Until recently I assumed that for many Torontonians, this was the least wonderful time of the year. Not only are the days short (5 p.m. looks and feels like 10 p.m.), but thanks to “Christmas Creep”—the marketing phenomenon that causes Christmas to creep up on us earlier and earlier every season—retail holiday cheer is virtually always in the air well before snowflakes. And so too, is the music: the same repeated loop of songs that make you long for the standard Top 40 tunes you complained about only a month ago.
If you’re a Jew or a Muslim or anybody else who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, the long commercial spell leading up to it can feel like really bad foreplay with no happy ending (i.e., presents). But I’m a Scrooge. It turns out there are many in this city, who like the residents of “Christmas Town” in The Nightmare Before Christmas, would actually be delighted to live in a perpetual state of Yule. Don’t believe me?
Take a trip to 251 Queen St. W., the site of Miracle on Queen St., Toronto’s Christmas-themed pop up bar. Hold on, you just passed it. To get to Christmas Town, denizens of the movie have to enter through the proverbial tree in a forest; the entrance to Miracle on Queen St. is just as remarkably unremarkable.
There’s a wreath on the door and that’s about it. But open the door and you find yourself bathed in Grinch-green light. Go up a flight of stairs, and you’re at the bar that St. Nick threw up on. Fairy lights, Christmas trees, gift-wrapped novelty presents, gift-wrapped doors and gift-wrapped walls; frosting on the mirrors, a life-like Santa Claus mannequin in the centre of the room, a candle in the bathroom burning something God-awful called “Cinnamon Sparkle”, a Christmas playlist blaring from the speakers, and the pièce de résistance: an enormous animatronic teddy bear that opens and closes its arms in a jerky slow motion — perfect for Instagram-obsessed guests who want a photo of themselves being bear-hugged.
The bear is a big hit, according to bartender Kris Girard, who, when you visit the bar, will be busy serving up Christmas-themed cocktails like the “Bad Santa,” (a “Hot milk punch” with two types of rum), Jingle Balls Nog (Cognac, sherry, brown butter, cinnamon), and the Gingerbread Flip (bourbon, gingerbread syrup, bitters, whole egg, cookie crumbs). I had a beer. But the more adventurous couple next to me, Mairead Holton and Ross Driver, told me they were enjoying their Balls Nog and Gingerbread Flip very much.
Holton, 31, and Driver, 29, who moved to Toronto from Ireland in September, said they like the bar’s “warm atmosphere”. Especially for people away from home and family at holiday-time, they said, it was comforting to come somewhere with “a nice feel.”
Indeed, the feel was nice, I couldn’t deny it. Even a Scrooge has moments of weakness. It was Tuesday evening, but the place was jam-packed and festive; everyone appeared to be having a thoroughly good time, none more than Girard the bartender.
“The whole atmosphere is super friendly,” he told me. “We get 19-year-olds to grandparents.”
But wasn’t the Christmas-overkill getting to him?
“I’m one of those people who really likes Christmas,” he said. “When I was a kid my dad woke us up at five in the morning on Christmas, really jazzed. I think it passed on to me.”
Last year Girard didn’t take his tree down until January 15. If he had a house, he said, he would leave his lights up well after the holidays (probably out of sheer laziness). The only Christmas song he admitted being sick of was “All I want for Christmas is you” by Mariah Carey. But he was not yet sick of Christmas itself.
It’s a good thing. Miracle on Queen St is a local incarnation of an American pop up franchise with Christmas themed locations all over the world. It launched in Toronto, Nov. 23, immediately after American Thanksgiving, and will close its doors Dec. 26. One dollar of every drink sold at the bar goes to a local women’s shelter.
The pop-up made its way to Toronto courtesy of Nick Kennedy, owner of T.O.’s Civil Liberties bar, and his partner, general manager Lauren McKenna. After a trip to a Miracle franchise in Denver, Colo. (Colorado is McKenna’s home state), the couple decided Toronto needed a franchise of its own. They bought the rights and Miracle on Queen St. was born. McKenna thinks the bar’s success may in part have to do with the fact that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October.
Canadian patrons, therefore, might be more willing to get excited about a Christmas bar in November because “it fills up that time in between the holidays.” In other words, where Americans are still digesting their Thanksgiving dinner when Christmas Creep is in full force, Canadians are yearning for the holidays to begin. Ergo, we may be less cynical about early on-set Christmas marketing.
Well, at least some of us. Just before I left the bar I spoke with a server named Ash Straney. He was wearing a red sweater vest emblazoned with a cat’s face that read, “Have a very Meowy Christmas”, which he described as “atrocious.” Straney is probably one of the only people to walk through the door of Miracle on Queen St who’s not a huge fan of the Yuletide holiday.
“I don’t like it,” he told me, immediately wondering whether the admission might get him in trouble. “But I like it here. I like seeing how excited everyone gets because I don’t understand it.” I don’t get it either, but I like it there too.