Chicago, November 2003
f Santa Claus had flown over the city of Chicago with a Christmas-spirit detection device, the needle would have gone wild as he passed over the block-wide structure that housed Rossman's Department Store on Michigan Avenue. Although November had just blown in with a snappy, windy cold front, Rossman's was fully decorated for the holiday season, outdoor speakers trumpeting a joyous melody in three-part harmony, complete with liquid violins, dancing woodwinds, and bright brass ensemble. A giant red ribbon wrapped the building like a gift package. The overhang of every revolving glass door was topped with a pyramid of holiday trees decked with thick gold ribbons and white lights that glimmered in the wind.
Inside the store, the ribbons from the same gold stock streamed down from garlands of fat, shiny balls in red and gold and green and purple looped around every pillar, linked along every yard of molding and trim. Every floor display was topped by these same ornaments flowing from sleigh-shaped crystal bowls, the red ball at the top capped by a Santa hat.
Nowhere was the spirit more evident than on the ninth floor, the traditional “Santaland” where staffers were putting finishing touches on the multichambered gingerbread house that would allow various Santas, Anglo and African American, Asian and Spanish-speaking, to privately greet their young guests and carry on the long-standing tradition of asking if they'd been naughty or nice, whether they hoped to see a truck or a doll or an electronic robot this Christmas.
“Fabulous, ladies and gents,” one designer announced, inspecting the giant sleigh full of toys at the exit of Santa's gingerbread house. “It's really coming together!”
“I hope the rug rats appreciate all this,” one store clerk said as he glued a giant Styrofoam peppermint over the window of Santa's house.
His boss took the hot glue gun from his hand and fixed the drooping jaw of a wooden soldier. “You'd better just hope the Rossmans approve,” she said. “They're the ones who control Christmas, at least, around here.”
Four stories below, Evelyn Rossman stood up from the conference table, smoothed the skirt of her navy Pendleton wool suit, and summoned the others: her husband, brother-in-law Lenny, nephew Daniel, and daughter Meredith. “Let's go up and check on their progress,” Ev said, eager for Christmas to begin.
“I don't think they're ready for us on nine, but we can sneak a peek,” Karl Rossman said, leading the family down the narrow office corridor of the building the Rossmans had owned for more years than most Chicago residents could remember. The business that started fifty years ago with his mother's knack for fashioning textiles and ribbons into curtains and fine home furnishings had flourished into a full-scale retail business with stores throughout the Chicago and Detroit areas when Evelyn and Karl had married more than three decades ago. Back then, they were the toast of Chicago, Ev and Karl, a celebrated couple, though most of society hadn't suspected the genius that lived beneath his wife's confident smile. With Lenny's help, he and Ev had expanded the business through the rest of the countryâtwo dozen stores throughout the United States, a new one opening next week on the East Coast. He extended an arm over her back and gently ushered her into the elevator. Thank God for Ev, his light, his rock.
She gave her husband a cynical look, then reached down for a handful of tush. No one else noticed, including Meredith, who watched the numbers on the elevator screen blink as if she were monitoring a life-support system. If only their daughter could loosen up, lose some of the sternness and the fierce competitiveness she felt with her cousin. Though Ev had to admit it was never easy being a Rossman. Ev had married into the dynasty with some concern, though she herself had been raised in a moneyed familyâ“A pickle fortune,” as her grandfather used to sayâand she'd quickly allied herself with the Rossman family values and work ethicâan ethic her daughter Meredith embraced with ease. Ev wished she could say the same of her nephew Daniel.
“Another big-budget Christmas,” he groused. “What's the damage this year?”
“Not so bad,” Lenny said, rubbing the furrowed lines in his bare forehead. “We combined some of our inventory decorations, right?”
Meredith checked her clipboard. “Right. The designers are well under budget this year.”
The elevator doors groaned shut, and Daniel let out an exasperated sigh. “We ought to fix this thing.”
“Why fix what isn't broken? It's perfectly safe, inspected every month,” his father, Leonard Rossman, replied.
“I'm talking upgrade. The flooring. The walls. Why don't we have paneling in our elevators?”
“Because we don't waste money on extravagances like fancy freight elevators, thank you very much,” Lenny chastised him. “We put our money into the merchandise we sell. Pass it on to the customers. Pass it on.”
Daniel slunk back against the rail. “Pass is right. So if we want to cut costs, why don't we take a pass on Christmas?”
“Please, Daniel . . .” Karl waved him down. “You're not scoring any points with that attitude.”
Daniel turned to his cousin and mumbled so that only she could hear him, “I'll take a zero.”
“Okay.” Meredith jotted a fat zero on her clipboard and grinned back at Daniel defiantly. The family inspection of the store's Christmas village was an annual ritual savored by her parents, disparaged by Daniel, and dreaded by Meredith ever since Daniel had been old enough to trade braid pulling and wet willies for cynical put-downs.
Most of the ninth floor had been off-limits to the public for the past week as store employees and window dressers scurried to stage the store's Santaland, a Rossman's tradition for fifty years. Only the cafÃ© at the back of nine had remained open, cordoned off so that shoppers couldn't see the Christmas kingdom until its unveiling on November 15.
The elevator doors opened on nine, and there was a flurry of activity as the family stepped out. Someone called “They're here!” and two elderly women paused on their way from the public elevators to the cafÃ©.
“Look, Doreen, it's Evelyn and Karl.”
“Evelyn and Karl, how's everything?” one woman asked as her bag dropped from her shoulder to her elbow.
“Everything is fabulous, thank you, Doreen,” Karl said, stepping forward to graciously squeeze her hands.
Her friend nudged her. “He called you Doreen. What a charmer.”
“Ladies, have you started your Christmas shopping yet?” Ev asked the women. She and her husband never missed a chance to socialize with store customers.
“Please,” Doreen rolled her eyes, “let me tell you my dilemma. My husband needs dress shirts but he refuses to go up a size, though he needs it in the neck. A very thick neck he has these days, but will he admit it?”
“Thick neck, thick head,” the other woman said.
“I'm going to buy bigger and have different-size labels sewn in. What else can I do?”
Her friend shrugged. “What can she do?”
“That's clever of you,” Ev told the woman, then she went on to joke about selling label kits with various sizes just for that purpose.
“Okay, then, we're off for a nice cup of coffee,” the friend said. “Be well.”
Doreen waved, her charm bracelet jangling. “And merry Christmas.”
“That's not PC, Doreen. You're supposed to say âhappy holidays.'”
“They're the Rossmans; they love Christmas.”
“Not all of us,” Daniel muttered, but no one acknowledged him as the family ducked behind a temporary wall and stepped into the transformed snowy landscape of Santaland.
“A little excessive, isn't it?” Daniel screwed his mouth into an unattractive twist. “All the white, twinkly lights? What's this costing us in electricity? Anyone seen last year's bill?”
“Don't be foolish, Daniel,” Karl said gently. “As I always say, it's only money; we'll make more. Besides, you can't cut corners on Christmas.”
“I don't know why not,” Daniel said, looking away from his uncle. “Macy's got rid of their Santaland. The buzz is that the May Company stores are going to ax them, too. I'm telling you, more and more, the heartland is scaling down.”
“You think we should scale down Christmas?” Evelyn asked him.
“I'm just thinking about the customer here. If you listen to what people are saying, they're not so into it anymore. Always complaining how hectic the holidays are. Pressurized. Commercial. Too much food and drink and traffic, long lines at stores, long shopping lists to knock off.”
“He's right, he's right. I hear the complaints,” Lenny agreed.
“Christmas is our busiest season,” Meredith Rossman said, her eyes sharp beneath the lenses of her eyeglasses. “Not to reduce it all to money, but our highest sales months are November and December.”
“Yes, yes.” Lenny was nodding profusely. “So what's your point, Daniel?”
“Just that we used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start the Christmas promotions, and it probably saved us in marketing expenses. If people are going to come out for Christmas shopping anyway, why throw money into advertising and marketing?”
“You can never have enough of Christmas,” Evelyn Rossman said, her face beaming with pride as she scanned the winter wonderland of snowy white twigs sparkling with silver glitter, crystal pinecones, and white pindots of light. Every beam was hidden, every light filtered by swirls of glittering stars. “First impression is good.”
“Very good.” Her husband slipped his hands in his pants pockets as he stepped through a trellis made of giant candy canes. “It's like an enchanted lane.”
“An enchanted lane . . .” Evelyn nudged Meredith, who trailed with clipboard in hand. “Make a note of that. Great copy for our sales flyers.”
Meredith took note as the candy canes gave way to giant sugary gumdrops, then gingerbread figures who raced and tumbled and cajoled as they made their way toward the sparkling gingerbread house of Santaland, where staff were still gluing on giant gumdrops and chocolate chips and peppermints.
“Oh, you're here!” Rahiella, the designer in charge of window displays, clasped her hands together dramatically. “We weren't expecting you tillâ”
“Not to worry,” Evelyn interrupted. “We like what we see.”
“You do? You do? Oh, I'm so relieved! Did you see the little cutout chairs for Santa's guests? The craft station where bored little children can decorate a gingerbread cookie or assemble a snowman?”
The Rossmans followed Rahiella through the facility as she explained how the line of children would flow through the snowscape, how the wait would be minimized, how Santa's elves would keep anxious children and their parents amused and distracted. “We're in the process of auditioning elves, and we're calling back the Santas we were so happy with last year. Personnel is on it. Which reminds me, though. While we were trying to salvage items in our inventory of decorations, we came across something that may have special value to you.” She summoned an assistant, who brought over a silver gift box embossed with a swirled
ânot the collapsible type used by stores like Rossman's, but an old-fashioned box constructed of thick cardboard with a lid that whispered gently over the top third of the box. Rahiella presented the box with a flourish, and the Rossmans gathered close as Evelyn lifted the lid.
Evelyn's dark eyes went wide with wonder at the sight of the crimson velvet trimmed with white fur. “Oh, dear . . . the Mrs. Claus suit. Where did you find it? I thought it had been given away years ago.” Her hands glowed pink from the warm hue of the material as she lifted a sleeve from the box.
“Mama made it the first year that Rossman's went national,” Lenny recalled. “A very lean year, so she thought we'd better scrape together some extra Christmas spirit from the fabric left over from the Santa suits.”
Karl wagged a finger at Meredith and Daniel. “Back then, your grandmother sewed all the costumes herself.”
“Note how the stitching is so fineânearly invisible.” Rahiella turned over the fur-trimmed lapel of the jacket to reveal the smooth seam. “And this beadwork on the jacket. See how the tiny red beads form a very subtle fleur-de-lis pattern? So subdued, yet it gives a glimmering aura to the entire costume.”
“Mama had magical hands.” With great care Evelyn lifted the jacket and held it up to her chin, and everyone seemed to gently breathe in its sumptuous crimson beauty. The texture and velvety folds of the coat brought back fond memories for Ev; she had enjoyed playing Mother Christmas, reassuring nervous children and frazzled parents. She had always considered herself an ambassador of goodwill, and somehow in the Mrs. Claus suit, she felt empowered to spread Christmas spirit without shame of appearing sentimental.
“You were a lovely Mrs. Claus,” Karl told his wife. “How many years did you do it? Six? Seven?”
“Until Meredith was born,” Ev said.
“She was in all the papers, written up every year, the only Mrs. Claus in town,” Lenny said, his fingers splayed for dramatic effect. “Let me tell you, it didn't hurt Rossman's great reputation as a Christmas store. When people shopped Christmas, Rossman's was the place they wanted to be.”
“And still is.” Evelyn neatly folded the red velvet jacket and let her fingers smooth over the lapel. “You know, it wouldn't be a bad idea to reinvent Mrs. Claus this year.”
Rahiella's jaw dropped with a gasp. “Exactly what I was thinking! And wouldn't it be charming if she were played by a Rossman?”