I feel deeply ambivalent about Christmas. Growing up I hated the holiday for all the typical reasons that teenagers hate things. I didn’t believe in consumerism, red was never my colour, and the season’s prescribed feelings of merriment only amplified the fact that my hormones had left me angry at pretty much everything. As I got older the holidays meant seasonal rushes. The service industry is always a slog, but December was its own special kind of hell. My co-workers and I hustled 12-hour days to keep up with the hordes of new reservations. The soundtrack for our perpetual service was a looping Christmas mix just 34 minutes long. One year after hearing the Chipmunks’ sing "Christmas Don’t Be Late" for the sixteenth time I threatened to choke out a bus boy with decorative tinsel.
Later winter was marked by complicated family situations, sick relatives, and arguments with partners. I’d stretch money for gifts/bus tickets back home. It made me resentful. But for the past few years, for many different reasons, I’ve been trying to approach the holidays with a better outlook.
A lot of angry young men define themselves by opposition. It’s all bullshit. Christmas is a capitalist nightmare: a tale told by a singing bass in a Santa hat signifying nothing. But even if that’s true—and it is, kinda—that isn’t the whole picture. The holidays also give way to beautiful quiet moments. Late night chats while doing the dishes or the look on someone’s face when you’ve really nailed a gift. Which means that, in part, how you feel about the season is a matter of perspective.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Toronto’s Distillery Christmas Market. Each year the cobblestone streets of the historic neighbourhood are animated with decorations, evergreen trees, and rows of faux-log cabins. It has a Dickensian vibe, if very bougie. The Market is a place where you might find a unique gift, say...hand-knit shin warmers for your little cousin. It’s also a place where a shop can charge sixteen dollars for a chocolate bar and sellout before noon. From mid November to Christmas Eve the market attracts thousands of visitors, each hoping to partake in the seasonal magic by wondering the snow kissed streets and massively overpaying for watery mulled wine.
Last Sunday I decided to spend open to close at the Distillery. This my winter season has been marked by personal and professional hardships. While I’ve tried to remember to be grateful for the small things—it’s the only time of year anyone will play The Pogues on the radio—it’s still been a lot. As an experiment I wanted to see if immersing in a Christmas space could push me out of the funk, like how a doctor might try and cure arachnophobia by exposing people to spiders, or how if you fake laugh for long enough you end up laughing for real. I spent 11 hours total at the market, counting minutes with coffee spoons and watching the flow of festive traffic like the refreshing of a timeline. Below are my notes.
9:57 AM: I arrived at the Distillery just before opening. A small line up had already convened at the gates. The queue was mainly families. Kids stood with their parents, puffy snow coats worn over top of their best outfits. Most alternated between excitedly gushing about meeting Santa and picking at the stiffness of their collars or tights. There was one boy, he must have been three or four, sitting on top of his dad’s shoulders. Every 15 seconds or so he would let out a scream. “AHHH!” he hollered. “AHHH!”
I couldn’t tell if the boy was happy or upset. I think staring down the laneway of the market was just too much for him. There were cotton candy lamp posts and a ferris wheel in the distance. The air smelled like baked goods and cinnamon. Staff dressed as elves waved to the onlookers. As I made my way inside and away from the crowd, desperate to find some caffeine, the families walked towards a lavish North Pole. “AHHH!” screamed the little boy.
11:46 AM: At the heart of the Christmas Market is a massive tree. The thing is at least 20 feet tall, decorated with white lights and tasteful red bulbs. Hauled up in a coffee shop I watched as people stood before the evergreen. While a lot of visitors utilize the market as an Instagram photo shoot—the Distillery literally has its hashtag plastered on the walls—that morning they seemed contented to bask in the glow of the season. Couples strolled around holding hands. They chatted with the shopkeepers and cuddled up beside the tree to listen to carols. It was remarkably understated for what is ostensibly a themed shopping mall. Sipping at my drink I felt warm and thankful to be among everyone. I didn’t know what I had expected going in, but with the scene in front of me it was easy to appreciate the simple ways people care for one another.
12:06 PM: Just after lunch somebody hit me with a selfie stick. It was a hard whack to the side of my head. The perpetrator half heartedly apologized, they hadn’t struck me intentionally, but still stared at me like I was an idiot for standing in place too long. In less than a half an hour the quiet serenity of the morning had given way to a steady onslaught of bodies, all vying for the right photo angles or must-have gift. People barrelled into one another and the mood at the market centre felt frantic. I put up my elbow and pushed towards one of the sidestreets.
1:48 PM: Throughout the Distillery there are light displays spelling out giant words. HOPE. FAMILY. JOY. As best I can understand they’re a gentle reminder for the vibe we are supposed to be taking in. If I had created my own light displays they might have read: ANXIETY. FRUSTRATION. REGRET.
Four hours into the Christmas market I was feeling overwhelmed. Doing laps through the laneways meant navigating people’s personal space, dodging elbows and bags while trying to purchase a snack or get a glimpse at somebody’s dog in a little sweater. The market’s familiar tone made me feel silly for attending alone. I threw in my headphones and put on a podcast to keep me company. Maybe that peaceful morning moment was the best I was going to get. Turning a corner I walked past a candy striped pole. On top was an arrow with the word LOST. A meeting point for little kids who had wandered off. I considered taking a picture but it seemed too on the nose.
2:30 PM: Every half an hour or so the Market had entertainment. There were a couple of groups doing children’s skits—Can you been a good little elf this holiday? Do you deserve those presents? Why not prove it with a seasonal conga line!—but mostly it was music. The best of the musicians were a group of ladies doing barbershop. The four harmonized holiday favourites while making light, self deprecating, jokes between tracks. About midway through the banter took a turn for the weird. “Last week we had a little mosh pit up front!” said the leader, a 60-ish-year-old lady dressed as Mrs. Claus. “Right up in the front! It was a little mosh pit!”
I did a double take and wondered if I heard things right. I was tired...but did the all-female barbershop quartet really just ask a group of pre-teens to open up the pit? Is that something that actually happened? As I pondered the moment they started into the next number, an abridged version of " Let It Snow." Afterward the leader reiterated her offer. “You could come up for a little mosh pit!” she said. I wondered if she knew what the words meant. I wondered if maybe I was losing my mind.
4:15 PM: At a quarter past four my friends Ted and Storm met me at one of the market’s many bars. They had meant to be there earlier but getting through the crowd had taken longer than expected. This was the couple’s second trip to the Distillery that week. Storm loves Christmas, it’s something she picked up from her mom in England. Ted loves Christmas because he’s deeply in love with Storm.
The two calmed me down and cracked wise about how I had set myself up for failure. Did I expect to enjoy things by slithering around with headphones in? Was my heart going to grow three sizes by hanging out at a Christmas market alone? I bought a round of spiked cider. Chats with friends and alcohol helped. The three of us finished, then downed a another round quickly. After we agreed to do some people watching. Before we ventured out Storm excused herself to the bathroom. She didn’t return for a half an hour. When she got back we asked what happened.
“The first bathroom was covered in blood, so I had to wait for the second,” she said. We stared blankly and ask if she knew what happened. “Dunno. Wasn’t my blood.”
6:30 PM: The highlight of the day was the off-brand Grinch. Booming with the voice of a stage actor he plowed through the street. “Isn’t Christmas awful!” he laughed, shaking his belly. “You better not try and enjoy yourself! I haven’t had a good time in years.”
The Grinch mugged for a photo then moved on to the next group. Ted and Storm snapped photos then pointed in my direction. “This is all a load of hogwash!” said The Grinch. The crowd around him laughed and clapped their hands.
8:35 PM: By the end of the market I was on my own again. My friends had left after an hour and a half, which in retrospect is the most amount of time any reasonable person should spend at a holiday market. The streets had cleared out and it had started to rain. Left on the cobblestone streets it was just me and a few die hards, hiding under umbrellas and trying their best to enjoy themselves. The weather wasn’t what they had planned for, but they were going to try and make the most of of it anyways.
Playing on my phone and biding my time until close I wasn’t sure if there was anything I’d learned. It was a bunch of disjointed scenes, some fun/some awful. I tried to figure out how I felt. Focusing only on the good stuff would be disingenuous. Making fun of it would make me an asshole. A lot like before, I guess. Sort of how it always comes across this time of year. Doing one last lap of the Distillery I caught eyes with a girl selling hot toddies.
“Hey! Do you want one of these? It’s the last of my mix!” she said. “It’ll put you in the holiday spirit for the road.”
“That’s really kind of you I’d love a—”
“Nine bucks, tip in. Card only,” she said. I paid for the drink and held it my hands for warmth.
Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. @presgang
Photography by Ted Lamb. @tedlambphoto