“I think you are too late.”
That’s the text I got from fellow elf Jennifer Johnson, who was unaware Solomon and I had just boarded the North Pole Adventure with the non-elf families at the Hanover boarding station.
Elves are supposed to pre-board at 4 p.m. at a different location, but by 4:30 the train had moved to pick up the “muggles.”
It was a close call, but we made it in time to find our place on the Indian Creek railroad car, where we teamed up with Elf Hayes, whose long, curly black hair, big red-and-green hat and his green-and-white Mexican poncho sweater made him look like a “reggae elf.”
I took the more traditional elf approach, wearing a bright green elf costume complete with bells on all ends and a matching stocking cap.
We had to provide our own elf costumes, which had made me a little nervous. Where was I going to find an elf costume?
“My mom has one,” my fiancée said. “She made it herself.”
The costume also came with red tights, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear them.
Still, my costume did the trick, although it was a little tight.
“Do I look ridiculous?” I asked Jennifer when I found her.
“Charlie, you’re dressed as an elf. Of course you do.”
Solomon, my fiancée’s son, was also an elf, wearing a red and white Santa T-shirt and green pajama pants. He was happy to participate, but was mainly in it for the money.
Yes, we got paid to be elves, thanks to the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, who is still looking for volunteers. Sometimes they even recruit elves, which was the case for us.
“Hey, Charlie, you want to be an elf?” Liz at the Chamber asked when I was in the office this fall.
“Why not?” I said. “Can I bring Solomon?”
Sometimes you choose to be an elf; sometimes being an elf chooses you.
And, let me tell you, being an elf isn’t just fun and games. Being an elf carries great responsibility.
“We elves can make or break the experience,” the elf handout says. “Santa is counting on us to do a great job.”
If that’s not motivation…
Solomon and I turned off our phones, handed out nametags and naughty-or-nice tags and visited with the children, parents and grandparents.
Being Lewistown, it was no coincidence I’d know some of the people on board, but I wasn’t expecting Justice of the Peace Kelly Mantooth, his wife, two of his daughters and all four of his grandkids to be in our car.
We all have our roles to play in the community, and Kelly’s presence made going from reporter to elf feel a little more unnatural. Not long ago, I was mediating his debate.
One of Kelly’s daughters on board was Kristen Mantooth Yeley. A former Miss Montana, Kristen was celebrated by the Chamber before the train took off and thanked for her contribution to the train ride as author and illustrator of “Lewis’s Train.”
A popular children’s book, “Lewis’s Train” is read by the elves on the way to see Santa. It tells the tale about an orphan child who finds the magic of Christmas on a train ride to the North Pole.
“Pretty much everything that’s in this book is what we do on the train,” Elf Hayes said. “We pass out hot chocolate and cookies, we sing carols and spread the holiday cheer. Everything Santa does on the train is in it, too. He gives all the kids a magical gold coin.”
Now a mother of two little boys, the magic of the North Pole Adventure has even more meaning for Kristen.
“It’s really wonderful to ride the train with my boys,” she said. “It’s special.”
The trip is special for all the children, as most of them can’t hold back their excitement.
“We’re going to see Santa,” Elf Hayes told one wide-eyed 6-year-old.
“Santa!” the kid screamed
“That’s right. Santa. We’re flying to the North Pole. Can you feel it? We’re flying!”
To keep spirits high, we led the train car in carols, singing all the standards: “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “12 Days of Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and the list goes on.
We even did “The Grinch,” but that didn’t go over well. Neither did “Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer.” Sometimes an elf can lose a melody.
Nevertheless, we reached the North Pole, a sight that made the children melt with joy and genuinely impressed the parents.
“Look,” one woman said to her young son, pointing out the window. “It’s gorgeous.”
Waving out the window, we could see Santa wave back, walking down the sidewalk away from his beautifully lit red-and-white North Pole ranch home.
Santa’s path to the train shined bright with multi-colored Christmas lights. You couldn’t miss him. Even yards away you could make out the red on his robe and the white on his beard.
As he waved to the children, they waved back, many giggling joyfully.
“I don’t know what’s got my boy more excited,” one dad said. “Santa or the hot chocolate. He definitely has a sugar rush going.”
When Santa came to our car, the children were giddy and the parents were all smiles, snapping photos on their cameras and phones.
The Christmas spirit had captured them.
On the way back to the Hanover boarding station, we sang more carols and, as the children started coming down from their sugar rush, Elf Hayes led us in a game of “naughty or nice,” calling out the names of people on the car one by one, while asking the rest of us if they’d been good or bad this year.
The car also votes on whether or not the elves were naughty or nice, too.
Solomon was voted as “nice.” Elf Hayes and I were voted “naughty.”
Then we played a game of “Santa says,” which has the same rules as “Simon says.”
“Santa says rub your stomach. Santa says stand up. Santa says jump up and down.” You get the idea.
By the time we got back to the boarding station, we were pretty wiped out. Keeping the train car entertained and the children engaged can be tough, but we persevered, as many children wanted more. Some children, however, were even more wiped out than we were, and had fallen asleep.
As the passengers exited the train, we waved goodbye and sang, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Some children and parents even sang along.
Solomon was into it, too, giving high fives to the people as they passed, celebrating the Christmas spirit.
“This was fun,” he said.
“Ready to it again?” Hayes asked.
I’d forgotten to mention the second train.
“Elfin’ ain’t easy,” I said. “Elfin’ ain’t easy.”
(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus Dec. 2015)
The very next year, my wife tried out elfin’ at the Lewistown Public Library, where she works as a librarian’s assistant. For “story time” with the children, she put on her mom’s costume and brought joy to kids, parents and elder patrons alike. I’d also like to point out she looks a lot better in it. Much better.