3 holiday workers 2018 man repeller
What It’s Like to Be a Professional Elf (and Other Holiday Employment Tales)
12.21.18

What do an elf, a Christmas tree vendor and a gift wrapper all have in common? Their jobs are all quintessential parts of the holiday season. They all require a special kind of festive fervor, but one that only lasts as long as you keep your holiday decorations up. I sat with one of each, chatting about those truths and more, and gathering accounts of their respective experiences. Those as-told-to stories below.


An Elf Who Works in “The North Pole”

I can’t even tell you my elf name because then everyone where I work would know exactly who I am — but I can say that I chose an elf name upon orientation. (For example: There’s Glitter Puff, there’s Snowball, there’s Treetop and Fa La La. There’s Mocha, Caramel, Cinnamon.) I’m 31 years old and this is my third year of being a professional elf.

I got into elfing — I use it as a verb — because I’m an actress. I was doing a little show and my director who also works as a Santa Claus would come to rehearsal after a full day of sitting, they call it, as Santa, and he would bring gifts and letters that he got from kids and tell us hilarious stories. I just thought it sounded like a really funny, weird thing to do around the holidays. Turns out: It is. It’s so hilarious being an elf.

I realized kind of immediately that people take elfing very seriously — a lot of obsession with Miracle on 34th Street. Elfing is almost like a cult. And the bible is that movie. There’s elf orientation where we all gather, the new elves get training and we get fitted for our costumes (stockings and an apron and knickers — you get to keep the shirt and the socks every year, so I have a ton of pairs of elf socks that I wear throughout the year). People come wearing Christmas gear. It’s kind of like SantaCon, but not drunk.

Our job as elves is to basically do a song and dance and lead the kids to Santa and make sure the line is moving. I see all kinds of families and all kinds of people. So many sweet things that happen, so I don’t wanna make it sound like it’s all type-A controlling parents that are out to get the shot of their kid with Santa, but there are a lot of those. They come picture perfect. Some of them are from out of town and you can tell they do this every year for their Christmas card, and if they don’t get the shot, they need re-shoots. It’s all kind of an elaborate, excessive thing for the parents. They’ll be like, “Okay, now we’re getting in the shot!” I’ve had to stop and be like, “Let the kids have their interaction. They’re telling Santa what they want. Hold your horses.”

I’ve seen proposals and I’ve seen people come to take pictures for baby announcements. There’s this one goth guy that comes in every year to take a picture with his demon babies, which are actually just two dolls dressed up. He comes and he sees Santa and he takes a picture with his children and I don’t know what he does with it, but it’s maybe his holiday card, too. It’s so weird, but I’m like you know what? This is your life and this is what you’re doing. More power to you. Come get your photo. We do not discriminate.

Oftentimes the line is so long that by the time people get close, they’re chomping at the bit to see Santa. They wanna get the picture and get the fuck outta there. Kids are on edge, adults are losing their minds — driven to the point of desperation, almost, if it’s a really busy day. Their sense of normalcy can get reverted, subverted. There are “couldn’t wait for the bathroom” horror stories, “my kid’s sick” horror stories… But there is something at the heart of it that is actually deeply moving if it’s done right. I love being with Black Santa because I see the kids’ faces light up when they see him. I see the parents and how much it means to them to have a Santa that looks like them. He can really take his time ’cause he’s by request only, so he looks each kid in the eye and he says, “I want you to know you’re perfect just the way you are. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently. Santa loves you.”

I’ve had high highs and low lows, but stuff like that really does get me, like, oh, that’s why all this craziness, all this insanity, it’s actually important. I get why people wait in line.


A Christmas Tree Seller

Luke LaPlant, 38, sells Christmas trees in Brooklyn.

I’m a native Vermonter; I live in Connecticut now. I’ve been selling Christmas trees on the corner of Clinton and Kane in Cobble Hill for 19 years. I never, ever thought it would last this long, but it’s quite lucrative. I play baritone saxophone professionally, too. I used to try to really burn the candle at both ends — had some colleagues in a band I was playing with in New York. But that got to be too much. I don’t even blow my horn in the city anymore. I just try to stick to business.

It sounds kind of cheesy but I’ve heard the mob used to be involved with Christmas tree lots. There are definitely kingpins that have an enormous amount of Christmas trees that are making millions. People that have like 20 or 30 lots in the city and are making a killing. Those guys are kind of untouchable.

Adam, the man I work for, has made a good place for himself here. He has a farm in Barton, Vermont, which is about 25 miles south of the Canadian border with about 60,000 trees. Beautiful property.

The job is quite grueling — probably the most laborious job I’ve ever had. We unload tractor-trailer trucks of trees in the wee hours, sometimes till four in the morning in the beginning of the season. We sell 5,000 trees a year, which is a hell of a lot. The busy days on my lot I’ll be selling between 100 and 130 trees, and they’re anywhere from two feet tall to twenty feet tall. Some of these trees are just massive.

On a busy day, the time flies by and you eat breakfast at three in the afternoon. But the hardest part is just the endurance of it. The guy I work for is really hardcore. He’s open nine to nine every day, which means being on the lot by 7:30 or 8 in the morning until 10 at night, and running deliveries afterwards.

I also have an 11-year-old daughter. It’s hard to be away from her all the time, but it’s just become normal. I certainly miss out on a lot of pre-Christmas hype. Which, you know, isn’t completely my thing, but I do miss her and that’s tough. I mean, I’ve been home as early as the December 22nd, but I’ve been home as late as Christmas morning, too.

I do have some favorite people down here. I had a favorite favorite, but unfortunately, he passed away last year really unexpectedly. He was an older guy, a chef. He must have brought me 100 meals over the last 20 years. I’m really missing him.

There are a lot of other really friendly folks that I enjoy talking to: Dogs that I’ve gotten really close to, dog walkers, kids. There are kids that come by and hang out and greet and try to help sell, and ones that get in the way whatever they do. It becomes quite a spectacle. It’s really beautiful when you embrace that, but when we’re busy it can be hard, too.

I have a lot of regulars. I’ve met couples that were in the neighborhood 19 years ago and had babies and now those kids are in college. I have regulars that have moved far away and come back to get trees just from us because they are organic. We grow them ourselves; they’re just really great trees.

We sell Frasier firs and Balsam firs — both classic Christmas tree varieties. The Balsams are a little bit more fragrant, waxier, longer needles, greener needles. The Frasiers are a little spikier and have a blue or silver undertone. A lot of people think that trees just grow this way, but we shape them — naturally they would be a little more wild and not as dense. They get sheared with a shearing knife on the farm, which is much like a machete. We sheer a lot of trees to be slender because the most popular is the tall, skinny tree. We have a lot like that, but we try to have a broad spectrum of shapes and sizes for everyone.

If I were looking for a really good tree or the perfect tree according to my taste, I would make sure it’s healthy. I would look for the color of the fir leaves and make sure it’s kind of saturated, like a nice deep green. Maybe give it a feel. One peeve of mine is that customers really tug on the trees and break some of the foliage off. That’s not how it’s done; you just want to feel it and make sure it’s not too dry. Maybe give the tree a good shake and see if the needles are falling. That’s really about it.


A Professional Gift Wrapper

Nicole Johnson is on the management team at Paper Source where she is in charge of visual merchandising and wraps holiday gifts.

For the holidays, we sell Christmas ornaments, different crafting kits, holiday cards, wrapping paper in individual sheets and rolls and all kinds of ribbon and pre-made bows. Gift bags and tissue. We have some home décor like garlands and a lot of creative crafting things. A lot of party stuff.

We also have a gift wrapping service — we can wrap any present anybody brings in. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do. We had a company bring in 72 backpacks once. It was about a week long project, and there were days I just went in and sat six hours doing ribbon and it was so much fun.

So many people come in and they’re like, “I have no idea what I’m doing — please help. I want this to look good but it’s going to look trash if I do it!” And then, in 10 minutes, I can turn something around that makes people so happy — “Oh my God, this is beautiful. They’re going to love it so much!” It sounds cheesy but I really love making people feel that way.

I’ve seen so many kinds of gifts — anything from the smallest, thinnest book that you could possibly think of to a giant three-foot-long stuffed hippo. I think there’s a wine store down the street from our store so people bring in bottles of wine to be wrapped a lot. I’ve had to wrap a tent before — I just rolled it up into a big Tootsie Roll looking thing. Shoe boxes are always super common. So many people are giving books to their kids and I love that — it’s just encouraging to see. And then everything themed to llamas, unicorns and fluff this year is pretty popular.

You can always tell if a customer is a parent because they’ll have a big bag of stuff and they’ll just drop it off and be like, “I’ll be back at the end of the day to pick it all up.” We’ve had parents that try to pass something off to us secretly — they’ll be like, “Can you get this done really quick and I’ll come back for it in an hour?” because it’s for their kid who’s right there with them. There’s a lot of office buildings by us so we get a lot of people who are like, “I have a work Christmas party in 10 minutes!”

My number one gift-wrapping tip would be double-sided tape because you can use it to hide all of the seams in any present and then you won’t have big chunks of tape sticking out all over the place. It automatically makes it look that much cleaner. And then, I would say for any bow that you’re going to do, wired ribbon is always going to look a lot nicer and you can make it look a lot prettier and fluffier as opposed to that papery curling ribbon or satin ribbon that’s going to get slippery and flop all over the place. With wired ribbon you can really make a bow stand up — even if it’s just a normal bow that you would tie your shoe with.

Illustrations by Audrey H. Weber

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