The beard is the worst.  A face engulfing, synthetic, itchy pelt of unnatural origins, leaving only your eyes and nose to represent the real person buried within. It has two straps which go over your head and dig into the tops of your ears, and a little cloth cap which you pull over your chin to make conversing easier. As soon as you have uttered the first Ho, ho, ho it moves, never to return to it’s original position, making speaking difficult, unintelligible and even itchier.

Never mind that you are dressed like a gay seal trapper from a Greenland Mardi Gras, in a fire engine red suit, fake fur boots, strap-on fat suit and tasselled hat and gloves…all while sitting beneath skylights which reflect an Australian summer straight onto you, for up to 5 hours at a time.

There is a cooling fan aimed at you, but when kids sit on your lap, the elves turn it away from you so as not to make these subjects look ‘windswept & interesting.’ When the photo is taken to everyone’s satisfaction, these elves, (actually 20 year old uni students working a summer job) usually fail to re-direct the cool breeze back onto you, and you are trapped with a squirming, sometimes smelly and kicking infant on your lap as the elves are distracted with Mum & she tries to work out which shot from the 48 photos taken is THE ONE.

I began hiring out as a shopping centre Xmas deity ten years ago, when my fortunes were less than idyllic, & the usual waste-land of music gigs that is January would leave me poor and struggling. The money was a welcome addition to the time of year and would see me through until I could resume gigging again. And I would say to all my artist friends, “Yeah, it’s a good job for a muso. You sit there like a whitewashed Barry White while all this unlimited lerv comes at ya.” This year, once again, I accepted my post in August almost as a reflex action, and then in November realised that I needn’t have taken up this position, my working life being much more varied these days.  So, this time, heading into another December season filled me with feelings of dread and annoyance, not good qualities to harbour in this job, and going to work this year became a real chore. Sure, in the past this endeavour had thrown up its fair share of dodgy shifts and bad days, indifferent elves and bad set orientation, but on the whole I had always seen it as a means to an end, knowing it was for a limited time etc. and just got on with it. But this year something has moved & changed for me, and I realise that over familiarity with this calling has provided the death knell for my future involvement.

This opening salvo is directed straight at well -meaning folks who opine, “You’ve got it easy, just sitting there being paid by the hour while the photographers do all the work.” And the elves DO work hard. The good ones anyway. The ones who really put in and react to the ever changing situation around them, that try to soothe screaming children and ruffled, tired parents with bubbles and a squawking rubber chicken. If you are lucky enough to work with elves like these, it makes your job a lot easier. If you are stuck with gum chewing, self-obsessed, iPhone scrutinising plebs who are only there for the money, you are in trouble. They will not keep the line moving, not read the kids body language or know how to be diplomatic with harassed parents who have stood in line for 45 minutes only to have their elegantly coiffed progeny erupt in uncontrollable shrieks of horror as they actually approach  the chair with the strange, costumed, heavily bearded stranger beckoning eerily at them. But hey, these elves are 20 year old kids, still wet behind the ears, blunt and often uncaring past the sightline of their own self-absorption. Nervousness & working amongst the public, communicating with good eye contact and taking initiative when it is needed are all traits that most people find hard to apply, and young people with no life experience find this stuff even more challenging.

When you work with helpers who get at least some of this, and who try and smile and get on with it, your shift is fun & rewarding. This particular brand of elf is rare, however. You can very easily have a rotten time of it as you sit there and never break character for your entire shift, even when you can see the whole shebang heading for train-wreck status, as communication between you & your callow team hits another all-time low. The even rarer elf examples are the ones who really try to put a positive spin on things, cajoling & inventing on the go as situations erupt around them, focusing on the big picture, and not allowing real or imagined slights or problematic scenarios to interrupt their totally professional attitude. I have been blessed with a couple of these this year, both school teachers in training, admirably suited to this job & their chosen vocation,  a real joy to work with. But it’s a rare situation to be in, like watching planets line up or winning the Mexican lottery.

And lets talk about watching. I am an inveterate people-watcher. I could sit in a shopping centre all day just watching the psychology and body language, the trials & tribulations of December consumers (until Mall Security becomes paranoid about my dark glasses and furtive glancing and moves me on) And, of course, from my characters’ large, red, uncomfortable chair, I see it all. It is truly amazing to watch the ebb & flow of the human queue stretching away from you. The bored, suntanned, freckled Dads who are actually white-hot angry that once again, this annual, expensive ritual must unfold. The elegantly coiffured young matrons & their kids all dressed in reindeer ears and sassy seasonal garb, who by the time they make it to the head of the line, are dishevelled, antsy and irritated by the smallest of things, never realising that they are projecting this curdled attitude straight onto their kids, who, more than not will scream blue murder and want nothing to do with the whole thing.

And you’re sitting beneath the food court, in a huge shopping centre during December-its like being imprisoned in a pinball machine, the sensory input of white noise, boings and crashes, shouts and lights is very surreal, overpowering and distracting. And wherever you look, up, down, all around, there are kids craving your attention AT ALL TIMES during your shift. So you wave, and wave and wave… You wave with your right hand, left hand, fingers, palm extended like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in white gloves, pointing out kids faces and smiling like some insane escapee from a jack-o-lantern refuge, and the certainty of an RSI injury or Carpal tunnel surgery seems very real. And the strange, jangly mall sound goes on. But once in a while, a nervous young couple will hand you a 3 week old bub to hold, and everything falls silent. In your world, you & the bub are at peace, and it becomes a lovely, soothing moment in the middle of the maelstrom. Or a young kid with motor problems whose walking frame is festooned with flashing Xmas lights, and who beams at you with pure joy, never mind that getting around is always going to be problematic for him, he is so happy to see you and be a part of things that you choke up, and you must summon all your inner jolly to keep going.

You work with other St. Nicks too. Mostly retirees looking for a bit of fun and pocket money, but occasionally you’ll work with someone who thinks he IS Santa Claus, and that too, is surreal. The changeover of shifts is held in secrecy, like a masonic ritual, so that no little kid will ever see two together and completely lose his/her mind. It’s all planned out to the smallest detail, making attendance at Santa School every year mandatory. And the beard itches & itches…

 

Older folks call you Father Christmas, little boys & girls yell Sanna, and the season chugs towards it’s inevitable anti-climax.

It sounds like I’m running it all down, like its always a pain in the arse, but that’s really just my experience this year, coloured by the fact that my brain is telling me that I shouldn’t be doing this anymore. Occasionally, the urge to rip off the beard and run screaming through the mall is almost overpowering, and I’m fighting the urge to trip out and become a basket case in a red suit. But I certainly have enjoyed my time in the chair over the years (10) and there are many, many stories to tell that I will probably never get to. Like one year at Chadstone when the fire alarm went off and we all had to evacuate-me in my red suit & whiskers, standing outside with the smokers until the all clear was given. Or this year as the young elf, desperately trying to plug in all the camera paraphernalia at 8.55 am, constantly pestered by an obnoxious cherub from the already huge waiting line with repeated cries of ‘Where’s Sanna? Where’s Sanna?’ The elf, over extended and possibly hung over, with sweat running into his left eye, looks up from under the small cabinet where he toils and in his best tight lipped Clint Eastwood says, “Santa’s dead kid.”

So this will be my last ever season in the red suit, and it’s a weird feeling. For 6-7 weeks every year I’ve been getting thrown in the deep end with my suit, whiskers and electric fan. I would banter and become friends with the elves, knowing I’ll never see them again, and watch & react to the chaos and madness going on around me, trying to guess by the sun when my shift will be over. I’ve seen kids cry, yell, become catatonic at the sight of me, handed out a million pairs of dodgy reindeer ears and crappy paint sets ( no lollies, someone might have a peanut allergy)and I have learnt so much about human nature that I see myself on a couch trying to explain it all to someone someday. I’ve Ho ho hoed till my voice became scratchy, and I’ve reached the point in many hot shifts where I would have gladly killed everyone in sight for one drink of sweet water. (drinking is problematic with the beard, so is rarely done) I’ve had my time in the chair, and can proudly say that it has been a wonderful, yet surreal experience that I now know I need never repeat.

Last night, as the clock inched towards the end of my shift, the elf informed me, “Here comes your last kid Santa.” It was a 6 week old bub called Noel. The last No-el? I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up.

Now, I’m going to trash the suit, burn the whiskers and head upstairs to check out that new steak place in the food court.

Think I might try the venison…

 

 

 

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