Kate’s Old-Fashioned American Christmas

What Elves Really Do at Christmas

I have mentioned that I am an elf. Mama Elf, in fact, and that’s Papa there in the photo. Our children are Dipsy Elf and Elfis (thank you very much, complete with blue suede elf shoes), we do “line maintenance” at the mall during the holiday season where there’s always a long line of parents and kids waiting patiently to sit on some Santa’s knee and inform him of their heart’s desire – and get their picture taken so Mom and Dad can make Christmas cards to send off to the relatives.

We don’t work for the photo ding, though. We work for the mall itself. Pays much better. For the first two years after we’d moved to these mountains Papa and I provided the entertainment at a Christmas theme park in Cherokee, the only steady work we could find in our field in a new state and fairly unpopulated region since we determined to leave the city life behind. Six shows a day, seven days a week, 26 weeks a year from Memorial Day through Halloween. It was grueling, but did get us the ‘in’ we needed to market our elves to malls closer to home, and that allowed us to keep our curly toes in the profession we’d pioneered in North Florida all those many years ago.

We didn’t start out as elves. We started as clowns. Hubby and son as juggling partners, daughter as set designer and fill-in for balloon sculpture and face painting, me as last resort. I refused to learn to juggle because they would have sold me in the birthday party lineup, and I had my hands full already. I made the costumes, built the puppets, maintained the props, wrote the skit scripts, stage managed the rehearsals, and kept the calendar schedule up to date. Which was quite tricky in a region of more than 2 million people. Birthday parties, resorts, country clubs, company picnics, civic events, stage shows at festivals and night clubs and so many other venues. During the summer there was such a demand for your basic birthday party clown that we hired up to a dozen of the kids’ college friends and paid them $20 an hour (out of the $100 an hour we charged) after training, which was our son SkyPup’s department.

Things were great from Easter (SkyPup’s least favorite holiday because it required that blasted hot full-over bunny suit) through Halloween. Then… nothing. Nobody hired clowns in the winter, so there was a large gap in our income every year. That’s why I invented “Clown Elves,” and they took right off. By the second season we were literally making half our annual income during the six week season and employing those dozen trainees full-time. Life was good, our business was popular with the clients, big in the Yellow Pages, and well known enough for SkyPup to have a kid’s television show and some movie parts under his suspenders. Along with his own fan club of giggly young girls who drove us crazy calling at all hours of the day and night.

So it was no surprise when we were contacted by Social Services one day and asked if we could provide some employment for a family of recent immigrants who had been clowns with the Moscow Circus before seeking asylum while on tour in Greece. That’s how we met The Troyans – Slav, Kate and Timmy.

They were living in an apartment bloc under the sponsorship of a Jewish charity that sponsored immigrants from all over the world. There were so many different languages spoken in the complex we were never quite sure where any of them came from! The Troyans were pros. Had television and film experience, Kate did voices for cartoon characters that would make you double over laughing, Slav was a master juggler, plate-spinner and pantomime, Timmy was SkyPup’s age and bragged that he’d graduated from the Moscow School of Break Dancing, which I’m pretty sure was a joke. You could never tell with them due to translation issues…

It was coming on Christmas so I got busy with new elf costumes and shoes, SkyPup and Papa held cram training courses, and we deployed them at our biggest mall for way more than we paid the college kids. They proved delightful entertainers and poured themselves into the roles with enthusiasm. I figured it wouldn’t be long before someone more important than us would pick them up, which eventually did happen and they moved to California. But while they were just new we had them, and we became very good friends.

That first year was hard on them. Slav told us he was surprised at how difficult it was to make a living as an entertainer in the “Land of the Free,” as their experience in Russia was entirely subsidized by the state. Their training was paid for, their nice apartment in Moscow was free, their bookings handled by the state-run circus enterprise – all they ever had to do was show up and perform. But they had some ideas on skits of a political nature, that they weren’t allowed to perform in Russia. They wanted to do social commentary as comedy (and the skits were quite SNL like, but funnier), one of the reasons they’d escaped. The other reason being that Timmy was draft age, and the Soviets were then expanding into their own forever-wars in the Caucasus and Afghanistan.

We were trying like crazy to get past the language barrier to teach them how to do for themselves in America, where what they did is their own responsibility start to finish. I told Slav they were free to perform whatever they liked no matter how subversive or insulting, the state wouldn’t interfere. But if people didn’t like it, then they were free to starve. It was quite a chunk of freedom to have to learn from scratch to use best.

Just after the last mall date a few days before actual Christmas Slav traveled back to Russia on the sly to visit family and retrieve some artwork he’d stashed there that he could sell to get them through until clowning picked up again in the spring. He wouldn’t be home for Christmas. Kate confided to me that she had always dreamed of an old-fashioned American Christmas, with a tree and lights and ornaments and such, which is why she enjoyed elfing at the mall so much. Their own apartment was bare of Christmas paraphernalia, so I asked her why, thinking it was too depressing for her when Slav wouldn’t be there. I was surprised by her answer. She said that everyone in the building was sponsored by the Jewish group, and since Jews don’t do Christmas, everyone was afraid to put up any decorations. I surprised her when I laughed, hard.

Oh, Katie! This is America, and these are American Jews! Why, when my kids were little the most generous Santas we ever had were those of our friends who were Jewish and who splurged big time because they finally had a good reason to BE Santa! Our Jews, I told her, don’t mind Christmas. My own godparents were Jews, and they always did Christmas with us, for as long as they lived. Programmed by her own experiences in Soviet Russia, she still had misgivings. Besides, she said, they had no Christmas stuff, and no money to buy any with. I let it slide at the time, but secretly put her on “the list.”

Come Christmas Eve we family elves (plus Timmy, he and Pup were inseparable by then) kicked into full dress “secret agent” mode, as per our usual. We clowns get to do way more freebies through the year than most people in other professions, it’s a standard because of who we are and what we do for a living – charity fundraisers, Special Olympics, etc. The boys made their rounds of children’s hospitals and pediatric wings passing out gifts provided by staff and bringing smiles to children suffering through the holiday away from home. Dipsy and I spent the day in the kitchen baking dozens upon dozens of cookies and boxing them up, tying them up into packages with a box of tree lights and ornaments. On their way home the boys stopped off at a few Christmas tree lots then closed for the season because it was over, and loaded up the van with every leftover scraggly-ass tree they could fit in. Our habit has always been to take advantage of those super after-Christmas sales on ‘stuff’ and buy up literally dozens of $1 strings of lights and cheap ornaments. Always have lots on hand for Christmas Eve duty when it rolls around again.

At dark we started making our collective rounds. That year we had a new neighbor, a single mother with three kids who had moved in just the day before and had nothing of Christmas to show. We showed up at the door with cookies, lights, ornaments and tree. Juggled a bit for the wide-eyed young’uns and moved on. By about 8 p.m. we got to the immigrant apartment complex where the Troyans lived. Mobbed by a multi-colored mess of excited children, we opened up the van and started unloading our ‘stolen’ trees. They were scooped up gleefully by families along with the tied packages of trim and cookies. Then we marched the last of the loot up the stairs to Kate’s apartment. Timmy, eyes sparkling, was waiting with the door open, resplendent still in his costume.

We merrily set up the tree, strung the lights, and handed the box of old fashioned wooden ornaments to Kate so she could do the honors. There was a crowd of other immigrant families in the hall outside the open door waiting to see if she was brave enough to go ahead and decorate – they were all worried about that Jewish thing – and she cried as she hugged the box of cheap die-cut ornaments to her chest. One of the watching children came inside with his box of cookies and offered her some, without saying a word. So she took one, crammed it into her mouth with a clownish motion, and gulped it down.

“Merry Christmas to All,” she said in her very best cartoon voice, and the children cheered. Everyone crowded inside, the women toting dishes of whatever they’d been cooking to share in one big family supper of everything from borsht to latkes to enchiladas, which was greatly enjoyed by all. Soon we started singing what sounded like a mish-mash of incomplete stanzas of every Christmas Carol a foreigner might know a line or two of to a dissonant tune and in half a dozen languages, and the mood was… absolutely perfect. I noticed SkyPup and Timmy off to the side just watching the show with big smiles on their faces, as if they’d plotted this all by themselves.

When everyone finally left Kate and Timmy were sitting together by their tree with their heads together and their arms around each other, missing Slav and wishing he were there. We thought of it as sort of a graduation ceremony for these new elves, an introduction to the bigger world of Christmas in America. Last I heard they were carrying on the tradition in California, and I like to think their own trainees are getting in on the gig too. It’s sort of an exclusive club…