'Embarrassing ... but I'd do it again': What it's like to work as a Christmas elf at the mall

Ian Wolsten.
Photo by Jason Armesto

Ian Wolsten, now 25 and a video producer on the Grow team, worked as an elf at a mall in East Brunswick, New Jersey, for the holiday season in 2011 when he was a 16-year-old high school student. "It was an embarrassing job," he says. "But I'd do it again. I think I'd have more fun now."

From Wolsten's description, working as one of Santa's helpers could be a tough gig. For just over $7 an hour, he risked showdowns with roving groups of teenagers — "mall rats," he calls them — screaming toddlers, and sneaky parents. And throughout, he had to keep a smile on his face.

Here's what he says it was like to be a Christmas elf.

How did you become an elf?

I worked for [seasonal retailer] Spirit Halloween. Spirit Halloween owns or is partnered with a company that does the mall Santa thing. So I got a clean transfer from the Halloween store to the Santa gig, which would run from early November until New Year's.

Did you have aspirations to become an elf? Or was it something you fell into?

I wanted a job for extra spending money. My parents didn't make me get a job, but I like going to concerts and stuff, so I decided to try and get a job. I went to the mall and saw that Spirit Halloween was hiring and thought it would be fun.

So I submitted an application, got an interview, and got a job as a store associate in August 2011, making minimum wage — $7.25 per hour. It was my favorite job: I like Halloween and I got a free costume. Eventually, my boss asked me if I'd be interested in running the Santa thing. It would involve taking pictures and walking Santa to his dressing room.

After Halloween, I moved to a different part of the mall and we started building Santa's set.

How much did you work? What would your paychecks look like?

I was part-time, working two or three days per week. I'd usually work on the weekends, and since I was still in school, in the afternoons on weekdays. My paychecks were around $250 every couple of weeks.

What did you have to wear?

Black slacks, a red button-up dress shirt, and a tie with Christmas ornaments all over it. Flair.

Did you have to pay for the uniform?

Yeah, they took it out of your paycheck. But in the end, you could give the clothes back and be reimbursed.

Where does Santa come from? Did you work with just one Santa?

They're hired from a giant agency that trains hundreds of Santa Clauses. Halfway through the season, Santa had heart problems. We had to close early. The next day, we had a new Santa — they flew him in from somewhere. It's like they have Santas on call.

Halfway through the season, Santa had heart problems. We had to close early. The next day, we had a new Santa.
Ian Wolsten
former mall elf

What's the most frustrating part of working as an elf?

We sell pictures. That's the primary revenue driver. And this was when smartphones were still pretty new, so some people were trying to sneak their phone in front of me and take pictures. It's really hard to stop them, though, because you're supposed to be delightful and happy.

So, I just, like, super-politely told them that they couldn't take pictures and they would say, "Oh, OK," and then usually just take it anyway. And then they'd buy the cheapest picture for like $10.

Can you walk us through the basics of an elf's job?

You would welcome people to Santa's Workshop. We had a little script we would recite. I would say, like, "Are you excited to meet Santa?" and asked what they're going to ask him for Christmas. So my job was to greet the kids and then have them go sit down with Santa.

It wasn't as much fun as Spirit Halloween, and when it was a bad day at the job, it was a really bad day on the job.

What do you mean?

Insane kids punching Santa ... Santa getting upset and having to walk back to his dressing room. And on the way back to the dressing room there, the kids don't leave him alone. Kids will cut the line. ... And the older kids, many think they're too cool for Santa at this point, so they cause problems.

And you have mall rats on Friday nights. A mall rat is just a kid who just hangs out at the mall with no intention of buying things — like a group of friends that hang out in the mall causing trouble.

What about the parents?

I don't think I really had any issues with the parents, but there were some coupon issues. We started giving out these coupons and people were trying to stack them, and we would say they couldn't do that. But then they'd argue with us and say, "It doesn't say anywhere on the coupon."

We'd have to call corporate and figure out what to do or hand it over to our boss, who was rarely ever there, to figure out what to do. But parents were generally cool. It was mostly the kids causing problems.

Ian Wolsten.
Photo by Jason Armesto

Towards the end of the holiday season, did you and the other elves start looking for new jobs?

Yeah, it was like an "end of summer camp" vibe. I had already started interviewing at a couple of grocery stores. I interviewed at ShopRite and at Stop & Shop. I ended up working at Stop & Shop afterward.

Looking back, how do you feel about your time as an elf?

Us elves all thought it was hilarious that we had this job. And it didn't really help me pick up chicks, but it got me some attention. It was a fun job. I'd recommend it to high-schoolers — it's easy.

What was your favorite part of the job?