A Visit To Macy’s Santaland

Macy's SantalandThis week, in between a visit to the Brazilian consulate to apply for tourism visas, and working on the Gadling family travel gift guide, I decided to make a trip to the North Pole. Or rather, the one on 34th Street, where the most famous department store Santa resides at Macy‘s Santaland. Visions of David Sedaris dancing in my head, I decided if we were going to do this, I might as well do it right. As I walked in the front door of the store (bustling even on a midweek afternoon), I wondered what sort of masochistic experience I was about to put myself through, especially with a person who won’t even remember it. At 17 months of age, my baby Vera is having her first American Christmas, as we spent her first holidays in Istanbul. Now as we are thinking of leaving New York again, I figured she might want to see a little of the magical holiday city that millions of children want to visit every year while it’s still just a subway ride away.

Last year, I took Vera to her first Santa at the annual International Women’s League Holiday Bazaar, held at the once-glamorous Istanbul Hilton. The annual fair is a scrum of expat families bumping elbows for overpriced but hard-to-find in a Muslim country items like Christmas crafts and Italian sausage, but if you are foreign and living in Turkey, you are pretty much obliged to go (I recommend getting some black beans from the Brazilian table, a few bottles of French wine, and hightailing it home). At five months old, she took meeting a strange bearded man like a champ, though it was before the dreaded separation anxiety kicked in, back when I could still use the bathroom by myself. The Noel Baba, aka Santa, she met at the holiday bazaar wasn’t the most authentic, but he beat the skinny Santa we saw in our neighborhood selling Lotto tickets, in a shiny suit and smoking a cigarette. In Turkey (ironically where St. Nicholas comes from), Santa is associated with New Year’s Eve and is almost as ubiquitous as in America during December, but the concept of visiting the man and asking for presents is still thought of as a bit odd.

%Gallery-173473%Fast forward to 2012, when it took me just a few days to get sick of holiday music again, the baby showed only sporadic interest in the seasonal decor rather than childish glee, and we were right in the midst of American materialism in all its festive splendor. After an intense elevator experience involving multiple store employees with walkie talkies, coordinating stroller-only and no stroller cars like parade marshals, we arrived on the eighth floor, official headquarters of Kris Kringle (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least, who knows where he sleeps). Joining the line, one elf informed us, “Only about a half hour!” and judging from the relieved reactions of other parents, I assumed this to be quite short.

This time estimate was about accurate, looking at the time stamp on my photos, but included the diversionary time inside “Santa Land” before we actually saw the big man himself. I discovered this is not just a line to see a man in a red suit, it is an experience. Standing in line was like an anthropological study of Christmas: there was the gaggle of female relatives in town for shopping and holiday sightseeing, the pair of twin baby girls dressed up and looking much more relaxed than their parents about this event, and even a dour-looking couple of German adults behind me with no children. There were local families (playing hooky from school, perhaps) who come every year, bewildered-looking foreign tourists, kids out of their mind with excitement, and babies who just drooled and snoozed. A few minutes after getting in the outer line, we “boarded” the Santaland Express, a sort of life-sized train with a big bell on front, which each child seemed delighted to ring loudly, making me wonder how often the outer line elves got headaches.

Then we were inside Santaland itself, a wonderland of lights and animatronics, which was alternating thrilling and terrifying to small children. I won’t spoil it all – it really is an experience one should do once, especially with children – but the highlights for me were a huge Christmas tree with model trains circling and a large map of Santa’s route (I like tracking him online on the NORAD website). My baby loved the dancing bears and skiing penguins, but a sense of foreboding grew over us as we inched closer to the main event. Various elves tried to prep us for seeing Santa, even shooting some practice shots along the Santaland landscape. Spoiler alert: I think there might be more than one Santa, though the process of being ushered into Santa’s lodge is well-choreographed enough so you can ignore all the identical lodges and sounds of photos being snapped. We watched a family in front of us with an 8-month-old baby – still happy to play along with his parents’ excitement to take pictures of him with a stranger – and I made a note to drag my husband along next time to help wrangle and document the process. Vera began reacting like a cartoon dog going to the vet, whimpering and pawing at me, desperate to not be put on the lap of this man. Despite the best efforts of the high-quality Santa and elf photographer, we couldn’t get a happy shot.

A few minutes and $20 later, we had our official 2012 Santaland portrait (I opted for no photo mugs this year). “Don’t you like any of them?” a concerned elf asked as I slowly looked through the contact sheet. “Oh no, they are awesome! Every child needs their first crying-with-Santa photo!” I replied. I was proud that Vera had now entered the pantheon of scared of Santa photos, a proud tradition all over the world for many generations. I’m not sure I’ll return in Christmases future if I don’t live in NYC, but I’ll proudly wear my “Santaland 2012″ pin, at least until December 24.

Macy’s Santaland Herald Square is open every day 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Christmas Eve, December 24. Download the Macy’s app to book an “express” visit to Santa.

[Photo credits: Meg Nesterov]

A Video Tour Of Chicago’s Christkindl Market And CTA’s Holiday Train

christkindlmarket chicagoThere is nothing quite like the smell of a Christmas market. Step anywhere near Chicago’s Christkindlmarket and you’ll pick up the intoxicating scents of grilled meats, roasting nuts, glühwein, sizzling potato pancakes and incense. It’s enough to get even the biggest Scrooge into the holiday spirit.

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is a mini version of the Nuremberg Christkindlmarket in Germany that is widely recognized as the biggest and best Christmas market in the world. Nuremberg’s Christmas market dates to at least 1628, or about 40 years before Potawatomi guides first took the French trader Nicolas Perrot to the site of present-day Chicago.

I’ve been going to Chicago’s Christkindlmarket since the year after it started in 1996 during my on and off stints living in the city and the place never fails to get me into the Christmas spirit. Santa is available for visits (on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Christmas Eve day), there are dozens of stalls selling everything from Christmas ornaments to cuckoo clocks, and there’s an indoor/outdoor beer garden where you can indulge in hot chocolate, glühwein served in a souvenir boot, or some Spaten lager or doppelbock.


christkindlmarket in chicagoThe core of the market is filled with German shops and German treats: pretzels, bratwurst, potato pancakes, strudel and the like, but in the periphery of the market, it’s anything goes. This year I noticed booths selling trinkets from all over the world: Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Mexico, Ukraine, Ecuador, Peru and more. There was even a stand selling “Sherpa jackets” from Nepal.

But it is still essentially a German market and most of the major sponsors are German companies. I met Nicole Lorenz, a German woman who runs the Bavarian Workshop stand and also hires local people to help run some of the German stalls in the market. She told me that most of the German vendors come from Saxony, in eastern Germany.

The market is open until Christmas Eve but it takes the vendors a couple days to take down their operations, so they all spend Christmas away from their loved ones. Lorenz rents an apartment in Chicago each year for the five weeks the market is open and hasn’t been able to spend Christmas at home in the 11 years she’s worked at the Christkindlmarket. But she wasn’t complaining – she likes the market and it’s usually well worth the effort and disruption to her life in Germany.

cta holiday train christmas train in chicagoWe timed our visit to the market this year so we could take the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) holiday train back to our home in Evanston. For the last 15 years, CTA has been running the holiday train on a rotating schedule across all the different lines in the month prior to Christmas day. (See the schedule here.) The train exterior is decorated with multicolored lights and there’s a ginormous Santa Claus in a flatbed sleigh filled with presents right in the middle part of the train.

We stepped into the car and were greeted by CTA elves offering candy canes and Christmas music. The car interiors are filled with Christmas decorations and even the seats themselves are upholstered with images of Santa lugging presents and other holiday scenes. In typical CTA fashion, our train arrived late and within a few stops was jam-packed, as it always is near the five o’clock bewitching hour. But the festive vibe kept all the commuters in relatively good spirits, even if many of them barely averted their eyes from their phones and other mobile devices.


cta chicago holiday trainThings got a little hairy though when we got off at the Howard stop. The platform is quite narrow right by where Santa’s sleigh was parked and hordes of us were all trying to snap his photo before the train pulled away. As people jockeyed for space, I decided that being tossed onto the platform wouldn’t be the most festive way to end an otherwise great day so I backed off.

The holiday trains generally run from 1-8 on weekends and 3-7 weeknights. I highly recommend you avoid rush hour, because it’s easier to stay in the holiday spirit when you have some breathing room.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara, Christkindlmarket]

Photo Of The Day: Cancun Landscape

photo of the day - Cancun landscape
There are certain images we see in our social network feeds over and over, especially at certain times of year: the Thanksgiving turkey, the decorated Christmas tree, and the vacation favorite: the bare feet on a beach chair (recently called “the loneliest pic in the world” on TV’s “Up All Night”), alcoholic beverage in hand. Today’s Photo of the Day is thankfully foot-free, though the image is still plenty jealousy-inducing. Flickr user Nan Palmero framed the shot beautifully under a thatched umbrella, giving the landscape sky an almost surreal quality, and the distance of the water and few people make Cancun seem practically serene. I’d definitely “like” this picture.

We’d love to see your travel images in the Gadling Flickr pool to choose for a future Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Nan Palmero]

My Own Personal Krampus

I have a photo, printed from film, old school … my husband and I are standing in a snowstorm in the Austrian alps. The flash from the camera reflects off giant fluffy flakes. The sky behind us is black – it’s early evening, but an alpine evening, so it is dark. We are wearing big coats and big hats and big snow boots. We are surrounded by a group of Krampus, the alpine monster of the season, big shaggy horned devils who strike fear into the hearts of small children, who chase taunting teenagers down the streets of snow-globe villages, who torment tourists and locals alike.

Only we don’t look the least bit rattled. We are smiling big holiday smiles. It looks like a family portrait with our pets.

The Krampusspiel – or, as I like to call it, The Running of the Krampus – takes place every year on December 6. It’s part of a series of deep winter alpine traditions around Christmas and the solstice that acknowledge the change of the season. Three Kings come to your house and chalk your doorways, and there are little sprites that rattle around in your fireplace until you give them candy to go away, and there are runners in all white who carry beautiful lanterns and ring bells to scare away the bad spirits of the previous year.

But the Krampus has taken the spotlight. His shaggy coat, his massive size, his devil’s face, and his swinging broomstick, have captured the collective imagination, perhaps targeting the same people that like slasher movies. Krampus parades take over the streets of popular ski villages in Austria (and some parts of Bavaria) in a pageant of Alien meets Satan. Removed from the context of all those winter traditions, the Krampus is now the star in a winter nightmare of swinging chains, of orcs set free from Middle Earth, of underworld creatures released from the pits of hell.Every year we read at least one story of a tourist absolutely terrorized by an out of control Krampus at a Krampusspiel. And every year we have to wade through a swamp of nostalgia and annoyance. These are not our Krampus’, they are not the Krampus my Austrian husband grew up with, they are not the Krampus he dressed up as when he was in his twenties. They are not the Krampus in our family portrait.

I was utterly enchanted with the Krampus the first time I saw him. He was in the hallway of our apartment building. I heard him before I saw him; he wore giant cowbells and rattled through the streets in the dark. I opened the door and he was standing there, filling the stairwell, while the neighbor’s kids stood silent, wide eyed in wonder. They looked tiny, awestruck, but not afraid. I’m quite sure if they’d looked up, past the shaggy monster’s waist, they’d have seen their expressions reflected on my own wondering face.

While locals line the sidewalks and await his (pre-scheduled) arrival at their homes, the Krampus runs through town, shaking his bells, swinging his broomstick, and admonishing the little ones about their behavior throughout the year. He’s got friends with him who carry baskets of treats for kids – peanuts and tangerines and maybe little chocolates. Sometimes, St. Nikolaus is there too, giving stern but affectionate lectures, asking the children to recite rhymes about Christmas.

The story of the Krampus is scary. He will beat you with his broomstick, stuff you in his sack, drag you back to his lair if you’ve been bad. He’s a terror. There’s no denying it. But our Krampus, the one that runs the streets of my husband’s tiny village, he’s more “Where the Wild Things Are” than hatched from James Cameron’s green glowing alien planet. His face is a carved wooden mask, not shiny resin and plastic. He carries a bundle of twigs bound into an old fashioned broom, not a length of chain or a whip. He will raise his hands over head and roar at the cocky teenager who taunts him with the traditional Krampus rhyme, but he will not chase a tourist four blocks in an act of aggression. He is campfire ghost-story scary, not “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” scary.

It is strange that I have affection for this alpine myth, for this black devil from places unknown, but each winter I find myself an unlikely defender of the Krampus. People send me videos of vicious looking beasts running rampant through snow covered hamlets and I think, “No, no, no. You don’t understand, this is not what the Krampus is.” My memory will not be ruined by this. I hold the picture in my hand and think, “Ah, there you are! This is the Krampus I know, the one my husband grew up with!” I stand in the snow surrounded by creatures imagined. There are big snowflakes and the sound of bells and eyes big with wonder and I am not even a little bit afraid.

[Photo credit: Pam Mandel]

Antarctica’s Tallest Peak Captured, North Pole Not So Much

Antarctica

Antarctica is our planet’s southernmost continent and home to the South Pole, permanent manned research stations, penguins and an occasional adventure cruise ship expedition. This time of year, a lot of attention traditionally goes to Earth’s North Pole, home of Santa and the gang. But NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory recently passed over Antarctica’s tallest peak, Mount Vinson, as we see in this photo.

On October 22, 2012, during a flight over the continent to measure changes in the massive ice sheet and sea ice, NASA captured this image as part of its ongoing program.NASA’s Airborne Science Program at the University of North Dakota manages operations of NASA’s DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory aircraft, which collects data for the world’s scientific community. The DC-8 flies three primary missions: sensor development, satellite sensor verification and basic research studies of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

Operation IceBridge is a multi-year airborne campaign to watch changes in the Earth’s polar ice caps in both the Antarctic and Arctic. Mount Vinson is located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica.

The North and South poles are the two points where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects with its surface. While the South pole actually exists in a physical place on Antarctica, the North Pole is really in the middle of the Arctic Ocean in waters covered with sea ice almost year-round … except for around Christmas time when Santa, Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and elves are busy with the holidays.

NASA has tried repeatedly to photograph Santa’s home but cannot come up with more than an image of ice and snow.

“NASA’s Terra satellite was able to piece together a number of images it took to give us a complete look at the North Pole, which is usually very difficult to see by satellites, so Santa can keep his exact location secret,” says NASA captioning this Flickr photo.

[Photo Credit: NASA]