Observations from a Macy’s Christmas Virgin

With two days of shopping season left, there's plenty of holiday cheer at Philly's historic department store

Every Christmas, they come here, to Macy’s. For the past 25 years. A mother and her son and daughter from Stratford, NJ — the kids are pushing 30 — to check out Dickens Village. They want to see what’s different from last year, whether Ebenezer Scrooge’s expression has been tweaked or whether young Bob Cratchit is still reading Arabian Nights. (Yes.) Every Christmas for 25 years. Then they go home and watch the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. Then they decorate their tree.

Me, I was just taking a right turn off arctic Market Street, getting out of the cold. Straight into this once-upon-a-time railroad station, where I discover the Village and a light show and an organ, “the world’s largest operational pipe organ.” Who knew? Not me. I’ve been in Philly for 20 years. I’ve never set foot in Macy’s. Why would I? It’s shopping.

And it’s pretty quiet, on a Wednesday at 6:15, three days before Christmas. Though there’s a greater mix of folks, black and white and Asian, than I would have expected.

I stop Bridget, a saleswoman in ladies apparel, to get the lay of the land. Bridget’s a senior at Temple, in advertising. She’s ready to move on, she tells me, from college. “I don’t like campus,” she confides. “It’s not that safe.” She lives in South Philly now. Bridget’s been hired for the holidays, and is hoping to be taken on as a full-time part-timer. We agree that business is kinda slow. “It was busier yesterday,” she says.

Myesha, another saleswoman, a girl with a wide smile, has got a fix on these times: “‘Tell me the deals!’” people say to her. The evening calm in ladies apparel doesn’t faze her, though, because the days are “really really really” busy. Myesha lives in Southwest Philly. She’s got a fix on her own economics, too.

When she tells me she’s 20 years old, I blurt, “You’re so young!”

She smiles. “I’m so happy to be here!” Employed.

[SIGNUP]Santa’s pleased he’s got a job too. He’s in a small room just off Dickens Village on the third floor, and tells me that he never promises to deliver the gifts children ask for. He calls out what they want so that their parents can hear, and then he tells the children, “I’ll do my best.”

When he’s not Santa, his name is Tim Gunn. Tim is Swarthmore’s baseball coach, meaning he’s got some free time in the winter. And since he’s 6-4, 300 pounds, why not? It’s like being a rock star, he says, playing Santa, for a pretty simple reason: “Most people are ecstatic to see you.” We don’t get into the groupies. Tim tells me that Philadelphia was just voted the number one city in America in holiday spirit.

So I’m in the right place. Macy’s started out as Wanamaker’s, of course, in 1876, the year of the centennial. It would be the first department store with electric lights, and with a telephone, and the first one with pneumatic tubes to move cash and documents. John Wanamaker also decreed that his employees would be treated respectfully, and not scolded in public.

It was a grand time, and buttresses awkwardly with our prospects at the moment. But a cynic is stopped in his tracks here, because it seems like the multi-hued variety is chasing something, sifting around in this gorgeous “White Christmas” world. It doesn’t have to be grand:

I waylay a pleasant-looking guy in his mid-20s. Greg works with kids at the Caring People’s Alliance, and it seems that today the children were putting on a show for parents, and he got hung up, and his ride to Cobbs Creek vanished. So before catching a bus home he’s popped into Macy’s to buy a basket for his mom. She’s just taken up knitting.


Chuck and Ryan from Aston have brought their three kids, ages 4, 3, and 1, and the 4-year-old, Taylor, is crawling under the massive bronze eagle down on the Grand Court. The eagle was sculpted by Frenchman August Gaul for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase, and became a calling card for decades of shopping Philadelphians, as in “Meet me at the eagle.”

“Silent Night” fills the Court — not recorded, but the rich pipes of the real thing, with actual bells tapped. It’s “the world’s largest operational pipe organ”! After his hour of playing, Fred Haas allows a dozen folks to view the six keyboards and dozens of switches and myriad foot pedals. It looks like a cockpit; Fred likes that analogy, and strikes another: “It’s like piloting the Queen Mary.”

Local radio guy Tony Bruno has brought his producer, Robin Austin, to see the organ. She grew up in Holland, and the Christmas music reminds her of attending church as a child in Breda — how she would sit bathed in Christ’s aural loveliness.

“A lot of church organs in Europe were destroyed during World War II,” someone observes.

But this one — the world’s largest operational pipe organ in the world — has been played daily in this spot for the last century.

Who knew?