Santa’s Secret Service

The holiday season always conjures up memories of my time as an elf. Not at the North Pole making toys, as you might think, but at a local five-star hotel where I “elfed” every holiday season for many years. My friends Steve (Santa) and Beth (Mrs. Claus) worked with me to create a great experience for the hotel’s guests. No one knew what happened behind the scenes to make it all work seamlessly.

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The start of the holiday season has traditionally been marked at the hotel by the White Lights Ceremony. The arrival of Santa at the end of the ceremony was always a much-anticipated event, because he would throw a switch and a million lights would go on all over the complex, to the delight of all. It was beautiful. All day long we would encourage the kids in the children’s program where Steve and I worked as counselors (little did they know of our alter-egos that night) to come to the ceremony with their parents. After the daily program of activities ended at 4 p.m., the clock started ticking: timing was everything. Because Steve couldn’t eat in the Santa suit, we had a quick meal. (We always laughed when he was scheduled for “Breakfast with Santa” because he never actually ate with the kids). Beth arrived at about 5 p.m., and the three of us got into costume and warmed up our singing voices. At 5:45, we took our places for our grand entrance into the ceremony. At exactly 6 p.m., Santa was to throw the switch. The switch was a fake; actually, an expertly-timed network of maintenance and grounds people would synchronize their watches and have their radios tuned to the countdown so they could turn on the lights all at the same time. No one knew Santa didn’t do it himself, with magic.

Most years the lighting ceremony went off without a hitch, but one time it went awry. Steve had started the crowd loudly counting down to this big moment, “Three…two…” when all the lights came on a second too early. Someone in the maintenance department had missed the timing, and all the rest of the workers, seeing the lights go on, followed suit. “One,” said Steve weakly, throwing the switch. All our preparation and buildup had been ruined.

Following the ceremony each year, we made a quick escape to a hidden employee access hallway to a nearby ballroom. We had learned from experience that simply walking in the open would cause a mob that we couldn’t get through. We stepped into the ballroom through a hidden side door to find kids already waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas.

Handing out candy canes was only the cover for my real job, which was to eavesdrop on kids in order to relay gift information to their parents. Beth’s job (her day job is an interactive storyteller) was to don her guitar and entertain the masses as they waited, sometimes for a couple of hours. After the last child had seen Santa, we closed the evening with carols. We did some pretty rocking three-part harmony on “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

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Part of being in Santa’s Secret Service involved various ways of getting Steve to the switch. We knew he couldn’t just walk to it or he would get swarmed. Ultimately we ended up having him step out onto a balcony to do it, but for a few years, getting Santa to the switch has ranged from riding in a golf cart, a sleigh, a carriage, a limo, and even a black SUV.

The year we used the golf cart, I was to drive Santa around a large building to his place on a dais in the center of a large patio. There is a reason people don’t golf at night—golf carts don’t have headlamps. After dressing, we took a hidden access hallway and were in place in a darkened room by 5:45. At 5:55, we went outside, got into the cart, and rounded the corner. With the lake on my left and the building on my right, even though it was dark outside I figured I could make it the couple of hundred yards to the dais because my eyes were fully adjusted to the dark. I drove slowly, thinking Steve could have a nice buildup to his big moment. All of a sudden, someone yelled, “There’s Santa!” and this crazy woman with a camera jumped out in front of the cart. FLASH! And I was totally blinded. I veered off the path and almost into the lake. A headline later flashed across my mind: “Crazed Elf Drowns Santa Claus.” You’d think this was bad enough, but the crazy woman with the camera? My mother.

The next year, we used a sleigh pulled by a team of four one-ton Belgian horses because we had lots of fresh snow in the days before, so it would be easy to guide it the short distance around the building, and they were really an impressive way for Santa to arrive. At 5:50, we got into the sleigh; Mrs. Claus and I were facing the front, and Santa and a couple of children were facing us. I noticed that the darkness problem had been solved this year; someone had lined the walkway around the lake with hundreds of handmade paper luminaries: simple paper sacks with sand in the bottom to stabilize a lit tealight candle. “It would have been nice to have that landing strip last year,” I quipped. Hugh, our sleigh driver, guided the horses around the corner of the building. Everything proceeded smoothly until one of the Belgians stepped on a luminary and set her hoof on fire. She reared, and Hugh stood up and yanked on the reins with all his might to control the team. Hugh had boasted that at 135 pounds, he still wore the same size jeans he did in high school, even though he was in his sixties. Alas, it was a 135-pound man against 8000 pounds of horses. Beth and I gripped the seats and stared wide-eyed at the scene unfolding before us. Steve, oblivious because he was facing the other way, just kept waving and talking to the kids next to him. One look at us, and Steve bolted around to see Hugh struggling with the horses. Thinking to offer help, Steve had just started to climb over into the driver’s seat when the horse stomped out the fire. After composing ourselves, we finished our route to the dais, pretending nothing had happened.

The year we used an SUV felt more like the arrival of the President than Santa. We got notice at about 5:00 that a very wealthy and influential guest had requested a private room visit. It usually took at least 30 minutes to get ourselves fully costumed and made up. Having no idea how we were going to fit a room visit into our already tight schedule, Beth and I stuffed Steve into the suit, glued on the beard, and stepped outside the dressing room to find what looked like two Secret Service Agents waiting for us. “This way,” one gestured, as he spoke into his cuff: “Santa is on the move. Repeat. Santa is on the move.”

The three of us were whisked along back corridors to the loading dock where a black SUV awaited us. More security officers acted as lookouts as we were ushered into the back seat and driven around the hotel to the guest room. We ran across the lawns and were escorted by men in black suits updating our progress into their coat cuffs. We arrived at the room, and I looked at my watch. 5:40. We were cutting it awfully close. As professionals, we couldn’t reveal to the guests that we had a time limit, so we stepped calmly into the room, sang a couple of songs as if we had all the time in the world, and the three kids each sat on Santa’s lap as Beth and I chitchatted with the parents. As soon as we left, the security guard said into his sleeve: “T-minus seven minutes. Santa is on his way back.” We ran back to the SUV which burned rubber getting us around to the other side of the complex and into our hiding place. We made it with two minutes to spare. Steve took a big breath and stepped out to the switch with no one the wiser.

We had our share of laughs with the kids on Santa’s lap, too. Many parents used this opportunity to convince their toddlers it was time to give up their pacifier habits. Mom would place the toddler on Steve’s lap and coach the child into giving Santa his binkie as a gift. Steve would then palm the binkie, sneak it to me, and I would discreetly return the pacifier to Mom. Steve, an elementary P.E. teacher, was so good with these kids; he always tried to encourage good eating habits or personal fitness, or to impart a moral lesson to those he thought needed it. If a child asked for something especially unreasonable, for example, that child got a quick lesson in the joy of giving to others.

One time we accidentally got booked into two places at once, so we had to hire Steve’s brother Dave, because he was the only other person who knew the harmony parts to our songs. It was a challenge to dress the brothers at the same time and to make sure they weren’t seen leaving together or crossing paths. Beth and I literally ran between venues (no black SUV this time) so we could sing with each brother at the close of each event—about 15 minutes apart. We finished Steve’s event and got to Dave just in time to hear him imparting his own moral lesson to a child: “Now eat your vegetables; they will make you grow up big and strong. Except peas. You don’t have to eat peas, because Santa doesn’t like them.”

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Every year when the holiday season arrives, I reflect on how fun it was to share the holiday spirit with the guests at the hotel, and I think about all our efforts to make ordinary events seem magical. We learned every secret door and service entrance on the property, and I marvel at the stealth with which we moved through them, especially with all those jingle bells on our costumes. I will always look back with fondness on my days as Santa’s Secret Service.