The Perils of Professional Christmas Caroling


Christmas caroling for pay is like working at an amusement theme park that's delivered on site and on demand. You become a piece of the vast machinery of Christmas, the entertainers and costumes and props that create the backdrop against which other people experience nostalgia and joy and, more often than not, boredom.

Your particular gear is likely to be stuck in the Victorian age, or someone's misperception of it. Odds are you're dressed for a bitter cold that exists only in your employer's imagination, which at least allows laughably wide latitude in the historical accuracy of your clothes.

You work in situations Dickens could have never imagined. No matter how absurd, you do what you're told, whether it's keeping company with taxidermied emus alongside an indoor pool, or singing the most religious of carols next to an eyeglass cleaning machine belching steam in a flea market.

Sometimes you are an annoyance, others the object of unexpected adoration. Most of the time, you are invisible. But always, you are just part of the hired help, staying out of the way until bidden. You share an unspoken camaraderie with other threads in the holiday fabric, particularly hard- working ones like waiters, who can also, not incidentally, hand you goodies. You disavow any relationship with certain others that can bring only irritation, that are dressed even more ridiculously than you, that are the occupational hazard of the party circuit, that are, and I shudder at even writing the word, clowns.

Judge not in haste; consider first this tenet of clown behavior: A clown is never off stage. He will impose his antics no matter what, even if you are not part of the audience for which he was hired, and even while on break. In his gloved hands, the Protestant work ethic becomes a tool of sadism.

Harsh words, but true, the harvest of exasperating experience. Prejudice can grow from only one bad apple, and I met mine at a private dining club. It was the beginning of an 8-hour job. We carolers were taking our places by the elevators when one of the doors opened. Out stepped a clown we recognized from the previous year, who'd sullied the lunch break by telling joke after joke that had fallen flat. He waved. We waved. He walked by, and the noise started.

Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. "He's squeaking," I said. It didn't stop. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. The source of the noise wasn't his monstrously oversized shoes. It was his hands. His very hands held the promise of a day of tiresome encounters. After the squeaking faded down the long hallway and around the corner, I hinted at the possibility of committing murder before the day was over. "I heard that!" he yelled. "I'll say it to your face!" I yelled back.

We had to sit in a room with this man to eat lunch. We didn't sing at the table. Santa didn't ho-ho-ho. But the clown was compelled to hit his knife against a water glass and announce, "A toast. To bread. Because without bread, there could be no toast." Which is exactly what he had said the year before.

We singers gulped down lunch and fled to the outdoors, where we spent the rest of the break promenading along the sidewalks of downtown Houston in fake Victorian finery and 80-degree heat, singing Broadway show tunes and fielding inquiries from horse-drawn carriage drivers about where our men had purchased their capes.

Back in the lobby, the clown had news for us. "I've brought reinforcements," he announced, as a blue-haired creature pushed a box on wheels past us. This clown was even worse. It had a voice that generally only results from sucking helium. Christmas may have been only seven days away, but it felt like forever.

Copyright 1995 by Kathy Biehl. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for electronic replication of this article only if you include the copyright notice.

Adapted from Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban     Anthropology
In Like A Lion '95, Vol. VIII, No. 1