I was 19 when I became a Hamleys elf. The closest thing I can compare it to is military service. Every elf was given a uniform and it was our responsibility to make sure it looked presentable. It was green and red, with matching shoes and hat, and striped tights that didn’t keep out the cold while we stood outside to welcome people in. Our timetable was extremely regimented: 09.00 hours: unlock front door. 12.00 hours: fake snow falls on Regent Street; appear delighted. 18.00 hours: check grotto for vomit.
The only skills needed were punctuality, projection and the ability to seem happy even when freezing. There were long periods of intense boredom interspersed with bursts of immense stress. The repetitive festive soundtrack was tortuous. I still know all the lyrics to ‘Driving Home for Christmas’.
There were six elves in my unit. We all considered ourselves passionate creatives: in our ranks were an actress, a musician, an artist and a comedian. After work, we could be found at the Red Lion on Kingly Street, drinking late into the night. Most of us didn’t keep in touch. Carly, the actress, was in her early twenties. She’d been at the store for a while and showed me the ropes. I had a massive crush on her. She was very cool — or as cool as you can be dressed as an elf.
Our boss was the events manager Mark, one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked for. Imagine an old punk rocker who decided to settle down and play with toys. He still works in the Lego department and is friends with Oscar winners, multi-platinum artists, and royalty who’ve all turned up at Hamleyswith their kids. But he was lovely to everyone, including the elves. He could have stayed inside but most days he dressed in a Dickensian outfit and joined us on the street.
The sleepovers were the most intense part of the job. If Mummy and Daddy are rich enough, kids can spend the night at Hamleys. They arrive when it shuts on Friday, and all night the store is theirs. They can play with whatever they want, stay up as late as they want, and eat whatever they want. For us elves, there was no sleep, which normally meant you got the next day off.
After one Hunger Games-themed sleepover (a five-hour Nerf gun fight plus indoor archery practice) a fellow elf pulled a convenient sickie. Despite working all night I was called in the next day, because Father Christmas was coming to Hamleys.
That morning I started to think Scrooge and the Grinch had a point — until I looked through the windows to see hundreds of kids eagerly peering in. ‘It’s an elf!’ one cried. To them, I was not an exhausted Classics student standing upright only thanks to Haribo cola bottles. I was an elf, and where there are elves, Father Christmas isn’t far behind.
‘Who’s ready for Christmas?’ I yelled at the top of my lungs. Snow started to fall. (Not real, of course.) Ten minutes later, a big red car roared down Regent Street. Out stepped the man of the hour. He was a very professional Father Christmas and made a surprisingly good joke about there being nowhere to park the reindeer.
As he made his way to the grotto, he gave me a jolly grin and whispered: ‘You look dreadful, mate.’ ‘Sleepover,’ I replied. He put his finger to his nose, knowingly. ‘Good man. I’ll see you inside.’