One of my first paid 'acting' gigs was as an Elf in a themed grotto. It was awful.
It was only an acting job by the narrowest definition, in principle I was there to be in character and entertain children in a top end grotto experience while getting enough credit for my Equity card. In practice it seemed I was there to lug great boxes of tacky toys from a warehouse space to the grotto, which then had to be wrapped and put in large bins, one for boys toys one for girls, while Santa, who didn't have to help, had a good laugh at my expense. Then I must chaperone terrified crying infants into a dark wooden room to visit the disgusting old man where I would try to get them not to cry long enough to take a poor quality polaroid, shove it in a presentation card and hand traumatised kid and photo memory straight out the back door to their parents as soon as possible. The more kids in and out, the more money got made. This did not however reflect in any way upon meagre fee.
Adults were not permitted to come in with their kids for some unknown and sadistic reason, like they'd get more than they paid for if they entered with their child. There were meant to have been two elves, but the other had been a no-show. I was running the whole busy thing while Postman Pat animatronic figures danced and sang in a wonderfully crafted snow world outside to attract custom.
Santa was vile. A horrid old bloke with a hacking cough who did no work other than make inappropriate jokes at my expense all day and frighten kids with his horrific mocking laugh that more often than not turned into a choke of cigarette fumed breath.
"Meh, heh, heh. We'll call you 'Slim.'" Were his first words to me, looking my rosy cheeked plump figure up and down perversely before descending into a hacking cough and making some joke or other about my boobs in my elven blouse and vest.
I hated him. He was sexually inappropriate, lazy and foul and his persistent cough that somehow made him even more sinister. I was grateful that the grotto did not permit children to sit on his knee but only to sit next to him on a little stool where he could talk to but not touch them. Any thoughts of a pleasant Christmas experience entertaining little ones had vanished from my head after the first hour. Who does this to kids? I wondered. Who could possibly think this is a good experience for them? They cried, and they cried, and they cried. Inside I cried with them.
I stayed long enough to fulfill the minimum requirement of my contract and then in a fit of honesty that was very unlike me in those days, I told them just what a grotty and horrific enterprise they were running and that I was no longer willing to be part of it before I left them in the lurch. I'd never walked out of any job before, or gotten huffy with anyone. I was at a stage in my life where I was pleasant, compliant and still very shy, but my present from 'Slimy Santa' that year was belligerence.
Who now would force kids through little doors into the small dark room with the beastly man and be with them while they cried, wipe their tears with soft tissues and telling them it was all okay and to smile for the camera and they could have a lovely present? Not me. I just couldn't hack it anymore. I sort of hoped nobody would and that the grotto would have to close. This was not what Elves were supposed to do to helpless little children. No, I told myself, this is not what Elves are for! This was not the beautiful Christmas experience parents were paying through the nose for either. I will never forget the face of the company director as I told her exactly how done I was with her grasping un-Christmassy business!
Years later I discovered David Sedaris and The Santaland Diaries and felt validated. I laughed out loud and cheered and whooped at the tales I knew could not be at all far from truth. I listen to the audiobook every year now as a reminder to myself that there are good Christmas experiences and bad ones, and that it's my choice what sort of Christmas experience I make for the people around me. I try to be true to my inner Elf on that score.