The holidays are a time when people believe in Santa, his reindeer, and, of course, his little helpers, elves dressed in green and red.
"It's a time when people are willing to suspend disbelief," observed Rebecca Meszler, 25, of Charles Village, a children's book illustrator.
Meszler was one of at least seven women who strolled West 36th Street (The Avenue) and Chestnut Avenue dressed as elves last weekend to greet holiday shoppers — and will be back at it this weekend, the final one before Christmas.
"Isn't this wonderful?" said their organizer and leader, Laura "Mama Elf" Myers, a longtime waitress at the Hampden restaurant Rocket to Venus. "It's so old school."
The elves were hired by the Hampden Village Merchants Association in September to replace Santa Claus as promotional ambassadors for the business community. They will share a collective fee of $1,700, the same amount of money that former Santa Geoffrey Harris, of Remington, made last year.
"We're just hiring a squad of elves to run around the neighborhood instead of Santa," merchants' association president Benn Ray said at the time.
Myers, 43, of the Belair-Edison area, felt sorry for Santa, but said at the time, "We had to branch off and rebel."
Now, the so-called elf squad, working in teams of two when possible, are greeting shoppers, painting children's faces and posing for photos with families. They are also taking their own photos at each store they step into, and posting the photos on a Facebook page they set up.
Their first foray was on Friday evening, when four of them gathered at Rocket to Venus — where some used to waitress — for a quick meal of mini-hamburgers and french fries. Joining Myers and Meszler were graphic designer Lindsay Petrick, 28, of Hampden, and Amy Beth "AB" Leasure, 39, of Fells Point, a lawyer for the Baltimore City solicitor's office. Petrick first met Myers at a Halloween party, where they were dressed as Girl Scouts. Leasure was dating a co-owner of Rocket to Venus when she first met Myers.
"It's exciting," Petrick said. "I love dressing up."
"I don't think any of us are doing it for the money," Leasure said.
"It's like being in a play — and meanwhile giving something back to the community," said Meszler, who ran home after work to dress and get to the restaurant.
"It's an honor," said Myers, who last played an elf in 2011 in Hampden, Mount Washington Village and Harbor East, on behalf of the website http://www.yelp.com, which promotes Baltimore.
Unable to join them was Katrina Ford, 40, of Remington, who was bar tending at Rocket to Venus.
"I'm kind of like the extra elf," said Ford, who is also a singer and musician. "I love Laura Myers. She's very persuasive."
As they were leaving after dinner, dressed in various combinations of green and red stockings, dresses, elfish caps and pom-poms on their feet, they encountered restaurant goer Kim Lane-Ryer, who told them, "You guys look so cute," and noted that they were role models for her 9-year-old daughters, who wanted to dress up like them.
Then, the elves crossed the street to the 700 block of West 34th Street, where hundreds of people were admiring the annual light display known worldwide as The Miracle on 34th Street. There, they posed for a group photo under a "Merry Christmas" sign and greeted people like Kim Lane-Ryer, of Lauraville, who told them, "You guys look so cute."
"I think they're adorable," said Sarah Tanguay, of Perry Hall. "They brighten the view — even with the lights already there."
"They're adorable," echoed Karen Connor, of Parkville, but she confessed, "We're not sure why they're here."
When told the elves were there to greet shopper and promote Hampden business, Connor said, "Well, that's a good idea."
Joining the elves late was Baltimore County Public Schools teacher and former Rocket to Venus employee Kristin Tornabene, 33, of Parkville.
"What better way to get involved and do something for the community — and act kind of goofy? It's perfect," Tornabene said.
On Chestnut at West 36th, they popped into several stores briefly, including the children's boutique Mono Azul, where Jeanne Dibattista told them, "I just worry about you because you don't have any warm clothes on."
They also stopped into the oddities and curiosities store Bazaar to meet a man dressed as Krampus, the mythological creature who punishes naught children at Christmastime. Then they headed onto The Avenue, where the stopped into more stores and the restaurant Alchemy, where they serenaded diners with a hearty, "We wish you a Merry Christmas ... and a happy new year."
Alchemy co-owner and "chefette" Debi Bell-Matassa said she preferred the elves to Santa.
"We can place eight elves easier than one Santa," Bell-Matassa said. "They're sprightly. Elves are festive."
On Saturday, joined by several more elves, the squad regrouped at the coffee shop Common Ground at noon, then sauntered through the snow, and soldiered on when it turned to rain.
"That wasn't so much fun," Leasure said.
They were back again on Sunday, enjoying the sunshine as they stopped into more stores, including the ice cream parlor The Charmery, where they held an hour-long face-painting session for children.
"I love it," said former Hampden resident Chandler Morse, now of Cedarcroft, watching as his daughter, Talie, 5, got her face painted. "It's spreading the Christmas cheer."
Morse turned to his son, Parker, 7, and asked, "Do you think the elves came from Santa?"
"Definitely," Parker said.