On the Job for the Holidays
A shout-out to those who find purpose, passion and joy in working during the festive season
The holidays are especially busy for Malcolm Ruhl of Elk Grove Village (above playing accordion), music director of “The Christmas Carol” at Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren courtesy of Goodman Theatre
'Tis the season of the tug of home. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” we hear on the radio. Our sentiments exactly. But for some, call them the lucky unlucky, it’s the workplace, notwithstanding extended hours and the stresses of commerce, customer interactions or the needs and expectations of audiences or congregants, where the joy of the season fully resonates.
During the holidays, day after day and often twice a day, Malcolm Ruhl hangs out with a miserly, grouchy businessman, a wee lad with a crutch and three nettlesome souls, full of unsolicited yet indispensable advice. Ruhl is the music director for “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Ruhl coordinates the music that is part of some scenes in the play and also performs as a musician in the scenes. So from Nov. 16 to Dec. 29, for 52 shows, he commutes from his residence in Elk Grove Village to Chicago. When there is both a matinee and an evening performance, between shows he scarfs down the dinner he brings, pulls out his laptop to work on other shows he’s involved with and even rushes out of the Loop theater to do a little Christmas shopping.
One year, when his role with a second show was particularly demanding, he sometimes had to take the El to the Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park between his two performances at the Goodman so he could duly monitor “Million Dollar Quartet.”
But don’t cry for him, Chicago.
“It’s true everyone else is being entertained and is enjoying their free time. But the great thing is I’m doing a Christmas show, as opposed to another show. So I’m still working, but I’m celebrating the season, too,” says Ruhl, part of the show for 15 years.
In fact, the seasonal lessons of “A Christmas Carol” that makes it such an enduring classic for audiences also resonates with Ruhl, even as he helps deliver that message on stage.
“Scrooge’s journey is from an emotionally repressed place. He’s focused on money. So many people in London at that time were miserable. He didn’t want to be miserable.“His journey is one where he sees the world from a different perspective. He sees what life is like for other people.
The show tells that story as much as for me as it does for the audience. It’s so easy to accept an oversimplified version of the world, to not see the bigger picture. So many people have it worse than I do. I don’t want to pity them but understand and connect with them.”
In the spirit of the season, the cast is able to forge a close-knit camaraderie during the show’s run. “A lot of the cast is returning, and it feels like family. It’s like Thanksgiving where you get back together. For the people new to the show, they’re like the people at Thanksgiving you meet for the first time,” says Ruhl.
A cast tradition, once attended by the musicians but now open to the other actors, is an informal “jam session” in the mezzanine after a couple of the Sunday shows.
Not surprisingly, music also is a part of the holiday festivities at the Ruhl home. After the Christmas Eve show, family and friends gather there, and Ruhl plays carols and other songs on the piano.Ruhl’s wife attends the opening show, and their two children, now adults, once gladly attended the show. Maddi, 29, no longer is in the audience — his grown child is now on stage playing the flute in some scenes. “That combines the personal and professional. I never thought I’d get to do that. It doesn’t get any better than that,” says Ruhl.
Or maybe the one time it does get even better is when a performance of “A Christmas Carol” is tailored to people with autism and other challenges, as the Goodman does each year. The lights are not as bright. The sounds are not as loud. The ghosts are not quite so scary. “Normally it’s hard to see the impact on the audience,” says Ruhl. “But during this curtain call I can see the people in the audience, and I know some of the parents never expected to take their children to a show. They have tears in their eyes.”
Above: While the holidays are typically very busy and can be stressful at times, Cindy Militz, manager at Anderson’s Toyshop in Naperville, loves to see the excitement in the eyes of her young customers.
A kid in a candy store? That hardly compares to a kid in a toy store. Just ask Cindy Militz, the manager at Anderson’s Toyshop in Naperville. “They’re so excited to come here. Their eyes just light up,” she says.
That seasonal excitement is lit like a fuse in the shop from the beginning of October, when Christmas shoppers first appear, to Christmas Eve.
The joy of her role in gift giving easily offsets the demands of working retail.
“It can be stressful at times. I’ve had other retail jobs. But I really love this job,” says Militz, who also once taught preschool.
“I love Christmas. I love kids. We have very nice customers. There’s just a very good atmosphere here.”
The toy shop is set up not only for buying but also for playing. Younger children flock to the Thomas the Tank toys. Older children like to dig their hands into the Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty and Mad Mattr, modeling dough. An inviolable rule of the universe for children — don’t touch — is delightfully suspended here.
The shop sounds and looks like Christmas this time of year. Christmas music plays. A decorated tree glistens under the lights. Workers wear elf caps. Parents who shop here are encouraged to join the fun — they’re given a clipboard with a List for Santa sheet attached to it.
It’s not unusual for parents to slyly buy gifts while their younger children are preoccupied with a toy in the store. “We’re good at hiding it all behind the counter,” says Militz. Instead of electronic toys, the toy shop features aisles of educational toys, as well as traditional board games such as Monopoly, more contemporary games such as Rubik’s Race and perennial favorites such as LEGO and Playmobil.
A hot toy this year is Gravitrax, a modular track system for designing and building marble runs. Star Wars and Harry Potter LEGOs continue to fly off the shelves.
Opened in 2016, the shop is a sister store of Anderson’s Bookshop, located one store away. Despite selling toys for three years, Militz is a full and eager participant in holiday activities. She squeezes in visits to the holiday light shows at the Morton Arboretum and Brookfield Zoo. “I do as much as I can. The more the better,” she says.
Militz’s children are grown, but she still buys them stuffed animals and games. She also fields a steady stream of questions from not only customers but also family and friends on what a 3-year-old or whomever would like. She’s happy to oblige. “I’m very impressed with the toys today,” she says. “I wish they had them when I was little.”
Preaching What She Practices
Above: Preaching at multiple services on Christmas Eve while managing family responsibilities at home can be exhausting, acknowledges Rev. Tracey Bianchi of Christ Church of Oak Brook, but its well worth the opportunity to help congregants experience the true joy of the season.With three children between the ages of 11 and 16, Tracey Bianchi knows Christmas as a busy season. But it’s especially so for her — she’s Rev. Tracey Bianchi, the worship and teaching pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook.
Churches get especially busy around the holidays. There are more services. The need for comfort and counseling also ratchets up as the holidays exacerbate feelings of loneliness and longing.
On Christmas Eve, Bianchi preaches at the 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. services. The congregants gather eager for an uplifting experience, an expectation of wrapping up the frenzy and excitement of the season in a crisp spiritual bow. But on Christmas morning Bianchi will serve breakfast for her parents and then later will cook dinner for her in-laws. She also needs to be at the church far in advance of the first service.
“Sure, I’d like to be able to help my daughter put on her Christmas dress,” says Bianchi. “There is this tension we all agree to when we work for the church. It’s hard to put on your family traditions when you are serving others. It’s hard to prepare a Christmas meal when you’re exhausted,” she says.
But, ultimately, she’s happy to play a crucial role in helping others experience the joy of the season. “It’s humbling. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve others, to play a part in the family traditions of others,” she says.
Being a parent — walking in the same shoes of her congregants and trying to avoid the same pitfalls — helps her ministry. “Our family is no different. We are part of the world like everyone else,” she says. “We get caught up in the same hullaballoo. We have to talk about what really matters. Do we want to spend more time together or do we really need to go to the mall to get another gift?”
Her Christmas Eve services draw a lot of young families, and, after clearing it with her children, Bianchi relates stories of her own family in her sermons. One year she talked about Christmas cards with family photos. “They present a perfect picture of the family. But behind the scenes we may be anxious and scared. We’re looking for approval,” she preached.
Then she told the congregants about her family’s Christmas card that year. The family looked great on the slopes with their skis. But, in fact, the goggles on one of her children hid the torrent of tears that had erupted.
Christmas is often misunderstood, says Bianchi. It’s not a magical day that eliminates problems or sorrows. It is a gift of hope and consolation. “The Christmas story is not about Jesus coming into the world, and everything is now great,” she says. “It’s about Him being with us in our pain.”
Our Holiday Hero
Above: “Santa Bob” Hildreth of Elgin plays Santa at upwards of 50 holiday events, often accompanied by Mrs. Claus, his wife, Carol.Christmas is not a job for him. It’s his genuine identity. For more than 30 years, “Santa Bob,” known to his former students as Mr. Hildreth, has gently asked children what they want under the tree and charmed adults with his folksy, genial demeanor.
He first put on the red suit as a teenager in Cicero at the request of his mom, the head of the PTA. “We need a Santa? Will you do it?” she asked him, even though he needed padding for plumpness and, of course, a white beard for facsimile. Mom must have known something.
It was his destiny to be Santa. He “grew” into the role literally, or, shall we day, figuratively. Padding was no longer needed by the time he took on the role on a consistent basis. His hair also had turned white, and his beard came in white and fluffy. He looks so much like Santa that countless times when he’s in public in regular clothes children point and their jaws drop.
Santa Bob always knows what to say. “Why are you here?” a child at a store or restaurant will stammer. “I’m making sure everything is OK.” Or, he says, “You know about the list and checking it twice? This is No. 1.”
Santa Bob, whose second home is in Elgin, also often passes out a wooden coin that says either “Caught being good” or “True believer.” He asks the child what he or she wants for Christmas and tells the child to place the coin under the tree, as the parent listens in and quickly figures out what to purchase before Dec. 25.
Bob Hildreth worked as a teacher and principal in Cicero, St. Charles, Lyons and Blue Island before retiring in 2013. He formerly lived in Downers Grove. During the holidays, his home is “decorated from top to bottom,” including no less than four trees, says Carol, his wife. Santa Bob works about 50 events a year including a summer gig in the 4th of July parade for Hinsdale. He visits children’s hospitals, retirement centers and park districts. He’s the main attraction of Polar Expresses and straps on blades for Skate with Santa. He poses with pets for a fundraiser for the Elgin police department and hops on a red Harley with a S. Claus license plate for the ABATE Toy and Food Run in Elburn.
Mrs. Claus, conveniently played by Carol, is often at his side. She’s especially needed when young children shriek and cry at the sight of the strange-looking fellow in the red suit. “I say, ‘Go to grandma.’ They’re not afraid of her,” explains Santa Bob.
Mr. and Mrs. Claus were also scheming partners years ago when it came to their four children. The family spent Christmas Day downtown seeing the Loop Christmas windows and feasting in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. They always took two cars so gifts were under the tree when they arrived home. Once two of their children somehow “caught” Santa in the act, glimpsing his backside as he placed the gifts under the tree. The children hurried to tell their parents. By the time they got to Dad, there he was still snoozing on the couch.
It’s the children they meet outside the home that make Christmas special for Santa Bob and Mrs. Claus. One year, at Shriner’s Children Hospital in Chicago, they met 9-year-old “Amy,” who had been at the hospital most of her life. “She really, really wanted glitter slime,” recalls Santa Bob. So she got it that day. But she soon gave it to another girl who was crying because there was no glitter slime left.
Those kinds of experiences, that spirit of generosity, inspires even the person who epitomizes gift-giving. “We need to always remember the real reason for Christmas,” says Santa Bob. “We need to pray and help one another. We’re all in this together, no matter our race, color or creed. Let’s enjoy life and take care of each other.”Edit Module