LS: Bruce Cameron Column November 30, 2008

The head elf

You may think of me as a newspaper columnist and probably also as someone you’d like to get to know or remember in a big way in your will. But once a year, I become a snarling, cruel, despotic monster.

That’s right: I become an elf.

Why don’t you keep on changing your will while I explain myself. Once a year, I participate in a charity that hosts a holiday party for children who find themselves suddenly homeless due to domestic violence. They, and usually their mothers, are brought together in a huge gathering for a festive meal and fun activities. The culmination of the party is Santa handing out gifts to every single girl and boy at the party — gifts that have to be collected and identified in a large, chaotic space known by the deceptively joyous name as the Elf Room.

No, don’t leave me your piano, that should go to your children, or to someone who wants a piano. Just cash, thanks.

While the children are eating brownies and making Styrofoam snowmen, the elves in the Elf Room are frantically checking lists, trying to account for hundreds of items. Sometimes, children have arrived that we didn’t know were coming (you can’t exactly plan homelessness).

Sometimes, the adults who agreed to donate a specific gift for a specific child got “too busy” and changed their minds on the whole think-I’ll-help-a-homeless-child thing.

Some of the gifts are inappropriate — like DVDs, because most of these kids don’t have
home-theater systems. One year, a well-meaning couple, despite our urgings, donated a bicycle: Can you imagine the bedlam if we wheeled a bike into a room full of children who were receiving nice, but less exciting, gifts? We had to disassemble the thing and wrap it so that it looked like the poor kid was getting a collection of crushed lawn chairs.

The idea is to have a smoothly flowing stream of gifts out of the Elf Room and into Santa’s arms, who will ho-ho-ho his way through hundreds of presents. In practice, the elves in the Elf Room couldn’t be more stressed if there were people shooting at us with pellet guns.

Santa, by the way, is assisted by his “wife,” a gorgeous woman in an outfit she made herself out of fishnet stockings, go-go boots and too little cloth to cover much of Mrs. Claus. She looks as though she just finished a shift at the local men’s club and has swung by to help hand out presents. No wonder Santa leaves home only one night a year.

Nothing like that is happening in the Elf Room, where for the sake of speed and discipline there’s one person in charge of the whole operation: the grizzled, battle-weary Head Elf.

For the past seven years, the Head Elf has been me, the person you are remembering so generously in your will.

In 2004, we had three entire busloads of children arrive without forewarning, and our scramble to find gifts for them was comical and frightening. We opened gifts to cannibalize sets of dolls so every child could have one. We stripped the supply closet in the Elf Room (a box of colored pens, perfect!). We emptied our wallets. The last gift we delivered that day was a candy bar with a 10-dollar bill wrapped around it.

Every child received a present, though. In the Elf Army, we speak of 2004 as our Vietnam —  you had to be there, man.

There’s almost no joy in being the Head Elf. Some donors understandably want to personally hand over the gift they bought, and I have to turn them away: This is about Santa and his go-go-dancer wife. I don’t get to see the children’s excitement or the gratitude of parents and older siblings. Mrs. Claus doesn’t meet me later for drinks.

But I’m doing it again this year, anyway — and I know I don’t have to explain why. Tell you what, instead of leaving me money in your will, why don’t you consider donating a gift to Toys for Tots, or e-mail me and I can hook you directly into my charity.

Because of recent economic developments, it looks like it’s going to be an especially tough day in the Elf Room this year.

To write Bruce Cameron, visit his Web site at


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