke to us less and less, refusing offers to go on walks around the store to greet customers. And with a few words it was over. In a rather anticlimactic end, I took off my hat, clocked out, and gave June a hug.

Being a Santa’s Elf taught me a few things. The exact angle a candy cane must be turned so the Style Department can’t find it, how to mathematically apply my 20% employee discount to any item, and how to smile through difficult times. But should one smile through discomfort? No. If you dread going to work because you just don’t have the energy to fend off unwanted compliments from strangers and coworkers alike, then I beg you to speak up. My job had a definite end date, I didn’t feel like it was worth depriving kids of seeing Santa, I was fine. All the excuses I shouldn’t have told myself, all excuses you know are false, so when you deal with something like this, do not do as this ex-elf did.

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