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Eight Unfortunate Tales of Seasonal Employment

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For many of us, hearing "Little Drummer Boy" conjures up visions not of reindeers or ornaments or roaring Christmas fireplaces but that all-American workplace, the mall. The holiday season creates hundreds of thousands of jobs—forecasting firm The Retail Economist LLC recently estimated that 821,000 workers will be hired for holiday positions this year, which is a record-breaking number. Below, we asked eight former holiday employees to tell us their own weird, sad, funny stories about the purgatory of seasonal employment.

1) I worked three Christmas seasons for UPS as a jumper—the guy that hangs on the truck, jumps off, and then throws your packages behind a bush. It sounds terrible but it was awesome. My driver taught me to love Frank Zappa.

I only saw other jumpers once, when I went back to the regional hub. We were easy to identify: 19-to-23-year-old manboys wearing ill-fitted, teddy-bear brown jumpsuits in the accompaniment of a grizzled veteran. Each of us looking around in awe of the scale, like tourists in Time Square. The closest we came to a fraternity handshake was a silent nod of recognition.

2) I worked at Apple for five years fixing computers. On Black Friday, Apple always closed down the Genius Bar because no one wanted to get their computer fixed that day. As a result, one Black Friday I was working at the register when a man came in and asked if he could recycle his iPod for 10% off of a new one. I told him he could, but he couldn't combine that deal with the Black Friday promo, which was (I think) 15% off of an iPod.

He got really mad and started yelling and swearing at me as his face turned redder and redder. Finally, he picked up his iPod from the counter and THREW IT AT ME as if he was pitching a baseball. And then he stormed off. All over $10.

3) From the ages of 12 to 18, I performed in the Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet. I still know all the parts, and the music haunts me to this day. I will never look at hair curlers the same way again.

Throughout the years I played the lamb, the mouse, the shortest girl at the party (which is special, somehow?), Bon Bon, and Clara. I was actually the first Clara of the millennium. My show snack was a large hot chocolate and a piece of pumpkin loaf from Starbucks; I was not well liked.

It was stressful at times. In my first show as Clara, the Nutcracker prop was not on stage, so I had to fake it. And I got checks so small it was hilarious they wasted the paper. But I was surrounded by all of my gay men crushes, and it was wonderful. I haven't seen the show since I went to college, but I think I'd go again. That music, though...

4) When I was in college I stocked shelves on the weekends at a grocery store to help get a head start on student debt. All my old high school friends did the same thing. We would get together on Saturday and Sundays to talk about our weeks while getting paid to put paper towels on a shelf.

Every so often a customer would ask us for help finding something, but since we had memorized where every item in the store was, we could typically help them really quickly and get back to catching up. Overall, it was a great job except during the holidays, when we had to help all those seasonal bakers find the mythical last item on their holiday lists.

This should have been simple, but the area we lived in had a huge senior citizen demographic, and often the items they requested were purely fictional. We did the best we could, but there are only so many arguments you can have with a septuagenarian about whether sugar free sugar cookies exist, or why non-dairy soy milk is the same thing as regular soy milk. So eventually we started inventing ways to escape. Tactics ranged from "getting my manager" (i.e. best friend who would button his shirt and hide his name tag) to hand signals towards the back room so we could be paged over the intercom to report to the diary cooler, where we would sit and drink chocolate milk and claim it as damaged goods.

5) Right after I finished my first semester of law school, a friend called me in a panic to ask if I knew how to gift wrap. She was working at a fine jewelry store for the holidays, and they were completely slammed. Because I can't tell people no—and I can gift wrap like nobody's business—I agreed to help. For the entire three-week break between semesters, I received minimum wage to stand in heels, wrapping jewelry all day long. (Not so bad, until I realized that my friend was getting commission on jewelry sales, and I was there so she would have more time to make money.) The highlight of those weeks: Each night, the owners let me play dress up with the jewelry—including a 5-carat Asscher-cut diamond ring—as we transferred the jewelry from the display cases back to the safe. I can proudly say that I've worn a half-million dollars in jewelry while Windexing a glass case.

6) I managed to get fired from a volunteer gift-wrapping booth.

I was class president during my junior year growing up near Cleveland, Ohio, and one of our fundraising events was getting paid to work as free gift wrapping workers at the mall. Since I was a class officer, I naturally had to sign up for some shifts. But I'm terrible at wrapping. To this day, packages wrapped by me look like the product of a four-year-old proudly wrapping up his mom's present for the first time.

Anyway, the Parmatown Mall shoppers were not thrilled with my lack of wrapping prowess. I was slow, and once I was finished, the results weren't pretty. People complained; free gift wrapping isn't such a great deal when your gift looks like it was wrapped up by a toddler. At the end of my shift, one of the mall workers politely went up to me. "We think it's best if you don't come back tomorrow." I'll never forget the shame.

7) My second job ever was as a food demonstrator at a Williams-Sonoma in a huge mall in Schamburg, IL. Three days before Christmas I was showing a group of well-heeled folks how to make caramel corn in the Whirley-Pop. "Pop the corn and then add 1/2 cup of sugar," read the instructions. Somehow, I missed the next line, which said, "Immediately take pot off heat." I poured the sugar into the piping hot pot, and then busied myself with something in the instant bread machine. When black smoke started filling the store, my manager rushed over... and customers rushed out the door as the fire alarm sounded and the sprinkler system kicked in.

8) For a few short months, I worked as a Christmas tree farm employee. When I signed up for the job, I expected that I'd be schlepping trees, but I was the only female staffer, and while the boys were out cutting, bagging, and hauling firs and pines, I was stuck in a festive wooden shed, running the cash box.

My clearest memory of the job is when I messed up the hot cocoa, which was my other key responsibility. This was instant hot cocoa out of a package, which came with the sugary little marshmallows in a separate plastic sleeve. Tired one morning, I turned on the machine—which, essentially, was a coffee maker that served to keep the pot of cocoa hot—and then forgot about dumping and re-making its contents. When I poured out the first cup of the day for a tree client, I realized I was serving reheated instant cocoa that had sat out all night long in a shed.

Luckily, instant hot cocoa possesses a magical array of stabilizers, rendering it impervious to extreme swings in temperature and long durations spent exposed to the elements. It was the Saturday before Christmas, and business was in full swing. All day long I poured day-old, rewarmed hot cocoa; all day long, customers exclaimed about how delicious it was. I felt terrible. One season of that job was enough; next year I got a job at Gap.