“What are those?”
All four of them looked at the ceiling, festooned from wall to wall with decorations: presents on strings, a collection of DVD cases for holiday favorites, a ventilation pipe wrapped in string lights. Among the hanging décor, just to their left, were a pool of ornaments –– each consisting of a Santa hat, above a pair of Santa pants.
“It’s like a holly jolly dry cleaner,” Dania quipped.
“They really went all-out, didn’t they?” Gwen mused, aloud. Glancing around the bar, she couldn’t see even one hint towards the original Country Club. The bar, a 2014 addition to Wrigleyville’s dense assortment of late-night haunts, had been fully converted into the holiday pop-up they now sat in –– rechristened annually as Christmas Club.
“How long do you think this took to overhaul?” asked Eleanor. “A full day? A week?”
“A day or two,” answered Gwen.
“I’m sure they hired a few of Santa’s elves to assist,” said Kelsey, “in exchange for a few mugs of Cousin Eddie’s Egg Nog. It feels like the idea of Christmas just exploded everywhere in a curated, Pintrest-inspired fashion. It’s extra AF, but not necessarily artistic. It feels like the designer distilled Christmas to its most basic symbols and repeated the pattern to zhuzh the place up a bit. It’s basic, but I’m fascinated by the appeal. Like, why are holiday pop ups so special? The novelty?”
“It’s like, I didn’t grow up with that grimy plastic Santa,” Dania agreed, pointing towards the wall-mounted quintet of illuminated yard decorations. “But I guess the bar is counting on me to associate that with…something from childhood?”
“Some sort of nostalgia,” Kelsey pressed on. “That’s the strange way that nostalgia has been commodified. We’re living in an era drenched in nostalgia. Look at all the retro fashion and TV shows coming back. But there’s something about the holidays specifically that rely on nostalgia; a recapturing of that child like magic and wonder. The idea of traditions as this constant, immovable thing in our chaotic lives.”
“It’s interesting when that’s recreated in general,” Gwen mused, “let alone when it costs money to participate in it.”
“I can’t shake the connection with the idea of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ and how capitalism shapes Christmas,” Kelsey continued. “The holiday itself is centered around gifts and decorations and food, all of which require money. My mind also associates it with comparison: who has the taller tree? The most lights? The best, most beautiful dinner? All of which seem pretty outdated to me, but the drama still exists for a lot of families.”
“Christmas certainly exacerbates class distinctions,” agreed Gwen. “For families struggling to make ends meet, it makes their financial status visible.”
Kelsey nodded. “Beyond the biblical roots, isn’t the “true spirit” of Christmas about gratitude and appreciation and family and love? Is there a right way to do it? I feel like a bar in Wrigleyville isn’t necessarily that…”
As Eleanor considered this, she glanced towards the television. Six screens were mounted on the walls of the bar –– two featured basketball, two Wheel of Fortune. The other pair were screening Christmas With The Cranks, the 2004 film about a couple who are chastised, and eventually peer-pressured, into celebrating the holiday as maximalistically as possible by their bitter neighbors.
“There’s no other holiday that’s become such an all-encompassing force for a month,” Kelsey grumbled. “It becomes an excuse for everything. Maybe that’s being a Scrooge, but honestly: how many folks use the time between Thanksgiving ‘til after New Years to over-eat and drink? Even I’ve used the ‘But it’s the holidays’ excuse to eat a billion cookies and drink wine, but it’s not, like, healthy?”
“It’s not even a good excuse,” Eleanor said.
“To be honest, the idea of being with my family for a whole day stressed me out. So I drank about it and put sugar on my tongue. I’ve also used the holidays as an excuse to overspend on myself and others, which is nice, but super irresponsible and ultimately, not good for any of us.”
“One Nutcracker and one Santa Claws?” said the server, placing the two drinks in the center of the table. As she walked away, Dania took note of her holiday outfit: striped elf pants, a Santa hat, and a shirt with the Christmas Club logo.
“To me, December 25th is just another day,” Kelsey sighed, taking the drink in hand. “My family’s never been close and whenever we got together, it felt like an obligation. Folks are more honest about that now, and desire to have more personal, stressless holidays, so celebrations are lower key. I’ll probably just hang out with my Mom and our dogs on Christmas. We’ll exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, day-drink, eat some good food and stay in our pajamas. Which is dope to me. I mean, nothing against the pomp and circumstance. I just question and remain leery of the intention behind it and anything we do, truly.”
“Thoughts on the drinks?” asked Dania, as Gwen took a sip of the Nutcracker. “It looks a lot like a Chocolate Martini.”
“That’s because it is,” Gwen added, dryly. “It’s okay. I wish it were a bit more exciting.”
“What do you mean ‘exciting?’” Dania asked.
“Beyond Christmas being a time for sweets, which might justify the chocolate,” Gwen explained, “what is it about a chocolate peanut butter cocktail that ties it to the holiday?”
“Maybe the opportunity for a Christmas-y name?” suggested Kelsey. “It is a bit plain, Gwen. But I do like the effort of the peanut rim and the chocolate sauce scribble at the bottom.”
“There’s an attempt there, at least,” Eleanor said. She pushed away her drink, having taken only one sip from the souvenir mug –– designed to look like a glass in Santa’s mitten. “This is essentially just White Claw. Sip for yourself.”
Kelsey did so.
“Ooof,” they said. “Alright. Well.” And took another sip. “White Claw with an afterthought of apple and a dusting of cinnamon. Usually cocktails have to have three ingredients to be a cocktail and not just a mixed drink. Here, the third ingredient is the souvenir mug.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what I expected,” Gwen mused. “It’s a holiday pop-up. It’s not like we’re here for the cocktails.”
“Aren’t we?” Dania held up the menu, showcasing drinks with titles like Jingle Juice and Sleigh All Day. “I feel like the bar element of the pop-up is central to the whole thing.”
“Only because it has to be,” Gwen countered. “There’s this accepted and necessary lie that we tell regarding pop-up bars. The supposition on the part of the pop-up curators is that the appeal lies in the theming –– whether it’s about Christmas or The Office, or what have you. The appeal for the consumer is obviously the same. And yet, the fact that it’s in a bar is critical to the legitimacy of the pop-up. Social codes have normalized bar attendance as a late-night activity, so adding the theming to that grants it legitimacy.”
“What about pop-up ‘experiences?’” asked Eleanor. “You know, the sort of place that exclusively exists so you can take photos for the ‘Gram? How is this different?”
“Without the alcohol, it wouldn’t be,” Gwen answered. “That’s my point.”
“Have you been to the wndr museum?” asked Kelsey.
The others shook their heads no.
“It’s a cool place, but it doesn’t stand on its own,” Kelsey explained. “It’s called a ‘museum’ because there are questions and basic scientific concepts each room asks you to explore and consider while experiencing the exhibit. But there were definitely more folks taking pictures and posing in cute outfits than pondering the concepts at hand.”
Kelsey smiled, self-critically. “I say this because I’m one of them,” they continued. “There’s something cool about the permission to be an artist. These spaces lend themselves to aesthetic, but there’s a cool capital that’s created in the commodification of these experiences. The currency are likes and hearts. It validates our experiences of life and our aesthetic eye and our expression of who we think we are, and our projection of who we want to be.”
As they spoke, their waitress returned, depositing a pair of shots –– served, quizzically, in rocks glasses –– to the table. Dania picked up the white drink, titled Baby It’s Cold Outside, inspecting it.
“If a place can offer a unique experience and an inherent promise of temporary popularity, it’ll attract more customers. Which can also mean a creative challenge for the experience’s designers- how can we curate the space to lend itself to the ‘Gram? How can we do that and be cool? In this pursuit, the experience itself lies quite empty.”
“I think there’s potential for creativity and a creative rush, depending on your original intentions,” Gwen considered. “But I’m not sure how many folks would look into their own reasons that thoroughly.”
“This place, though.” Kelsey swept a hand, motioning to the bar in full. “It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s happening. Is this how adults do Christmas?”
“It’s how we’re doing it now,” Dania replied, before slamming the shot back. She winced, before a smile rose back onto her face.
“Oooo. I love how cold this one is,” she chimed. “It tastes like undergrad. Christmas is such a sensory holiday, and my favorite flavor is peppermint. Even though it’s cold outside, this works.”
“Santa’s Little Helper is what Santa Claws wanted to be,” Kelsey said, referring to the other shot, a mixture of liquor and apple juice. “It’s probably the bourbon; infusing always carries the flavor forward. I like dis one. I don’t know why they’re in rocks glasses, though.”
“You’re not supposed to think too hard about it,” said Gwen. “You’re supposed to do what Dania just did: drink it back fast, without second thoughts. The moment you think critically about it, it all breaks down.”
“Sort of like Santa, in a way,” Eleanor realized. “And most of the holiday magic. When you look too hard at it, try to apply too much logic to why these innocuous seasonal signifiers provide any comfort, you realize that they no longer do.”
“Santa has always been a proxy for maturation into adulthood,” Kelsey added. “The realization about him occurs at a point when you are mature enough in your critical thinking to ask those questions. Perhaps the proliferation of holiday pop-ups are an attempt to beat back that tide –– to avoid thinking critically about the emptiness behind the artifice of holiday celebrations.”
“It’s easier to do when you’re drunk,” Dania shrugged.
Kelsey laughed. “Not untrue,” they said.
“Well, empty for not, should we get some photos in front of the ornament wall?” asked Eleanor.
“Oh, for sure,” Dania said.
“Gotta have content for the ‘Gram,” agreed Kelsey.
Kelsey McGrath (they/them) is an actor, writer, and producer in Chicago. They’ve worn many hats in the community because they all fit so nicely and look so gosh darn dashing! Kelsey was very excited to review with the Hanslicks and to talk about theatricality in non traditional spaces. Theatre is everywhere!
Image Source: Chicago Magazine