Friday 30 September 2016

'Like so many careers nowadays, being an elf isn't nine to five' - Life as a helper in Santa's grotto

Jane O'Faherty

Published 15/12/2015 | 00:00

Elf yourself: Jane O'Faherty helps Santa prepare for Christmas at Fota Island's Wish experience in Cork
Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision.
Elf yourself: Jane O'Faherty helps Santa prepare for Christmas at Fota Island's Wish experience in Cork Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision.
Jane O'Faherty pictured at the present wrapping station at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured with Santa Claus at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Jane O'Faherty hard at work at the Fota Christmas Experience.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured with Santa Claus at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured at Santa Claus' grotto at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured at the present wrapping station at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.

Life as a helper in Santa's grotto is not all rosy cheeks and fairy lights - it's a very demanding role, as our writer found out

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Drenched, dishevelled and dressed in colours I barely knew existed, my first day at work in Santa's grotto was challenging to say the least.

Storm Desmond certainly didn't make my initial elf training any easier. But little could have prepared me for the shocking revelation just a few minutes into my time working at Fota Island's Wish experience.

"You're too short to be an elf," said the costume mistress, as the sleeves of my dress veered dangerously close to my knees.

I wasn't even aware that being small could actually hamper Santa's Little Helpers, but that was just one thing I learned while working at the renowned Christmas attraction in Co Cork.

A few months ago, I attended Fota Island's elf auditions in Dublin, blissfully unaware of what was required. After all, not just anyone makes it into Santa's good books - particularly when it comes to job interviews.

Jane O'Faherty pictured at the present wrapping station at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Jane O'Faherty pictured at the present wrapping station at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.

On leaving the auditions, I accepted that being an elf was beyond my reach. I tried not to get upset. I made like Elsa from Frozen and let it go.

You can imagine my surprise when I received a call from Fota asking me to come and join their cohort of Christmas creatures.

As a 20-something who is searching for her purpose in life, it was an offer I couldn't refuse. I didn't choose elf life; elf life chose me.

Last weekend, I arranged to work a four-hour shift to see what really happened behind the scenes of Santa's Workshop. My journey began in the elves' dressing room. While there were enough safety pins to make my costume look less like curtains on me, my transformation was far from finished.

Three layers of hot pink blusher followed, continuing with freckles drawn with eyebrow pencil and stick-on sequins. While I winced when I saw my reflection in a mirror, I must admit the revamp did something to my mood. My cheeks had never been rosier, and my whole glittery get-up inspired something unexpectedly festive in me.

In that moment, I didn't just believe I was an elf. I believed everything about Christmas.

Once that was over, I made my way through forest paths, polar post offices and chocolate factories as my guide trained me in. There were even princess huts, where children sat spellbound as a fair maiden belted out a classic Disney ballad.

"Don't worry, you won't be a princess," my guide told me. I wasn't worried in the slightest. I gave up on that dream long ago.

Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured with Santa Claus at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured with Santa Claus at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.

Princesses were just one facet of the team of fairytale characters on hand. There were the traditional elves, of course, as well as a handful of magical chocolate factory workers. In all, 130 such creatures are employed at the experience. Each day, 30 of them are on duty for around six hours per day - either in the morning or afternoon.

"It's better than a boring job," said Tara, who is studying for her Leaving Cert when she's not in Santa's workshop. "Last year, I loved it and it's great to see the kids so excited."

And it isn't just younger generations who are eager to visit either.

"We often get groups of adults coming," said Phillippa Deane, sport and event coordinator at Fota Island.

"Even if you don't have kids, you can come enjoy getting into the Christmas mood," she added. "But obviously if you have a kid, it's twice as fun because their enthusiasm is infectious."

Jane O'Faherty hard at work at the Fota Christmas Experience.
Jane O'Faherty hard at work at the Fota Christmas Experience.

As we walked through downpours, gusts and mud on our way around Wish Phillippa explained Wish expects to attract 50,000 Santa seekers this year.

After half an hour's orientation, it was time to put my Christmas competences to the test in a live setting.

It was 3.30pm on a Saturday, which equated to rush hour as families flooded in with buggies, umbrellas and the occasional unimpressed adolescent.

My first job was in Santa's post room, where the contents of the secretive 'naughty' and 'nice' lists were revealed. My superior, Ginger the elf, would find each child's name to assure them that they would be getting presents this year. Half-way through Ginger's announcement, I felt a tug on my dress. A little girl looked up at me fighting back tears.

She asked: "Excuse me Miss Elf, am I on the good list this year?"

I did my best to convince her that she was, but her self-doubt had already given way to sobs. I looked to Ginger, who hastily called out her name. "Yeah, you're definitely on the good list, don't worry," he confirmed.

But reassuring the little ones was not the only challenge to be faced. There was also the prospect of a grumpy teenage guest who needed to be entertained.

"You just have a joke with them," Ginger advised me. "Sometimes they need to be slagged if they're going to enjoy it."

Indeed, threats of relegation to the naughty list sparked a few wry smiles from stubborn 16-year-olds.

Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured at Santa Claus' grotto at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.
Reporter Jane O'Faherty pictured at Santa Claus' grotto at the Fota Christmas Experience, Cork.

The rest of my experience was a breeze. For the first time in my life, I was walking into rooms and turning heads. It's amazing what brightly coloured clothing and splashes of glitter can do.

As I moved from elf hut to elf hut, I managed to develop an entourage of young fans.

Crowds of kids were enthralled as I informed them that Rudolph was looking for extra-crunchy carrots this year, and that Santa was open to any milk with his cookies - be it from a cow, soya beans or almonds.

Speaking of the man himself, Santa was good enough to fit me into his busy schedule. For a few fleeting minutes he told me all about the preparations as the Christmas season sets in. I made sure he knew about the new bike I could do with.

Unfortunately, time was too short to hand Santa a CV. I can only hope I'll get a call back next year.

After four hours in the field, it was time for this North Pole newbie to take a break.

While it's natural to be enthusiastic on a first day, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my time as an elf. Wandering around log cabins bedecked in candy canes is far from the worst way to spend a weekend.

But like so many careers these days, being an elf isn't nine-to-five. Hours after I had left the experience and cleaned myself up, one of my fans from earlier recognised me in a lift in Fota Island.

"Mum, look at her," he said. "That's the elf who was talking to us earlier!

I told them that I was on top-secret undercover business for Santa. Deep down, I think I wanted that to be true.

Being an elf can take a lot out of you, but Phillippa agrees that the festive fervor kids bring makes it more than worthwhile.

"Christmas is the event of the year for every child," she said. "The birthday is important, but Christmas is the one. As an elf, you can see that and that really does feed and help you."

Irish Independent

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