Life Christmas

Monday 27 February 2017

The Elf factor: Does our reporter have what it takes to be one of Santa's elves?

Petite, festive and fond of pudding, Jane O'Faherty was confident she'd make a great Christmas elf - until her demanding audition for a job at Santa's grotto ....

Jane O'Faherty

Bill of elf: Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions.
Bill of elf: Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions.
Henrik Merters and Ciara Ryan
Shauna Byrne (23) from Kimmage at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre
Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre

Humming along to Wham's 'Last Christmas' and surrounded by giant candy canes, my first audition to be an elf left me with serious questions about my career goals.

Having always dreamed of being a journalist, swapping the media for mince pies was strangely tempting. I was seriously considering my options while waiting in the queue for Wish at Fota Island Resort's elf try-outs in Dublin.

It all seemed so simple. I have a penchant for pudding. My fondness for the festive season knows no bounds. My meagre height still allows me to shop in the children's clothes section. Surely, then, becoming an elf was my vocation.

Before my audition, I presumed working with Santa would be a breeze compared to waiting tables. This attitude seemed logical until I pre-registered for the audition in Smock Alley Theatre.

"What's your elf name?" a lady on the door asked me. "What's your character? Do you have a party trick? Do you sing?" she continued. All the while I stood there, wondering if knowing shorthand counted as a talent.

I took some time to assess my surroundings. The glittering Christmas trees and familiar strains of Chris Rea's 'Driving Home For Christmas' couldn't take away from the ominous presence of the judges' table facing the stage. It could only be described as a combination of The Elf Factor and North Pole's Next Top Model, and I was suddenly a little intimidated.

Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre
Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre
Henrik Merters and Ciara Ryan
Bill of elf: Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions.
Shauna Byrne (23) from Kimmage at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre

Perhaps this wasn't going to be easy after all.

In an attempt to appear more merry, I grabbed an oversized woolly hat and a length of tinsel. For all my searching in the props box, a handful of pixie dust evaded me. As I introduced myself as 'Robyn Twinkletoes' to the judging panel, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

I expected questions about this year's naughty list and requests for the odd Christmas-cracker joke. How I ended up on a spotlight-filled stage demonstrating 'reindeer yoga' is still a mystery. Needless to say, I'm sticking with the day job.

When in doubt, it is best to leave this kind of work to professionals.

In any case, it is best to leave it to people who are more than happy to perform a Downward Dog pose at the drop of a Santa hat.

Elves may be traditionally small in stature, but standards for being one can be staggeringly high. But if you make the grade, there are literally hundreds of festive jobs on offer in Santa's grottos and workshops advertised across the country.

Hamleys toy shop in Dundrum Town Centre are holding their own elf auditions on Saturday, November 14 in the Mill Theatre, while Winterval Waterford are seeking more than 30 elves, a pack of penguins and even some help from Mrs Claus for their event during the Christmas period.

A love of Christmas is, of course, a must. But Santa's Little Helpers can also face long hours, massive queues and challenging clientele.

Henrik Merters and Ciara Ryan
Henrik Merters and Ciara Ryan
Bill of elf: Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions.
Shauna Byrne (23) from Kimmage at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre
Jane O'Faherty at the Elf Factor auditions at Smock Alley Theatre

On the lookout for this year's elves for Fota Island were Seamus Leahy, director of marketing at the resort and Olivia Buckley of Olivia Buckley Events.

They had already auditioned around 380 people in Cork - less than half of that number will eventually be selected.

After my own audition, they told me exactly what they wanted in their Yuletide assistants.

"We want the best calibre," said Olivia. "We're searching the country for the best elves."

"It's somebody who really understands children, who understands families and just wants to have fun," said Seamus. "It's OK just to be a little bit naughty - just a little bit, mainly nice. But a bit of mischievousness is alright too."

An elf's tasks are not just limited minding Santa's workshop or entertaining either.

Seamus says Wish at Fota Island Resort will officially open its doors on November 27, but elves will be very busy with preparations before then.

"There's a big Santa's village that is built, so they build it and they put it all together," he said.

"Finalising parts of Santa's workshop comes down to us, so there's that. There's a cookie dough cottage so they have to bake all the treats for the front of that."

Shauna Byrne from Kimmage, Co Dublin faced the judges before I did. With a sprightly demeanour and sparkling humour, she succeeded in making an impression with her alter ego, Giggles.

As we chatted afterwards, she told me she had previously worked in the holy grail of grottos, Lapland.

"I was always very bubbly and chirpy and cheerful, and everyone was saying to me last year 'You'd make a great elf'," she said.

When a friend mentioned that the iconic Christmas attraction in Finland was seeking new employees, she was thrilled.

"I jumped at the chance and I ended up going over for the five weeks, working the whole way through, and loving it," she said.

Although it was the most wonderful time of the year, Shauna (23) recalled that Santa's workshop could often become overwhelming.

"It was seven days a week for five weeks. We worked through Christmas Day as well," she said. "It was intense. But, at the end of the day, I went over for an experience and that's exactly what I got."

Life in the grotto wasn't all work and no play either. Shauna, who works as a professional actor, says the first training period in Lapland was the icing on the Christmas cake.

"We had about a week or two weeks when we were getting trained, so we actually got to go over and experience it from the customers' point of view, which was amazing," she said. "We got to drive sleds and we got to do reindeer sleighs. We got to do their whole tour and then we ended up doing the other four weeks as elves."

Hendrik Mertens from Germany had already served as an elf in Fota Island last year and was on hand to help new recruits.

Hendrik (25) became an elf somewhat by accident. He was already working for the resort and was asked to help out at the event.

"It turned out it was something I was quite good at," he said. "I had the greatest time of my life."

In terms of advice, Hendrik recommends being jolly, cheerful and friendly.

"It's very hard to keep a smiley face for six hours straight with a lot of kids, but it's good fun," he said. "Being cheerful is the most important thing."

Hendrik won't be able to return to Santa's village in Fota this year, after finding a job at home in Germany. "If there had been any way for me to delay me starting that new job, I would have definitely stayed on," he said.

"I loved it last year, and I would have been ready to have taken on more responsibility."

I left the auditions with a spring in my step, a candy cane in my hand and a new-found understanding of what it is to be an elf. Maybe it wasn't a case of me choosing life as an elf, but rather it choosing me.

Sporting a bobbled hat, green tights and glitter for a living must be undeniably fun, and maybe a little bit magical. But just like any other job at Christmas time, it's certainly no holiday.

"It's the same for any other job," Hendrik said. "You have to be reliable, on time and all that stuff. That's very important to Santa, and he is a great boss."

Irish Independent

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