Magic Ears, Part One of Two

We Need More Ears!

Having co-performers who know what they are doing can make a great event amazing.
Having co-performers who don’t know what they are doing can make it a nightmare. –True

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer in character Elves at events these days. Many events just slap a pointy hat on Jill the manager or Jack the cashier and call it a day. But there are some real advantages to having a performing character work with Santa.

  1. Helpers share the performing load. More people get more performance, and it gives Mr. and Mrs. Claus additional people to work with and get help from. When you think of the duration of some events, this can be crucial to keeping the energy up for a long day.
  2. Increased audience buy in. If we want believers to experience more Christmas Magic, a cute Elf may be a lot less threatening that the Big Man. This helps the shy children gain the courage to meeting Santa.
  3. The Character Effect. When needed, Elf performers can entertain. When there are breaks, they help diffuse situations or maintain energy. A recognized Christmas Character may have more leeway and magic than just an employee.

In the UK, the Christmas Grottoes are pretty popular and Elves are important part of the cast. Besides all the advantages of having more performers entertaining, let’s look at the real world aspects of their help.

  • Helping with long lines
  • Spotting full diapers, sick children, or sticky hands and managing issues before they get to Santa
  • Showing the parents how to lap the children
  • Keeping the line moving, dealing with strollers
  • Dealing with special requests (pets, presents, deaths in the family)
  • Getting specific information like names, ages, and (sigh) the Elf on the Shelf
  • Helping the Claus family (water, clean up, delicately pulling a fist from a beard)
  • Keeping everyone photo-ready (mints for fresh breath, clean and neatly combed beard not forked, adjusting the belt, hat, or wig)
  • Coordinating groups for best photos, working to get folks to smile for photos, taking the photos

In short, even out of character, our helpers can make a huge difference.

History and Legacy

First, let’s consider the legacy and a bit of Elf history. (You can skip this if you want, but character research can help you make your characters more believable.) When you think of elves, typically you think of some basic traits: Fun, otherworldly, magical, long-lived, mysterious, and high-energy. But historically, it wasn’t always so.

In folklore, Elves come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Our modern idea of elves came from Greek stories (the nymphs and dryads), from the Celtic notion of the “Fay” (the leprechauns, fairies, and sidhe), plus both the Germanic and Norse tales (the tomte, nisse, and dwarves). In folklore, the Fay were not all that interested in humans and were considered fairly dangerous. Most of the legends around them involve humans breaking one of the rules of the Fay, with bad consequences. For instance, we get the word stroke from the word elfstroke or elfstone, because nobody knew exactly what was going on during a stroke. People believed that it might be because you annoyed the Fay. They were called the “Good Folk” for a reason, because no sensible person wanted anything to do with them.

The original St. Nikolas of Myra likely would not have had too much to do with them. In the legends attributed to him, he went after the sites and items of other religions and destroyed them. Before you judge him too harshly for this, remember, he was incarcerated for his religious beliefs while those other religions were in power. He had a mission, even if part of it was to make certain he didn’t end up in prison again. If the legendary Nikolas was willing to punch another Bishop in the nose on a point of contention on Christian Theology, then chances are he would not be all that thrilled with elves in his workshops. Old St. Nick was feisty!

So how did we get our current state with Elves in the Santa Story? Three key influences point the way.

  1. As Christianity moved north through Europe, it was heavily influenced by the cultures and beliefs of the people of that area, which included local beliefs in magical beings like the Fay.
  2. As the various Yuletide and Christmas traditions started to merge, St. Nicholas and other characters were also blended into the stories. This includes Krampus in Germany, the Julenisse and Elves in Norway, La Befana in Italy, among others. As time went on, these people immigrated to the United States, and they brought their stories and traditions with them. In particular, the Julenisse and Tomte had a huge influence.
  3. Two authors had great impact: Clement Clark Moore and Louisa May Alcott. First, Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823. The original tall, ascetic bishop who judges people pretty sternly finds himself re-written as friendly and diminutive, “chubby and plump, a right Jolly old Elf.” This launches Santa Claus on his secular journey, as well as removing the fear of scary elves.
    The second author, Louisa May Alcott, wrote a book in 1850 called “The Christmas Elves” (which was not published) but it influenced “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” a highly influential periodical that gave us several of the holidays as we know them today. Until this influence, Thomas Nast was connecting Santa mainly with the Mother Goose and Fairytales. But because of the Jultomten—the Santa link—the Elves storyline gained more traction and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, modern media, in the form of books, movies, and songs have all proposed their own interpretation of the Elves at the North Pole. We’ve seen the elves in the animated Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (such as Hermie the Dentist Elf), to the wise cracking “kids” in the Santa Clause movies, to a very tall quasi-elf Buddy (aka Will Farrell) in Elf.

Christmas Elves in modern media are magical beings who work constantly, who love sweets, and absolutely love helping Santa deliver presents all around the world. No longer are the fairy realms associated with stealing children, blighting crops, and leading hapless humans to death or an eternal stay in the fairy realms. Good for us, that there was an “image upgrade.”

Handy Pointers

As an Elf performer, you are the character actor in the ensemble that helps the story move along and the leads shine. Your performances can make or break a customer’s Christmas experience. If you have been a Christmas performer before, you know that Christmas Performing requires keeping your energy up, and a very positive, quick to respond Improv mindset. Because your audience can (and will) ask awkward things, they could surprise you. If this is your first time, get ready to experience some fun, but hard work.

Quick Tip: Ask yourself “what is an Elf like?” Name some key words and phrases that define being an Elf to you. In your mind’s eye, what is a good day for your kind of Elf?

Ten Team-Building Questions

Since every group of Christmas Performers operates differently, it is important when you work with others that you can all be on the same page as a team. I recommend sitting down as a group and going through these ten basic questions. For each of these, set a time limit to stay on track.

  1. Santa tells us about himself and his North Pole.
  2. Santa tells us about his Elves and what they do, establishing the reason why they are there today.
  3. Mrs. Claus tells us about herself and her role on site, plus at the North Pole.
  4. What is your Elf name?
    • If you have not picked your Elf name, now’s the time. The best kind of name is one that you will like and grow into. It can be a great hook into your character, it can be rhyming, alliterative, cute, intriguing, or related to your Elf job such as “Sparks, the Engineer Elf.”
  5. Tell us about yourself.
    • Everyone shares their character history and role, plus their real world role on site. For example, you might say, “My name is Holly Bells, I help get Santa’s sleigh ready, and I’m here helping him meet people to share some Christmas Magic!” You might continue, “I am also the door greeter, I ask for names and reservations, plus I line them up for the photographer. I also help place kids in Santa’s lap. Twinkle is my lead and Herbert is my shift replacement today.”
  6. What are the goals of your performances?
    • Go through your specifics: How long, when, and where. A Parade gig is very different from Mall Photo Shoot. A photographer might have very specific goals.
  7. Everybody should know the answers to many of the standard questions. Practice these, come up with some odd ones, and challenge each other.
    • Where are the Reindeer? What are their names? How do the Reindeer fly?
    • Did Santa get my letter?
    • Am I on the Naughty or Nice List?
    • Why is Santa here today?
    • Can you show me some magic?
    • How does Santa get down the chimney? I don’t have a chimney.
    • Does there need to be snow?
    • What are Santa’s favorite cookies?
      Remember, when folks are standing in line, they will probably want to ask you questions. It is important that each of you can be consistent with your audience.
  8. Discuss safety concerns ahead of time: Where you and the clients can and cannot go, what to do in an emergency or problem (tantrum, meltdown, theft, fire), how you plan to deal with special needs issues.
  9. Agree on Elf parlance. Elves don’t do cigarette breaks or bathroom breaks. Here are just a few examples to get you started.
    • “A cocoa break” = Break time
    • “Wrapping presents” = Bathroom break
    • “Needs a Freshen up” = Full diaper
    • “This is marvelous!”= “Help! I need someone to intervene.”
    • “Our Santa is Amazing!” = Time is up, we need to get going.
      This only works if you know and practice before hand. But why, you ask, is this important? We create a method for the suspension of disbelief. We want to keep them in the story-magic.
  10. Talk about any issues that might be a problem. If your Santa is having body aches and pains, he might not be able to lift anything. What are your giveaways? Who are important people? What important things will be happening that day (such as the Mayor is coming at 3 PM)? How will you deal with these things in character?

Thank you for reading. Watch for Part 2, “Don’t Fear the Ears!” coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Royal Carribean/Rob Kalmbach, Deck the Holidays Campaign

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.