Part Three: Learning the Ropes
The next morning, Jim and Blair attended Orientation with a dozen other elves. "They're probably hiring seasonal help," Blair whispered to Jim.
"We’re probably seasonal help, too," Jim answered.
Blair shrugged. "I find it usually depends on how useful you are. We might start out as seasonal help, but--"
The door opened and H entered. "Welcome, everyone. Did you all bring your contracts?"
Everyone nodded. "Good. Pass them forward. The first thing you're going to learn today is the history of Santa Claus. Does anyone know how long Santa Claus has been around?"
Blair immediately shot up his hand. H nodded at him, leaning back on his desk and crossing his arms.
"Long ago, there was a good man named Nicholas who helped the poor. Later, he was declared a saint and given his own saint day, December 6. His descendants honored him by giving to children and the poor on that day. People gave him the nickname Sinterklaas. In North America, that morphed into Santa Claus."
"Brown nose," Jim teased. Blair stuck out his tongue.
"Well done, Hairboy," H said, causing Blair to look at him curiously. Jim tugged on Blair's long locks, and Blair said "oh".
H continued. "Sinterklaas, with the help of many elves, continued to leave presents for good children in December. But the world's population grew and spread across the ocean. Sinterklaas couldn't cover it all, so they found a good man to carry on the work in North America. That's our Santa Claus. He put out a call to elves to help on that one night and many answered the call. Eventually, we decided it would be better to get a jump on Christmas gifts by making them all year long. Santa searched for a place big enough and secret enough to have a full-time Workshop. We re-located here, set up the Elves United Union to negotiate pay, and we've been here ever since.
"Yeah, but I hear Santa has turned into a grinch," Joy, an elf sitting next to Jim, whispered.
"I heard that!" H said, startling her. "Santa isn't the grinch here. If anyone's a grinch, it's Mrs. Claus."
Everyone looked at H in shock.
"It's better not to talk about it in the Workshop, but Mrs. Claus was unhappy and shared her misery with everyone. She left just at the start of the busy season. She's taken their son with her to a place called Cascade. Since then, Santa hasn't been himself.
"So, tread softly around the Big Guy, do your work and you'll be okay. Report to Rafe for your assignments. That's it," he said, using shooing motions. "Scamper away!"
Rafe was waiting to check them in. "I remember you two from last night." He looked at Jim. "You wanted to do woodworking. Not many elves are interested in making those old-fashioned toys. Personally, I love 'em." He turned and hollered, "Merry!" An elf immediately appeared. "Take him to the woodshop." He turned to Jim. "If you have any problems, see me."
He turned toward Blair. "Now, you…"
"You can call me Blair, or maybe Hairboy, since that's what H called me."
Rafe rolled his eyes. "Yeah, he likes nicknames. You're going to the kitchen. Meet the other kitchen elves and be prepared to serve lunch."
"Yes, sir!" Blair said with a mock salute. "Any requests?"
"Something to pick up our spirits. This time of year is hard on everyone. Perry!" Another elf appeared. "Take Blair to the kitchen."
As Blair followed Perry, he said softly, knowing Jim would hear. "Good luck, Jim. See you at lunch."
He entered the large kitchen, which was gleaming and decorated with twinkling lights. The only thing that looked out of place were three elves sitting in a corner, looking glum.
"Hey, guys, I'm Blair." Blair greeted as he looked around. "I kind of expected this place to be busier. Aren't we making food for the troops?"
One of the elves turned to him with a scowl. "Hey, you do it--you're the wunderkind. We don't make food that's 'jolly' enough!"
Blair winced, remembering Henri's careless remark. "Hey, hey," he said, holding up placating hands, "I'm sorry to get off on the wrong foot--all I want is to do a good job. Maybe you could explain your menu to me?"
The elf pointed to the large white board listing the items. Everything was either chocolate, peppermint or a combination of both. Blair eyes widened.
"What's wrong with that?" the elf asked defensively. "Chocolate and peppermint are the traditional Christmas flavors. Elves love them."
Blair shrugged. "Well, even your favorite dish can get boring if that's all you eat. Maybe we can create a little more variety? While keeping the main flavors, that is."
"Okay, Smarty Pants, what do you suggest?"
Blair, who'd travelled all over the world with his mom, had tons of ideas, but knew he had to tread carefully. "Okay, maybe some big, soft, salty pretzels with chocolate dipping sauce on the side? Or vanilla gelato? They can add peppermint sprinkles if they like. Or, in addition to hot cocoa, offer mocha? Adding coffee might help the elves stay alert." When no one objected, he whipped up the three items for the elves to taste.
"Not bad," said Grumpy (as Blair thought of him). The others nodded enthusiastically. "Let's try them during today's lunch. And speaking of which…" Just then, the first elves entered the dining room.
Most were very happy to find new items. Blair and the kitchen elves took turns wandering the room, listening for feedback. Many of the worker elves ordered a second mocha and gathered in groups, chatting happily.
The lunchroom door suddenly slammed open. Simon walked in and looked around, scowling. "What is everyone doing here? Don't you have work to do?"
The elves scattered. Simon took a long draw on his cigar, then stomped back out.
Blair wondered whether the elf in Orientation got it right--maybe it was Santa who was the grinch.