Two sad mall elves contemplate employment, children, and perhaps even the ethics of their employment. (Elizabeth Bayne and Langdon Ferguson)


Column: Velvet tights, mini candy canes and the reason I study mall Santas

From customer brawls to secret security cameras, and break-ins to still not knowing a coworker's name four months in, Kinda, Almost, No Longer Employed is a new column focused on discussing the nitty gritty of teen employment.
<a href="" target="_self">Maya Henry</a>

Maya Henry

April 20, 2023

The summer jobs that worked out, the dream jobs that didn’t, the experiences and memories gained along the way — “Kinda, Almost, No Longer Employed” is Maya Henry’s diary of it all. 

Something special happens when Halloween decorations are put away and multicolored lights start to make their appearance on front lawns. The sun goes down at six, wool cardigans are dug out of the back trenches of closets, and inboxes fill with notices of holiday specials expiring soon – it’s winter, yes. But, to me, it’s hiring season.

For years, I’ve wanted to be a Santa’s Helper. For longer than it’s perhaps socially acceptable to admit, I’ve dreamt of donning the forest green velvet skirt, bell-topped shoes, and candy-striped earmuffs for the brief two months of the job’s relevance. I don’t know where my equivocation of “Santa’s Overworked Helper” and “dream seasonal job” began, but I know it’s held steadfast.

I don’t particularly like children, nor the holidays, and I’ve never loved how green and red look when combined in one outfit. But, something about shepherding sobbing children and overeager parents into a hastily constructed North Pole has always struck my fancy. Maybe it’s the sheer imbroglio nature of the job so different from the ice cream scooping, baked good slinging, and iced-matcha-latte pouring I’ve gotten bored of, or the $20/hour wage.

For whatever reason, I considered it fate when in mid-October of last year, I scrolled through Indeed, intending to withdraw various applications I had submitted prior to starting my, at the time, new job, and was met with a casting call for elves at the Grove. Putting more care into my cover letter than I ever had for the dozens of cafes and pizzerias that’d gotten the same, standard letter, I crossed my fingers, pressed submit, and hoped for a miracle dressed in blinking lights and singing Christmas carols. 

The message came during a timed AP Lang essay on the commercialization of public education: the elf-selection committee had found my thoroughly irrelevant experience — a combination of babysitting toddler twins and fielding full-grown adults’ rage over a two-sample limit at an ice cream store — impressive enough to schedule an interview for the next day.

So, 24 hours later, I explained to three Zoom boxes that no, I’d never done any Christmas-related acting, but yes, I had dabbled in musical theater pre-preteens, and no, I didn’t have any fond memories of taking photos on Santa’s lap, but wasn’t that all the more reason, truly, why I’d put my all into the work? We discussed the logistics, and I agreed that I’d be just fine jumping from school uniform to elf uniform, and yes, weekend evenings would be OK.

And then, it was 72 hours later, and, once again, I was discussing in detail the finer points of potential elf employment with Zoom boxes taking copious notes. The second meeting was brief, and as I logged off with warm wishes and a promise to keep my eye on my inbox, I silently congratulated myself on what I was sure was my next big move up the teenage employment roster.

I could practically feel the freedom of switching my forest green apron out for a forest green skirt, of replacing “I’ll call your name when your drink is ready,” with, “Santa will see you now,” in my daily vocabulary. 

Suffice it to say, as I write this — bitter and Scrooge-like in February — my apron stayed double-knotted and the only Christmas dreams I sold over the winter months were peppermint and snowball-themed drinks with bad puns as names. In the courtesy rejection email that arrived a week after my second interview, the team cited my “blunt” answers to their mock scenarios for my rejection; I think some part of me knew, even as the words were coming out of my mouth, that telling a child asking if Santa was real that things didn’t need to be real, per se, to have fun and take a picture with, wasn’t the answer the hiring team was looking for. Or, perhaps, hindsight is just 20/20.

And so, my holidays passed sans bell-adorned shoes, and my interactions with mall Santas were limited to me insisting my companions go with me to scope out my prevailing competition whenever I found myself at a mall over winter break.

When the 25-foot by 25-foot Santa’s Workshop was broken down into piles of tinsel, scrap wood, and Rudolph figurines by December 26, I let out a cheer. But come the new year, I had a resolution: 2023 would be my year of telling the children I babysit that their fish went to a special fish land, not that their fish had been flushed down a toilet, answering the phone with a “good morning” in place of a “this is she,” and choosing baby pinks and daffodil yellows over slate grays and ink blacks.

In 2023, I decided as I watched the Grove’s Santa walk over to Starbucks for his last lunch-break coffee of the season, would be my year of unprovoked smiles and relentless optimism. For, come elf-recruiting season of this year, I’m determined to be on the other side of the second interview, slipping the partially-bedazzled tights on under my uniform skirt on the bus ride over to a winter wonderland I haven’t believed in since I was nine.

And, if that means I need to replace every other cynicism or raised eyebrow with a more upbeat tone or wide smile, maybe that’s for the best. 

Opinion: An Assault on Education

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