I once was as an elf at Macy's Santaland
Despite being the "elfiest looking elf" that Macy's had ever hired, my career as an elf came crashing down one day.
I was 19, in art school, and living in the East Village. A friend of mine had told me about a seasonal job that he had held for the past couple of years and recommended that I go in for an interview when Macy’s put out a casting call for elves in November. “It pays well,” he said and at $10 an hour, the pay indeed seemed like a fortune at the time. Plus, if you did a good job at being an elf, you were invited back every season and your pay increased by a dollar every year. I was sold. It seemed like easy money for easy work…just how hard could being an elf at Macy’s Santaland be?
The interview room, which was more like a casting call, was filled with people of all types, but if one were to make a generalization it mostly consisted of young, out of work actors and actresses looking to make some extra money during the holiday season. I, on the other hand, had no acting experience. I was also a bit shy back then and started to wonder what the hell I was doing there as I stood against a wall watching various actor and dancer-types practice voice projection and prancing as elf-like as they could possibly muster. But much to my surprise, I was hired immediately. Outside of babysitting and tutoring gigs, it was my first real job.
At a wardrobe fitting a week later, the woman in charge of costumes looked me up and down, paused, and declared that I was the elfiest looking elf that Macy’s had ever hired. Was it my left ear that always stuck out from underneath my long hair and bangs like a Gelfling that inspired her remark? Or the fact that I was waifish? Years later, it dawned on me that I probably looked “exotic” to her, which back then meant that I wasn’t white. Maybe Macy’s was looking to hire more diversity in their elves. I mean, let’s be real—there weren’t a lot of Asians, or other people of color for that matter, auditioning to be elves at Santaland in Mayor Dinkins-era New York City.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, I commuted on the R train four days a week up to 34th Street from my studio apartment on St. Mark’s Place and stepped into my elf costume, transforming myself into one of Santa’s magical helpers. If you lived in NYC in the early 90s, you’ll remember what a shithole a lot of New York was back then. Times Square was still teeming with sex shops, Bryant Park was an outdoor drug haven that was to be avoided at all costs, and the East Village, where I lived while attending art school in the neighborhood, was still rife with tension after the Tompkins Square Park riots.
As dirty and crime-ridden as the city was back then, you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t colorful and interesting. Maybe not so much when we were living in the moment, but looking back, it’s hard to resist romanticizing the East Village of the 80s and early 90s. We were right at the cusp of gentrification, but the squatter movement was still in full force and no matter who you were—whether it was an immigrant, student, artist, anarchist, hippie, poet, activist, vegan crust punk, or squatter—we were all a conglomeration of the wonderful East Village melting pot.
So you can imagine how surreal it must have been to step in from the gritty streets of the Lower East Side and into this manufactured glittery Christmas fantasy land that was Macy’s Santaland some 34 blocks north.
Now, I have to reveal that I never believed in Santa as a child. As an immigrant child who got dropped into 1970s NYC when I was three, my parents didn’t participate in the holiday fairytale of the fat, red-suited man who magically flew around the globe dropping presents to all the children. I didn’t blame them — they didn’t grow up with Santa. In the aftermath of war-torn Korea, I’m fairly sure that Santa wasn’t a thing, at least in their corner of the world. Working at Santaland was, therefore, fascinating to me because the powers that be went to great lengths to protect the illusion that there was only ONE Santa on the premises at Macy’s. We were all trained (and sworn!) to protect this sacred lie. The real truth was that there were multiple Santa houses being worked simultaneously to accommodate the huge crowds that visited Santa every week.
Our jobs as elves required rotating among stations during our shifts. We would sometimes get appointed to greet visitors as they entered, or alternatively, entice shoppers to come in when it wasn’t busy. We would also work inside the Santa house and guide the children from the lines to Santa’s lap or be the elf who took the photos. Other times we would be out working the floor. The main part of our jobs as elves was to distract the children and work crowd control on the lines that wove around Santaland in a maze towards the path to each Santa house.
During peak visiting hours on the weekends, Santaland was filled with babies and kids, some adorably patient and others crying in terrible tantrums. Dealing with frustrated parents, as I recall, was one of the hardest parts of the job. Long lines created short fuses and when you’re 19, you have zero ounce of empathy for what it must be like to be a parent. This job, at times, was the greatest deterrent to having children that one could imagine. But not all times were crazy at Santaland. On weekdays, it got downright quiet with only a few visitors trickling in during the slow hours.
This is when the fun would begin.
Bored, my fellow elven friends and I would sometimes hide among the Christmas trees and penguin displays in the middle of the maze and jump out and terrorize the unsuspecting children that turned the corner as they zoomed through the maze to Santa’s house. Other times we would try to fetch the coins that people would toss in the decorative model villages and train displays as they waited in those long, snaking lines. These were behind tall plexiglass so we had to engineer some ingenuity to retrieve the coins. We didn’t consider it stealing either; we saw them as “tips” and “payback” for dealing with impossible parents.
There were also stories of certain elves hooking up with certain Santas in their houses when visitors were slow, but I didn’t know much about that. My circle of East Village misfits and I had too much fun making mischief out on the floor to really know what was going on behind the scenes, but I’m sure it happened. It probably happened often, in fact.
Working at Santaland wasn’t all fun and games. The worst was when teenagers would come through the maze for pure entertainment and make fun of us elves in our costumes. Let’s talk about these elf costumes for a minute. It would seem like we would be cute, right? WRONG. The outfits were, in fact, hideous. They were unisex so we wore leggings that were loose, like long johns, and extended down to cover our shoes, almost like how ice skaters have tights covering the entirety of their skates to create a more streamlined look. Ours, however, never really stayed on our shoes properly; they ended up looking like sad flaps of fabric flapping against the tops of our shoes as we moved around Santaland.
The upper part of the costume was a smock-like contraption which we wore over knickers in various forest and earth tone shades. My costume was brown . Brown! There is nothing Christmas or festive about the color brown. Oh, and we wore pointy hats on our heads, yes. We looked more like garden gnomes than elves and as annoyingly embarrassing as it was to be heckled by teenagers our own age, we totally deserved it. We looked ridiculous.
It was the last weekend before Christmas, the busiest weekend of all, when my career as an elf came crashing down. I was working the house elf shift — a most important role during peak Santa visiting hours. I had to be cheerful, but patient and as elf-like as possible as I cheerfully, but skillfully escorted each kid to Santa. I don’t know if it was the combination of heavy crowds and the high energy of the space, but the next thing I knew as I was leading a child into Santa’s house is that I saw black.
Some time later, I woke up on the cold bathroom floor staring up at the ceiling, surrounded by a crowd of worried elves peering down at me. Apparently, I passed out from dehydration and heat exhaustion and caused quite a commotion among the Santa visitors. I was told that my body had to be dragged out-of-sight from public view by a few elves. What a sight that must have been. After I was deemed ok, and fortified with a little bit of orange juice, I took my poor elf self out of Macy’s and into the cold air. I caught a cab and headed home.
I finished out the remaining few shifts of the season after the fainting incident, but management put me in low profile stations just in case it happened again. I knew I blew it. I broke the sacred illusion of Christmas magic where everything in Santaland was run like a well-oiled machine. Needless to say, I didn’t get invited back to be an elf the following year, and I didn’t get to earn an additional dollar an hour despite the fact that I was the “elfiest looking elf” ever hired.
To this day, I still haven’t been back to Macy’s Santaland. Not even to bring my own kids to Santa when they were little and perhaps believed in that sort of thing. Living as an adult in the city of your childhood is often like walking through ghost towns of your past, memories encased in street corners and storefronts, even as the facades change over time. But some memories are better left in the minds of our youthful past and in the form of stories to be told years later.