This job was the inspiration for the story The Year That Had a Santa Claus.
Yes, I was a teenage talking (non-mutant) reindeer. Actually, I was just the voice of two reindeer, Nicky and Nellie, a boy and girl deer who lived in a wooden house at a department store in a local mall. Nicky and Nellie consisted of two reindeer bodies or at least the front half of two reindeer bodies. The back half vanished into their house and that’s where I sat. So, actually, I guess I was a, well, let’s not go there. The reindeer were about four feet high, covered with a soft (fake) fur, and had short antlers. For two Christmas seasons in my teen years, I was one of the contributed voices to the these two reindeer.
At times being a reindeer was very boring. Late on the week nights, when few children came by, sitting in that dark, wooden house peering through a cloth-covered peep-hole nearly put me to sleep. I stayed awake and entertained myself by singing Christmas carols. And of course I used my reindeer voices. I think I entertained many of the clerks working nearby.
Then there were the hectic times. This was usually on the weekend afternoons when anywhere from five to ten children gathered around the reindeer. The crowds lasted for hours. These sessions were especially tricky when I flew solo since I had to keep up two different conversations with two different reindeer voices. Phew. Luckily, none of the children ever thought it was odd for Nellie to suddenly talk with Nicky’s voice or vice versa. And as soon as the crowds left, I’d sneak out the back door of the house, put the black blinders over the reindeer’s heads, put up the sign “SHH! The reindeer are sleeping,” and head off on break.
One of the things I hated most was when a parent treated the reindeer as a baby-sitter. “Stay here and talk to the reindeer,” the mother would say. I didn’t really appreciate this since I didn’t want to be responsible for the kid. I also quickly ran out of things to say past “What do you want for Christmas?” and “Have you been a good boy or girl?”
But often the job could be a riot. The reindeer were situated between the escalators on the second floor of a three story department store. A lot of people walked back and forth in front of the reindeer house. Most times, if I wasn’t speaking to the children, I would say Merry Christmas to each person who walked by. If I noticed that someone kept walking by, I would switch from Merry Christmas to “How are you today?” And then the person would jump as if they had just been pinched by the Ghost of Christmas Past. They would turn around, look at me, and say, “You’re real!” “Of course I’m real,” I’d answer. “You think Santa would send a fake reindeer?”
I loved calling people I knew by their names, especially when they didn’t know I was in there. They would jump and stare at the reindeer and then whisper “How did that reindeer know my name?” I had the chance to embarrass my calculus teacher when she stopped by. Several other people were present as I asked her to “rub my nose.” She turned bright red, and laughed, and after a minute or so of embarrassing her, she actually did scratch the reindeer’s nose. I also had one husband who set up his wife. He came over to me and asked if would say hi to his wife Pam if he brought her over. I agreed. Several children came up and I almost missed her. Then I spotted the couple. “Hello, Pam,” I said. “How are you today?” She jumped and stared at me. “Hod did that reindeer know my name?” Then she turned to her laughing husband, slapped him, saying, “You set me up!”
Many of the children made me laugh. The reindeer wore collars made up of plastic holly and ornaments. One little girl, about five years old, stood in front of Nicky and reached out to his collar. “Nicky, I’m feeling your little balls,” she said. I don’t know who laughed harder, me or her father.
But two instances still remain in my mind, some twelve years later. One time I had two blond children, a boy and a girl, by with their mother. I called out to them like I usually did but they didn’t answer right away. Then I noticed that their mother was signing to them and I realized that the children were deaf. It didn’t matter; with their mother interpreting for me, I found out what they wanted for Christmas. Before they left, each one came up and hugged the reindeer.
Another day, a family came by with a couple of children, their mother, and their uncle, a man with Down Syndrome. I again talked to everyone, finding out what they wanted for Christmas. I included the uncle in the conversation as well. The family moved on, but before they left, the uncle reached out, hugging each reindeer. “I love you Nicky and Nellie,” he said. I glowed brighter than Rudolph’s nose for the rest of the season.
This essay originally appeared online at Temp24, now gone. I was paid $50, a coffe mug, a T-shirt, and a mouse pad.