They are out there, barely noticed without even the dignity of being behind the scenes, mere day laborers in a winter wonderland.
Yes, Christmas elves are little more than bulbs around Santa's vanity mirror. But it's Christmas time, you say; why shouldn't Santas get all the glory?
Consider this: Who's providing the grunt work? Who's lifting those kids and putting them on all those jolly Santas' laps? "Those useless tubs of lard," growls elf Roger Tompkins in a weak moment. "They get to sit."
Would Santa hoof it through downtown malls with someone dressed as a credit card? Would he parade along Seattle's waterfront for three hours with a sad-looking reindeer?
Elves Robert Linke and Chad Mello, who moonlight as staffers at Issaquah's Cougar Mountain Zoo, look anything but thrilled with their task on a damp December Saturday at Seattle's Pier 55. Both wear green sweatshirts and floppy Christmas hats as part of the Downtown Association's Reindeer Games on the Waterfront.
They're with Holly, a 9-year-old reindeer with shorn antlers and an Eeyore stance. Linke, the zoo's hooved-animal honcho, clutches Holly by the collar; intern Mello wields the pooper-scooper.
Camera-wielding parents stop and pose their kids with the creature while window-seat onlookers admire from the adjacent Starbucks. When what to their horrified eyes should appear, but the sight of one squatting, relief-minded reindeer.
(And where's Santa?)
At one downtown department store, the elf dishing out cookies and hot cider to families queued up — to see you know who — on a frigid afternoon can't even talk to a reporter. "I'm sorry," the jesterlike pixie confides as one of Santa's henchmen intercedes.
Oh, noooo. You can't upstage the old man. "Santa is, like, a deity," says Tompkins, a 55-year-old actor with Seattle talent agency Live Wires.
"We're just the workhorses," says Amanda Geyer, another Live Wires elf, who dresses her part in green bloomers, matching vest and curly-toed shoes. "We're there to make sure everything runs smoothly, to make sure Santa's the star."
The truth is, being an elf isn't all bad. For one thing, as far as personas go, Santa is locked in. Elves have more flexibility — not just physically but artistically.
"The elf is more of an open concept," says Sharon Galloway, who's run Live Wires for 24 years. "You've got more range."
Live Wires sends out Santas, elves and helpers for $130 an hour. Except for large parties, Santa usually flies solo, while elves are dispatched to more menial work — for instance, handing out fliers at malls. Last weekend, Live Wires elves entertained Emerald Downs and the Seattle Tennis Club.
On Thanksgiving weekend, actor Shawn Law (not affiliated with Live Wires) accepted his mission — to wander Westlake Center for six hours with someone dressed as a credit card. A part-time barista, he also stars in Seattle Public Theater's ongoing production of "The Santaland Diaries," an amusing narration of one man's experience as department-store elf.
But for 25 bucks an hour, the part-time barista wasn't bickering about his Westlake gig. "There's a lot of money to be made in ridiculing yourself," he says.
Which is why, in general, elves just suck it up and rise to the occasion. "You do the best you can to entertain people," Tompkins says. "You can be a bridge. ... Santa can be scary to certain kids."
It's elves, not Santa, people go to for help — if they're lost, if they're looking for the bathroom.
Occasionally, elves even become cultural ambassadors. Soon, Live Wires will dispatch one special elf to the home of an East Indian family in Bellevue, at the parents' request, to talk to their kids about what Christmas means. And that, owner Galloway says, is something Santa just couldn't pull off.
"He's generally a great employer," Tompkins says, comparing him to the beloved, former Washington Huskies football coach. "He's, like, the Don James of the North Pole."
Mrs. Claus, on the other hand — now there's a handful. "You don't mess with the missus," he says. "She does nothing but remind us all that we are subordinate Clauses."