Here's What It's Like To Work As A Christmas Elf At A Major London Tourist Attraction

By Londonist Last edited 19 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2022

Here's What It's Like To Work As A Christmas Elf At A Major London Tourist Attraction

Back in 2019, we spoke to two former Harrods grotto elves to get the lowdown on their job. Now, another elf — we'll call them Buddy, to protect their anonymity — speaks about their time elfing at a major London tourist attraction (which we're also keeping anonymous) a few Christmasses ago.

Credit: iStock/bloodstone

Working as an elf in a Santa's grotto at Christmas was never something I aspired to. Most people probably like to believe that there's a strict entry criteria and rigorous training programme to be an elf, and while I'm sure that's true at the North Pole, it wasn't the case for me — I more or less fell into elfing when my previous seasonal contract at [REDACTED] came to an end at the same time that elves were being recruited. I had no experience in acting or working with children — I was pretty much just handed a costume and a comically oversized candy cane, introduced to Santa, and that was that.

The bulk of our job was sprinkling Christmas cheer through the queue outside Santa's grotto, keeping families entertained, happy and excited — not always an easy task when the office-based staff who never actually visited the grotto during opening hours had MASSIVELY overbooked, meaning there was occasionally a backlog of up to two hours to see Santa. It was outside too, so got fairly chilly, and kids, understandably, went through every emotion possible in that queue.

"The most mentally challenging job I've ever done"

Credit: iStock/stocknroll

First up, let me say that being an elf was one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and heartwarming jobs I've ever had. You're part of a huge event in a child's Christmas experience. For some of them, it's the first time they've ever met Santa, so they're excited and nervous and overwhelmed. And the parents get fairly excited and a bit misty-eyed too. It sounds cheesy, but it was a joy to be a part of creating magical Christmas memories for so many families.

But it was also tough. Physically, it was challenging, being on your (comically giant) feet all day, outside in the cold — but I was used to that as part of my previous role at the same venue (minus the costume), and multiple retail jobs over the years.

Mentally and emotionally, I've never been so drained in my life. I don't know if you've ever tried to be the literal embodiment of Christmas joy for eight hours straight, but it is EXHAUSTING, let me tell you. Asking the same questions (What's your name? How old are you? What do you want for Christmas?) over and over again — and then having to remember the children's names to whisper them in Santa's ear as they entered the grotto half an hour later, a huge festive grin plastered over your face the whole time. I've never hated Christmas more.

"We were part elves, part crowd control"

Photo: Misty Ladd via Unsplash

Parents take Christmas really seriously. I get it — there's a lot of pressure, and if you're not taking your offspring to see Santa, doing Elf on the Shelf, making a gingerbread house, visiting a lights trail and a Christmas tree farm, and doing everything else that everyone on Instagram is doing, you feel like you've failed, so it's a very tense time. But there's no need to take it out on the elves.

I will admit, there were flaws in the grotto. The massive overbooking I've already mentioned, resulting in very long queues, as well as the fact that parents weren't allowed to take their own photos in the grotto — instead, an outside company was drafted in to take the snaps and charge families for the privilege. Tempers in the queue flared from time to time, with some visitors being quite abusive and threatening towards us elves when things weren't going to plan.

I'm literally wearing a hat with a jingle bell on the end — do you really think I've got any authority around here?

"She's never even MENTIONED Frozen before!"

Image: Clint Patterson via Unsplash

On the flip side, most parents were lovely, and some were extremely grateful to us for managing to extract gift ideas from their reticent children — provided it's what they were expecting them to say. I'll never forget the look of panic in a parent's eyes when, a couple of days before Christmas, we'd ask their child what gift they'd like, and the child would come out with a toy they've never mentioned to the parents before — parents who'd definitely already done their Christmas shopping. Happened far more often than you'd think.

"He's out of luck there then" and "She's never even MENTIONED Frozen before" were frequent refrains, muttered behind hands to be heard by adult ears only.

Then there was the mother who, having gone into the grotto in minor panic when her son had mentioned a gift that he clearly wasn't getting, emerged a few minutes later looking even more shellshocked. As the family exited, she whispered that her son had just told Santa a completely different wish to the one he'd told me, which was different again to what he'd been asking his parents for over the last few months, and which I believe was already at home, wrapped and ready to be whipped out on Christmas morning.

"What do I do?" she asked me, with real panic in her eyes, and after a few seconds, I realised the question wasn't rhetorical.

Ma'am, you do know I'm not a real elf, don't you? This one's between you and the man in red, and way above my pay grade.

"Some days, Santa was the toughest one to deal with"

If he's not got a belly, he ain't Santa. Image: Jesson Mata via Unsplash

I hope I'm not ruining the Christmas magic for anyone here, but... Santa's basically agency staff. While the real one's badgering away in the North Pole in the run-up to Christmas, he sends a few stand-ins to man the grottos around the world, literally via a Santa agency. While us elves remained consistent throughout the grotto, we were sent four or five different Santas on rotation, and we got to know them fairly well. Most of them were great, but when we saw one particular Santa walk through the staffroom door of a morning, we knew we were in for a tough day.

His physique wasn't that of a Santa, and even a stuffed belly didn't quite sit right on him, somewhat ruining the illusion. Plus, I'm not sure he'd ever heard of the concept of a Santa's grotto... or of joy, or of Christmas itself. And he was a little hard of hearing, meaning an elf had to act as a translator between him and any particularly shy children. Suffice to say, we had to work EXTRA hard to keep the Christmas spirit alive in the grotto on those days.

Kids have a lot of questions

No but seriously, who would win? Image: Mathieu Stern via Unsplash

While some kids were shy, overwhelmed, and barely able to get their name out, others were buzzing, and full of questions. This involved a lot of thinking on my feet to avoid ruining the illusion. Some were easy to answer: what do elves eat? (candy canes, obviously); what are the reindeers' names (thankfully I'd had the foresight to memorise that one); and where do you live (really, kiddo? Do keep up).

Others were a bit more challenging, like how do elves go to the toilet? ("Oh look, the queue's moving — shuffle along or you might miss Santa".) Some were just bizarre. Who would win in a fight between an elf and a shark? An elf and a lion? Five elves and a dinosaur?

That last one still keeps me awake at night, actually.

"My main memory is of the bitter cold"

While the faces, names, smiles and Christmas wishes of the individual children I met at Santa's grotto have faded in the intervening years, one memory has stuck with me — the cold. Our elf costumes were rather flimsy felt efforts, a red and green tabard and matching trousers designed to be worn over regular clothes, with slip-on black pointy overshoes. As we cruised through November into December, the temperature dropped, so we layered up and layered up. There's a fine line between dainty elf and Michelin Man, and I'm sorry to say it's a line I crossed multiple times that year, no doubt mentally scarring a few kiddiwinks for life.

"I dread the pictures resurfacing every year"

Though my stint as an elf was a few years ago now, I dread the pictures resurfacing every year. As elfing season approaches, the visitor attraction shares photos of previous grottos on its website, social media and with the press, to drum up interest in this year's event. Thankfully, I've never seen photos of me in circulation, though some of the fellow elves from the same graduating class have featured. I've never been so grateful to be unphotogenic.

"There are still some things I'll never understand" why parents take their young kids to see Santa as soon as the grotto opens in mid-November. You've still got six weeks until the big day, so you're basically setting yourself up for "is it Christmas yet?" every day for that period. Still, not my circus, not my monkeys.