We accidentally uncovered a nationwide elf shortage and you need to know about it.
Every year when the temperature drops and holiday shoppers start to clog my evening commute, I reread David Sedaris’ essay “Santaland Diaries.” In the classic tale, Sedaris recounts his experience working as a Macy’s department store elf, complete with elf-on-elf flirting, helicopter parents and adults calling each other names like “Snowball” and “Crumpet.” While the story has certainly held up since its 1992 NPR debut, I’m always left wondering if the life of a modern mall elf has the same dark crust under its jingle bell sheen.
So I set out to get the scoop, imagining a close-knit group of seasonal workers who enjoy going out for drinks after hours, sipping peppermint schnapps and complaining about the dry cleaning bills their green velvet knickers have racked up. But upon arriving at the Macy’s on Chicago’s State Street?—?the only one in the city with a Santaland and big fancy window displays?—?there’s not a perky hat or candy-cane-striped stocking in sight. Just a couple of kind-faced Macy’s employees in gray polo shirts and name tags eager to usher me in to see Santa.
“No elves?! No, thank you!” I think to myself as I make for the exit, sure I’ll have better luck at the next location. Little did I know the mythical mall elf would be so elusive.
“The main thing for me was the drug test,” she says, without much holly-jolliness in her voice.
Outside of a Bloomingdale’s at a luxury shopping center downtown, I’m once again disappointed to find the cheery Christmas-elf population at 0.00. Instead, what I find is two college-age kids in plain clothes helping children onto Santa’s lap.
When I ask if they ever wear costumes for this job, they look at each other and sheepishly pull a couple hats with attached pointy ears out of a drawer.
“We’re just told to dress professionally. No graphic tees,” says Evelyn, a college junior and communications major. “Last year, between the coworkers, we decided to wear ugly sweaters. You know, for the Christmas approach.”
Alejandro, a former photography student, tells me that they’d like to play Christmas music to enhance the atmosphere but since the Santa area is run by an independent contractor, they’d need permission from the mall first. Instead, hits from the 80s, 90s and today blare from the overhead speakers.
Where’s the Christmas spirit in that? Where’s the impish joy and squeaky character voices I remember from the mall elves of my youth?
I ask the Santa, a gruff-voiced ex-cop, if he remembers a time when the mall had real, jingle-toed helpers with cool hats and goofy nicknames.
“I’ve been doing this for eleven years at the same mall and we’ve never had any elves,” he says.
Like a Grinch-in-reverse, my heart shrinks three sizes. I start to doubt the memories I once held so dear. I thought I remembered the mall elves of my childhood entertaining us as we waited in line and jingling the bells on their hats to get us to look at the camera. But did I really?
Maybe this is the Berenst(e)ain Bears conspiracy all over again! We all think we remember Christmas photo shoots one way?—?costumed and magical?—?but really we’ve collectively forgotten that Santa’s elves were just bored 19-year-olds in street clothes! Bah humbug.
I even call the merry-loving town of SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA only to be politely told by the woman at the visitors center that Santa has zero elves at his disposal.
I head to one more mall, the joy of Christmas quickly dwindling inside of me. When I call ahead to confirm the presence of elves, the concierge assures me that “Santa’s helpers” are in full costume.
Well, if “full costume” means more polo shirts and a red apron that says “Santa Approved,” then yeah, these two are elves.
“Our official job title is ‘team member,’” says Shannon, a recreation therapy student at a local college. “But I kinda thought we’d get to dress up as elves, to be honest.”
When I ask what the interview process was like, Megan, a nursing student working on her homework, pipes up. “The main thing for me was the drug test,” she says, without much holly-jolliness in her voice.
But do they remember real-life mall elves like the ones we see in the movies? They nod enthusiastically. Apparently all of “Santa’s helpers” have vivid early memories of visiting St. Nick at their local shopping mall, greeted by festooned helpers with names like Gumdrop and Periwinkle.
Finally, corroboration!! It’s not that the elves never existed; it’s that they’ve become some kind of endangered species! At this point, the Nancy Drew part of my brain is lighting up like a Christmas tree. ???? Where have all the mall elves gone? ????
I buckle my seat belt and call every mall I can think of. Not one department store or shopping center in all of Chicagoland, Los Angeles, or South Florida (where I’m from) can confirm that they have costumed elves. The closest I get is The Grove in L.A., which has “festively-dressed” concierges assisting Santa. NO, THANKS, YA SUNTANNED SCROOGES!
Dallas, Seattle, Orlando, Atlanta. No dice. I call my hometown mall?—?of which I have actual memories!—NO ELVES. I even call the merry-loving town of SANTA CLAUS, INDIANA only to be politely told by the woman at the visitors center that Santa has zero elves at his disposal.
“Were there ever any elves?” I ask.
“Not that I can recall.”
THIS THING GOES ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP.
After more frantic phone calls to people who are befuddled as to why Santa Claus in the flesh is not good enough for me, I remind myself that I am not a Christmas conspiracy theorist and call it a day.
After all that, only the Mall of America and the big Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square assure me they currently employ the velvet-knickered mall elves of my childhood memories.
But two out of 20 shopping centers? If nothing else, it’s clear Santa’s helpers are on their way out. Tired, hopeless, and in need of some peppermint schnapps, I have one final thought before I lay down for a long winter’s nap. I can either believe that Buddy the Elf and his kind have been laid off and/or killed by corporate budget cuts, or I can choose to believe that they’ve taken on a new form.
After all, elves exist in folklore throughout the world?—?there are Icelandic elves, Tolkien elves, Elves on the Shelves, leprechauns (pretty sure they count), and the jolly old Christmas Elves (first introduced to the public imagination by Louisa May Alcott). So if elves can be anything, if they live primarily in our hearts and imaginations, then why can’t the next iteration be the college kid in the polo shirt? Someone call David Sedaris—we’ve got a new assignment for him.
All photos by Antonio Manaligod for Dose