The First Day of Christmas
By Deana Luchia
I can barely contain my excitement. In fact, I’m not going to. Wheeeeeeeee…I let it all out, laughing and whooping and giggling and shaking with glee, as I’m carried out of the cupboard behind stationery and transported to my usual spot, the landing between two floors (Men’s Apparel and Women’s Lingerie) at Tibbet & Holdings department store.
This is the eighth year that I have been placed in this exact position and I will probably be here for many more as I am built to last. I’m a 9ft tall, PVC and metal, pre-lit, white Christmas tree. I do not shed, do not need watering, do not need recycling. I have a pretty and very sturdy metal stand, and rather than coming to pieces, my branches can simply be bent upwards for easy storage. You can see my appeal.
And look, here he comes, my decorator. I had the same boy last year: Michael.
‘Hello darling,’ he says, dragging a ladder and then dropping three large boxes next to me. He oohs and ahhs as he opens the boxes, then he stares at me for a few seconds, which is slightly embarrassing as I am totally bare. Not a strand of tinsel to hide behind.
And then he starts. It’s a decorating frenzy. I can barely keep count of what Michael adds. I could be wrong, but in addition to the pre-lit lights (178; green and red; flashing), I have been decorated with 72 baubles (silver and blue; complete chatterboxes; great company), four strands of tinsel (purple; we’ve all met before), 14 felt animals (four squirrels, four robins, four reindeer and two foxes; all of them old friends), five knitted snowmen (always great fun), and 18 mini chocolate Santas wrapped in foil (obviously not a word to say). And then, on my very top, Michael places a large ceramic angel, which, whilst she causes me to lean slightly to the left, does add to my general jauntiness.
‘You look,’ Michael says, closing one eye, and stepping backwards, precariously close to the top of the stairs, ‘divine.’ He takes two steps forwards, turns to face the stairs and says in Tomas the manager’s German accent, ‘Michael, you are a genius. I’m giving you the entire window dressing to do next year. The whole lot.’
He goes back to the stairs and faces me again. ‘You will not be disappointed Tomas,’ he says, sounding like himself again.
Another turn to face the stairs: ‘Excellent. Good job, Michael. Well done.’
And then Michael comes to me, removes a couple of the chocolate Santas, put them in his pocket and walks away with the boxes, singing along with Aled Jones who is being piped through every floor right now, even though we’re not open for 15 minutes.
I am so excited my PVC needles are trembling. I can feel the baubles swaying and if I don’t calm down a couple of the felt animals are going to fall. Everyone starts giggling and chatting at the same time. We talk about what we can expect this Christmas. Who we think we might see on these back stairs. How two years ago we saw a famous actress who was in that year’s Tibbet & Holdings’ Christmas advert and whose face was displayed on huge banners up and down the stairs. The money’s on this year’s Christmas advert star coming to admire herself before lunch.
I can hear loud steps; someone is rushing up the stairs. In boots. And every decoration starts chanting: A customer! A customer! But the angel is convinced this is simply Santa Claus, making his way up to the shop’s grotto on the sixth floor.
There’s a blur of red and white and here he is, she was right. It’s Alan, a tad late, but I’m sure he will be much better a Santa Claus than he was last year.
‘Fuck me,’ he says leaning against the banister and then collapsing on the deep windowsill to my right as he struggles to get his breath. His black boots clang on the radiator beneath the window.
From one of his pockets, he takes out a hip flask, has a huge swig and then pushes it inside my branches. He checks his teeth on a particularly large silver bauble and then huffs and puffs up the stairs. A lot of the women who work here, and some of the men, think they are in love with Alan. Last year we heard several of them talking about him on their breaks. We discuss this for quite a while. It’s something we can’t really understand.
It’s fine. Everything is fine. It really is. It was like this last year. Everyone uses the front stairs, or the elevators, or escalators. They do. Or they are just coming here to stock up on the delectable chocolates and pastries that Tibbet & Holdings is famous for, which are in the basement, which means anyone shopping for those would have absolutely no need to come all the way up here. Though I must say I have never looked so beautiful as I do this year. Never. Michael has done an amazing job. Every bauble and strand of tinsel, every felt animal…well, I look fabulous. We look fabulous. Worthy of being in Santa’s Grotto. Definitely. I’d be amazing up there. But no, I mustn’t have these thoughts and I mustn’t worry and I mustn’t panic which I sometimes do. Just stay calm.
I fluff myself out slightly and then position myself just so because they will come, they will. They will stop and look at me and it will be fine, just like it was last Christmas. I give a quick shimmy at the mistletoe positioned over the doors to Men’s Apparel, and when she waves back I feel much better.
Normally I am one of 14 Christmas trees positioned throughout the store, and in addition to being the only one to be artificial, I am also the only one positioned at any level on the back stairwell. And the only one to be decorated by anyone under the age of 20. Despite what the other trees sometimes say, and the whispers from the cupboard where the twinkling reindeer and the dancing snowman are also stored, it’s fine. I don’t mind at all. In fact I am proud of my spot, of being reliable and trusted to decorate this area of the shop.
I do hear a lot of excitement about which floors the real trees are placed on (the trees make their entrance onto the floors via this stairwell), and they seem to be most thrilled about being on the sixth floor, which in addition to the Grotto, homes toys, gadgets and lighting. Every year, the tree that gets selected for that floor actually hums with delight. Inaudible to the human hear of course, but positively zinging to the rest of us. But I’m happy where I am. I am. 100%. And of course I don’t have to suffer the humiliation of being dragged down the stairs, out into the street, needle-less at the end of it all. It’s sometimes better not to look, but I do always make a point of shouting well done and bravo as they are being removed.
Tibbet & Holdings makes a point of using living trees now, not like a few years ago when they’d just be put out with the rubbish. Now each tree has a deep pot with soil packed around its roots. There is someone who waters them every few days. But there are rumours, according to one of the felt squirrels, that this is just for show and that these trees too are destined for the rubbish heap, but I don’t think that’s really the case, I don’t. Good luck! I will shout when Christmas is over. You were marvellous! See you next year!
No one. Not a single person. I can feel panic rising. The felt animals are nibbling my needles, the lights are threatening to short the circuit, the tinsel strands are tying themselves in knots, the snowmen are bickering.
Breathe, I remind everyone. Big breath in and out.
The doors from above are opened and I feel a rush of anticipation. We all do. I can feel the baubles holding their breath, the happy giggles escaping from the felt animals. I lean to the right to get a closer look…but it’s just Alan, coming out from Lingerie. He hoists himself up onto the windowsill. He opens the mullioned window, wrenches down his beard so that it sits under his chin, then lights a cigarette. And then he chats on his phone with someone who must be extremely funny because he can’t stop saying, ‘don’t make me laugh. Don’t make me laugh. You are having a laugh.’ Apparently there are two Santas booked this year and Alan says he wishes he’d stayed in bed. That the other guy looks as much like Santa as a mug of treacle.
Alan takes another swig of the drink from the hip flask, hides it back in my branches, then comes to stand in front of me. I would take a compliment from Alan. We all would. Here it comes, I think. Here it comes. It will be a little one. But I’ll take it…But no. He doesn’t say a word to us. He just grabs a chocolate. And then he’s off, plodding back up the stairs.
Everyone’s getting a bit despondent. I can feel it. I remind them of last year and how it took three whole days before anyone said anything but then once we had one, we were inundated with compliments.
‘Sh!’ says the angel. ‘Four people are coming.’ That’s what we need. Here we go. I’m so happy. More than happy. Every decoration is giggling. The angel is pinching her own cheeks to make them pinker. And we’re off. Show time!
I haven’t stopped. Haven’t had a minute. I’ve held myself in the most appealing way so that everyone passing can see the baubles, tinsel, animals and snowmen at their very best. It’s not easy. Not at all as easy as it looks. But I think I’m doing well. I’ve kept everyone on their toes. I’ve reminded them of why we’re here and I’ve tried to keep things light. Tried to steer conversation away from why not one person has said we look beautiful, and why someone said we’d been decorated by a child. At least they’ve changed the music to Michael Buble now. A bit cheerier. And they’re piping the smell of mulled wine through the shop which is my favourite smell ever. More than marzipan, more than cinnamon. This is better. And I am happy. I am. I love my job. I love being on the stairs. I love all the coming and going. Look, someone else is coming now. It will be fine. All fine. Completely fine. It will. Get ready everyone.
It’s a woman with a Chihuahua in a small bag. She comes to stand in front of me and takes the tiny dog from the bag and puts in on the floor by my stand.
‘Quick, quick. Do you business,’ she says. ‘Quickly, Lulu, quickly.’
I feel something warm and wet on the bottom of my stand. The baubles gasp. The felt foxes growl but it’s too late. The woman scoops up the dog and disappears up the stairs. There’s more gasping from the decorations, particularly lower down where I think one of the felt reindeers may actually have been splashed. The angel thinks we need to talk about this and how it’s not on, not on at all, but we hear footsteps and there isn’t time to discuss this now. I tell everyone we will laugh about this later. We really will.
A rush of children comes up the stairs, tiny ones in fluorescent bibs with the name of their nursery printed on them in black letters. Tiny legs that can barely make it up the stairs, sticky fingers that tug on my branches and linger on the chocolate Santas, grown ups hurrying them up the stairs to see Santa Alan. Too busy to look at us.
The baubles were right. The actress from this year’s Christmas ad is here. None of us knows her name but her floor-length face is staring right at us from across where we are positioned and there are other banners of her dangling down the stairwell. She comes to stand right in front of herself. She smiles. She takes photos of herself in front of the banners. She sits on the windowsill and does her make-up. ‘Marvellous,’ she says. ‘Bloody marvellous.’ She’s on her phone. ‘I’m on the back stairs, darling. Anton’s face is all over the shop, all over the huge stairway at the front. I’m on the back stairs, like a nobody.’ We all do a collective quiver at this insult. Hold it together, everyone. We are wonderful. We are beautiful. Repeat after me…
Alan is back. ‘Move over,’ he says to the actress and sits on the windowsill next to her. She looks aghast as he bends over, rummages in the branches and retrieves the hip-flask.
‘Fucking nightmare up there,’ he says, before taking a long drink. ‘Kids everywhere.’
We’re not sure if he’s talking to us or the actress who is clearly not listening, but we know by now that we’re never ever to answer back, even if comments are meant for us. In my second year, there was a particularly chatty bauble, very beautiful with frosted glass and shiny red berries, and he made the mistake of chatting back to a customer, saying that yes he did think it was rather chilly on the stairs and it would be useful if they actually turned on the radiators, and the woman looked us up and down, she peered behind us and then under us and then she hurried away, almost falling down the stairs. So we don’t do that anymore.
A man holding the hand of a small boy glares at Alan and the actress and Alan shouts, ‘Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas!’ and then saunters back up the stairs. The actress follows him. The felt reindeer said they knew she would. That Alan, despite his flaws, has what some people find irresistible.
The small boy says that we smell really bad. The father says he can’t smell anything, but the boy keeps saying it. It smells bad. It smells of toilets. He says this all the way up the stairs.
A woman who has been organising her bag on the windowsill for the last twenty minutes hasn’t been organising her bag at all. She’s been trying not to cry. The angel can see that there are tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. The baubles start whispering and the felt animals lean towards her, in lieu of a tissue, and I edge closer to her and spread myself out which is the nearest thing I can do to a hug. She doesn’t notice our sympathetic gestures and instead she looks upwards at the ceiling, where two floors above there is a large chandelier. It’s as though she is trying to get the tears back inside.
We get criers more often than you think.
She looks at herself in a bauble, the same one that Alan checked his teeth in, then she takes one of the felt snowmen, blows her nose on his floppy hat, and then shoves him in her bag, before disappearing down the stairs.
After everyone calms down and I’ve reminded them that a stolen snowman will have a wonderful new life on someone else’s tree, a man comes slowly down the stairs towards us, talking on his phone. He sits on the windowsill.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it,’ he says, smiling at his reflection in the large bauble. ‘It was the office party. It meant nothing. Come on. Grow up.’
The larcenous woman comes back up the stairs, and the remaining snowmen shout jump jump to their friend who we can see sticking out of her handbag. He makes a valiant leap, he really does, but she spins around when she sees the man on the windowsill, and he’s knocked back inside her handbag.
‘Tara, wait,’ the man says but before he can reach her, he’s surrounded by the small children who have told Santa Alan what they would like for Christmas and are now making their way down to the basement, according to one of their teachers.
The man looks annoyed. He sits back up on the window ledge and waits for all the small children to pass and then, instead of going down the stairs to find Tara, he just sits there and opens one of his shopping bags. He takes out a large beautifully wrapped bag of chocolates which he must have bought from the basement and eats the whole lot, faster and faster until the large cellophane wrapper is empty. And then he comes to the tree, and stands in front of me. He takes a closer look. He wants the angel. I can tell. She makes a small squeal as the man lunges upwards, arms held aloft to grab her. He’s nowhere near her the first time, or the second, and he crashes hard against me on his third attempt. Thankfully, one of the felt foxes sinks his teeth into the palm of his hand. The man yelps and sucks his hand. He gives me a good shake and then disappears down the stairs.
We spend the next few minutes discussing this assault. How dare he try to steal our angel. What kind of man would do that, and so on. And we applaud the fox and the tinsel strands decide to keep an eye out for this man.
We haven’t stopped looking our very best for hours now. We’re all a bit tired but we have to just keep going.
The angel closes her eyes and takes a power nap, but she’s so high up that no one will know. The felt animals do the same and I can hardly blame them. Instead I keep myself ready, to attention, wanting us to look our best. Someone will stop and admire us, they will. They have to.
Alan is back. He slumps on the floor this time and doesn’t move at all when people try to pass him. He just lets them step over his red legs and his big black boots.
‘Merry Christmas to you too,’ he shouts after every one.
Then Tomas the manager is running up the stairs and Alan spots him and scrambles to his feet and hurries upwards.
‘I know what you’re going to say, so save your breath,’ he shouts down to Tomas.
Sarah from Lingerie is here. They must be running low in stock because she’s carrying a mound of sparkly tights. All glittery and bright. She doesn’t notice but she drops a pair as she hurries past us.
There’s great chatter from the tinsel who’ve suddenly woken up. ‘Come on. Hurry up. Get on the tree,’ they urge the tights. And the tinsel snakes itself down, grabs hold of the tights and pulls them onto the tree.
We look even more amazing now. Maybe this will make the difference.
The music is suddenly piped louder. We like that. Jingle Bell Rock which we can never help but sway to. Subtly of course, but we all love this song.
The man is back. He’s holding hands with the woman, Tara. There are no traces of her tears now. She’s laughing and smiling at him. He leans her against the windowsill and kisses her so intensely I think she might fall over. And then she turns around and bends him back over the windowsill and we’re all looking. Our first kiss of Christmas. We do get quite a few I have to say. But never like this. Never as much as this. Coats and shirts are being unbuttoned. These two should try to find a room. It might be better. I can feel some of the baubles blushing. Close your eyes everyone.
The last lot of the children is coming now. Up and down the stairs. Excited to see Alan the Santa, whose hip flash is empty, though he’s been down twice in the last ten minutes to check that it really is.
He’s back again now. He pulls on his hair a bit and then rummages in his pockets and finds a cigarette, which he smokes, half in, half out of the window.
And then Tomas is here again. He’s furious and in mid-shout when a new group of shoppers comes by. He’s trying to send messages to Alan with his eyebrows but Alan laughs and walks down the stairs, shouting he needs some alcohol. ‘Santa Claus can’t do this job without whisky. Large amounts of whisky.’
We’re all flagging now. Even I feel slightly droopy. I’m looking forward to 6 o’clock. To the lights going off, the music coming to a stop, the doors bolted shut and falling asleep to the chatting of the baubles.
Hang in everyone. Just a few more minutes. But already I can tell that most of the decorations have nodded off.
It will be a better day tomorrow, I promise to anyone still awake. It absolutely will. This is just the first day. People haven’t seen enough trees yet to know that we are beautiful. It will be fine. It will all be fine. Get some sleep and it will be better in the morning.
And then…and then Michael stands in front of me. ‘We did it!’ he shouts. We did it!’ and he laughs and says words that wake us and make us start giggling again.
We’re being moved to the grotto tomorrow. Alan stole the tree. He dragged it down the elevator. And I say a quick sorry for that tree, hoping that Alan has taken it home and it will have the wonderful Christmas it deserves. And then I can’t keep quiet. ‘We’re in,’ I keep saying. ‘We made it. We’re off to the grotto! We’re that fabulous! Hurrah! Hurrah!’
We all chatter, thrilled about this, until well into the night. Even the two remaining chocolate Santas manage a smile.
I wait until the last bauble is snoring gently and then I allow myself to sleep too. We’re all going to need a good sleep. We’re all going to need to look our very best for tomorrow.
The second day of Christmas at the Grotto! We made it!
©Deana Luchia 2016