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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: This is the time of year when malls and department stores pull out all the stops to create a winter wonderland. The idea is to put shoppers in a festive and generous mood. Writer and commentator Moira Manion recently took a part-time job to help create one of these displays. She gives us a glimpse of the reality behind the make-believe.

MOIRA MANION: A huge Minneapolis department store is aglitter and aglow. Christmas trees are decked out with ornaments for sale, and tables are full of seasonal treasures to brighten the home. Little children gaze in awe at the Christmas Wonderland.

Who is responsible for this magnificent Christmas spectacular?

Well, far below, in the basement, past the time clock and the creaky freight elevator, many helpers are busy. We’re pouring sweat as we rip open heavy boxes, and remove ornaments from layers of bubble wrap, tissue paper, and Styrofoam peanuts.

Many of the workers are slender young Somali women wearing long skirts, their heads wrapped in scarves. The one to my left looks puzzled as she yanks from a box a two-foot-tall reindeer made of twigs, with a collar of jingle bells hot-glued to its neck.

“Moira? What is?”

“It’s a reindeer made of twigs.”

“Is ugly!”

“It’s very ugly.”

She eyes the label. “$75! For ugly deer of twigs with jingle balls made in China! Is no good!”

She holds up a wooden red bird.

“What Christmas meaning?”

“It doesn’t have a specific meaning for Christmas.”

“Then why you pay $12 for crappy wooden red bird?”

“Because people go insane at Christmas. It’s tradition.”

“Moira,” says a Somali gentleman to my left, shiny with sweat, “people in China paid little money to make ugly things. We paid little to unbox and Americans pay lot of money for to put on plastic trees. Is very funny.”

“Yessir, it’s very funny indeed.”

After hours, we haul the ornaments upstairs. With lighting, music and gingerbread candles, illusion will transform the crappy, cheap imports into precious Christmas keepsakes.

So remember, in the heart of Minneapolis, your very special Christmas Wonderland is brought to you by Santa’s Helpers: Rukiyo, Asha, Rashid, Abid and Mohammed.

THOMAS: Moira Manion works and writes in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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