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December 13, 2011 / philosophermouseofthehedge

Best job ever: August’s Christmas

Customer expectation was high. It had to be a scene worthy of “Miracle on 34th Street” or the Red Ryder rifle’s “A Christmas Story”. The day after Thanksgiving opened the Christmas shopping season. The competition was fierce between Houston’s department stores like Foley’s, Sakowitz, and Neiman Marcus. Christmas decorations were elaborate, enchanted, and instantly appeared overnight. Corporate management would waltz through: a smile signaling success. Display crews nervously waited the verdict.

While most know about backstage crews for ballet companies or stage shows, few realize major department stores have their own behind-the-scenes manic creative crews.

It’s the best job ever: working Display (with the accent on the “dis“).

If you’ve got to earn money for grad school, might as well have fun.

Not for the weak. Single-handedly hauling 8-10 foot wooden ladders through store aisles without touching anything (always wood which won’t skate when you are on top). Muscling full-sized dressed mannequins, notorious for dropping a hand, onto shoulder-high platforms. Balancing delicately on ledges or counters pinning and tucking details.

Creativity – or quirkiness- required.

One major part of the job is coming up with an attractive way to show off odd utilitarian items – like socks. Once created a Gold Toe men’s sock display with plexiglass cubes and river rock that brough tears to the company reps’ eyes. He ran off, got a camera, and made pictures for corporate. Our store manager beamed. Our crew chuckled. We knew that rep was going make some other display crew’s lives miserable demanding they be just as creative. Huge competition between stores. (And we hated each other. Constantly on alert for snooping crews from other stores.)

All part of the job which started hours before shoppers arrived, and often meant working overnight and on weekends while everyone else was home.

All to create the magic.


That’s the trick. The talent and skill.

That illusion of instant Christmas was the most difficult, but the most fun.

While others baked at the beach, we blared “Jingle Bell Rock” and brushed off snow in August. It wasn’t trendy face glitter we wore – just a shiny dusting from constructing. The “Ho Ho Ho’s” sounded increasingly manic as the year’s Christmas design plan came to life. (Coffee, more coffee!).

Other store personnel gave us wide berth.

Trees, once decorated, were stashed in stairwells – a claustrophobic vertical glittery forest.ย Whispers of “the Fire Marshall is coming” sent us into a frenzy. We moved like chess pieces around the store, trees in arms, sliding from place to place as he checked one passage, then moved to another. Annoyed, we’d exclaim, “Hey, what’s the deal? If there’s a fire, grab a tree on your way down the stairs and out.”

As Thanksgiving approached, garlands and ornaments were carefully stashed for quick access in cabinets or counters on the floor. We snarled warnings – not veiled at all – if “sales associates” even thought about moving decorations aside or crushing them. There would be “words” but not many because everyone knew Display ruled this time of year.

Display was responsible for the magic.

One day just basic store design as usual, the next it was like the Snow Queen scattered enchanted snow. Overnight. Instantly, it was a Christmas wonderland designed to awe. Exhausted, we gloried in the “oh’s” and “ah’s” of delight from customers and store personnel.

Perhaps someplace in some store, there are overnight appearances of Christmas on the scale of a Hollywood extravaganza, but not many. Those days of shoppers eager to simply gaze on enchanting elaborate Christmas store displays and windows have been eclipsed. Instead it’s now “Black Friday” shopping the day after Thanksgiving. With the stores “decorated” with piles of cardboard boxed “specials” and rumpled stampeding customers slugging it out.

Display crews possibly bemoan the loss of style, grace, and elegance, but maybe they enjoy the Beach Boys singing more seasonally appropriate songs in August. It’s been a while, but when fall leaves suggest construction paper and football games to others, all I can feel is an itching for red velvet ribbon and the urge to look over my shoulder for the Fire Marshall.

Merry with the season,

Phil, the Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge.


  1. Snoring Dog Studio / Dec 13 2011 10:22 pm

    How true! This is one of the things I miss about being in a large downtown where store windows are elaborately decorated. Sometimes it’s all you need to put you in the spirit of Christmas. It makes for a nice tradition as long as you don’t covet everything in the window! When I lived in Minneapolis, every Christmas the Dayton’s department store created some themed park on their 7th floor. It was a delightful thing to look forward to.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 13 2011 10:26 pm

      Some of them had choirs and hot chocolate, too. Was really fun for kids. Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Sunshine / Dec 14 2011 1:49 am

    Merry with the Season to you too!! ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Edward Hotspur / Dec 14 2011 1:57 am

    I got The Greene, a “shopping village”, that is very cozy when it’s decorated.


  4. jannatwrites / Dec 14 2011 4:28 am

    Not a good sign when Christmas makes you think of Fire Marshalls ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think it would be fun to set up the decorations, especially if it gets me out of the summer heat.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 14 2011 2:47 pm

      But not one of our trees/ Santas ever burst into flame. It was a lot of fun. Thanks for visiting.


  5. Bongo / Dec 14 2011 5:11 am

    Thanks for the insights. This was fun. Now the decoration crews still start in August – it’s just that they put everything out instead of stashing it in drawers and stairwells.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 14 2011 2:51 pm

      So they are sacrificing the overnight magic for convenience/ earlier sales? Sadly you are right. But if you only believe….thanks for trotting past


  6. robstroud / Dec 14 2011 5:16 am

    Fun read!

    “Other store personnel gave us wide berth.”

    >> Certainly no surprise there! ๐Ÿ™‚


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 14 2011 2:44 pm

      Display people always arrived long before 7 am and hit the aisle running fast to get as much done before “sales associates” showed up just before opening. (much much coffee and adrenaline) Once the store opens, Display disappears, like “rats” into the mazes of back hallways, stockrooms, and display workrooms….although we considered ourselves more like the magical/mythical unicorns than rats… Thanks for your comments


  7. The Hook / Dec 14 2011 12:57 pm

    Fantastic holiday post – because it sprang from your heart!


  8. sandrabranum / Dec 14 2011 6:14 pm

    Love your post. It reminds me of the St. Louis downtown Christmas displays. The stores stayed open until 9pm so there was plenty of time to walk around downtown and view the displays. Famous Barr’s were always the best because they always used the toy trains. I think that’s why I love the movie “Mannequin” so much.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 14 2011 6:28 pm

      Isn’t it funny how department stores used to be the location of great classic movies? Displays with trains are always the best. Thanks for visiting


  9. heretherebespiders / Dec 14 2011 8:02 pm

    I’m sorry…I’m giggling over the mannequins dropping the hand… It’s a new term to me but I only ever hear it we’d as part of a funny story, this no exception ๐Ÿ™‚


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 14 2011 8:14 pm

      We all suspected the mannequins conspired against us and fell apart on purpose for attention – or they hated the fashions we dressed them in. (sometimes justified). Thanks for visiting


  10. sportsattitudes / Dec 15 2011 3:35 pm

    “We moved like chess pieces around the store.” I have known a number of non-display related business entities who have engaged in that kind of behavior with fire marshals, building inspectors, certification auditors, etc. Miss these X-mas displays and this “back story” makes them even more special in memory.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 15 2011 4:10 pm

      The young kids viewing Christmas season in stores today are certainly storing different memories. Thanks for adding your thoughts


  11. shoreacres / Dec 16 2011 5:36 am

    I grew up in the days described in A Christmas Story, and going downtown to see the store window displays and the marvels inside the stores was part of the magic. I’ve been trying for two years to find a way to write about it – maybe this year, maybe not.

    The very best came later, when I had some Christmas seasons in real cities, like NY and London. Oh, my – some of the best glitter in the world. Have you seen the Saks’ new projected outdoor displays? Here you go.


    • philosophermouseofthehedge / Dec 16 2011 2:28 pm

      I’d still like to see the Christmas markets in Germany.
      The projected displays are fascinating – modern – certainly easier to store – but a bit sterile? There’s something about Christmas senses and texture – being able to reach out an quickly touch the magic when you are a child…what’s a display without a moth-eaten camel or cracked sleek shiny ornament or that scratchy beard? (Not to mention the cinnamon / spice smells). Ah, Christmas. Thanks for sharing your experiences.



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