Once upon a time, I loathed Christmas. I hated the music. I hated the decorations. I hated pretty much everything about it and I hated that I hated it because I used to love Christmas. And then I figured out the secret to enjoying it again.
All I had to do was avoid it.
Every year, we hear about the “War On Christmas!” that is allegedly destroying the holiday season. Sometimes it’s Starbucks coffee cups not being sufficiently “Christmasy” enough. Sometimes it’s people saying “Happy Holidays” because, gasp!, they acknowledge that other people besides Christians celebrate their end of year holy days as well.
Frankly, the whole thing is part of the right’s made up culture war stuff and I tend to ignore it. I spent so many years not being able to enjoy Christmas that now I can’t be bothered arguing over the holiday even though fighting the right’s lies is literally what I do for a living. It’s Christmas. I’m allowed to take a break and this is one of those few things I keep isolated from politics as much as possible. In fact, I keep it isolated from everything, including Christmas itself.
For those of you who have been reading my stuff for a while, you know that I’m both a Jew and an atheist. And, no, I don’t particularly care about your opinion on how I can’t be both. That means about as much to me as your opinion on an atheist celebrating what is ostensibly the birth of Jesus Christ. I am what I am and I’ll do as I please.
And let’s not kid ourselves, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special aside, Christmas has been so deeply commercialized, it’s unrecognizable as a religious holiday. As an atheist that doesn’t give a flying fig about religion, that’s not necessarily a bad thing to me. On the other hand, it’s gone so far in the other direction that it’s stripped the holiday of any meaning and made it an enforced ritual. That, in turn, has made it miserable, especially for those millions of people who have to work in retail as I did for the better part of 20 years.
Those first couple of Christmases in retail were exciting. Being 19 and in the middle of the chaos of a toy store at the peak of Christmas was an experience, to be sure. But as time went on, it stopped being “fun” and started being annoying. I really can’t say if people got progressively meaner or if I just started to notice it more but twas not the season of joy.
I got out for one year while I was a game tester for a crappy video game company (Acclaim. Haven’t heard of them? Shocking). It was a breath of fresh air and I remember actually enjoying the holidays for the first time in years but then it was right back into retail for another decade.
It was soul-crushing. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t the job that made Christmas suck, it was the Christmas customers that ruined the holidays. Without fail, every year, customers were the Grinch. And it didn’t matter where I worked, it was the same thing. A toy store in Oceanside, Long Island: Miserable upper middle-class people. A video game store 20 minutes away in Cedarhurst, Long Island: Miserable rich people. A video game store in Jackson Heights, Queens: Miserable working class people. A video game store in Jamaica, Queens: Miserable people living in housing projects.
It didn’t matter. Rich, poor, white, Latino, black, male, female, Christmas made them all miserable. And they, in turn, made us working in the stores miserable. Nasty attitudes. Short tempers. Yelling. Cursing. I was one of the lucky ones. My size precluded any attempts at physical intimidation or assault but there was plenty of that over the years for my other, less physically imposing, co-workers.
The rest of the year was fine. We had isolated cases of mean people, of course. And, naturally, there were other times that were busy, like Easter and major system or game releases. Christmas was in a league of its own, though, and not just in terms of foot traffic. People really seemed to resent having to come in to buy stuff around the holidays. A lot of the times, they had no idea what they were getting and while we didn’t mind explaining it to them (it was our job, after all, and most of us had a passion for video games), people were just irritated to buy stuff they didn’t know anything about.
And that takes us back to the overcommercialization of Christmas. Somewhere along the line, we stopped buying gifts that meant something and started buying gifts just to buy gifts. Someone much smarter than me has probably already figured out when that trend started and what’s driving it so I’m going to simply focus on my own experience and how the joylessness of Christmas impacted me.
I got to experience this from both sides of the retail spectrum as a grown man. I was a manager up until 2008 when Jordan was born, and then I worked a few more years as a part-timer before leaving retail altogether to write part-time instead and be a full-time stay at home parent. You’d think being a part-timer with less responsibility would make working Christmas a breeze. That’s what I thought. You would be wrong and so was I.
It was still miserable. Yes, I didn’t have to run the store but that didn’t stop the customers but being just the worst. I didn’t have the additional stress of being in charge but that didn’t mean I escaped what actually made the Christmas season awful: Christmas shoppers. Christmas music made my skin crawl because it meant that soon the customers would be getting nasty and rude. I couldn’t enjoy the decorations because I knew they would be destroying the store with an absolute abandon bordering on sadism. By the time Christmas arrived, all I could think of that was that we still had another two or three weeks of horrible people abusing us over returns and exchanges. It’s impossible to feel Christmas cheer under those conditions.
And again, I was one of the lucky ones. I got out just before they started keeping the store open 24 hours a day in the last few days leading up to Christmas Eve. So in addition to the customers making the entire experience a nightmare, the company did their part to make it even worse. This is one of the reasons I do not go shopping on Black Friday or Christmas Eve. Ever. I hated having to be in the store hours before the sun came up to be ready for a mob of crazy people the day after Thanksgiving and I hated having to work until 6 or 7 PM on Christmas Eve when everyone who celebrates the holiday should be home with their family already eating dinner and getting drunk on eggnog and rum. I can’t even imagine what’s it’s like now with stores actually opening on Thanksgiving to start holiday shopping early. The very idea is offensive.
But this is what Christmas is like now. And this is is why I stay as far away from that part of it as possible. When I was a kid, and even as a teen, I used to enjoy going Christmas shopping for family and friends. Now Deb and I do most of our shopping months in advance to avoid all of the craziness and stay away from malls as if our lives depended on it. We keep Christmas as low key and relaxed as possible for the kids. Christmas is about spending time with family and giving gifts that mean something, not just whatever the latest, most expensive thing on TV is.
Does that mean we only give handknitted sweaters? Of course not. There’s always going to be some “commercial” stuff (Disney, Nickelodeon, etc.) but it tends to be stuff the kids can use. Sneakers, clothes, school supplies, a tablet, books, stuff like that. We try to avoid “the latest craze” toys because we know they’ll play with it for a week and then into a box it will go. Wasted money.
Aside from the gifts, we even take it slow on opening gifts. We open one on Christmas Eve and take turns on Christmas Morning instead of letting the kids just tear everything open. That way, they can take a few minutes to appreciate what they have before being distracted by the next gift. And it makes it a shared experience for us all as we all get to enjoy each gift being opened instead of being off by ourselves opening our gifts alone. It’s about family, not what’s in the next box, right?
As much as I ended up hating working in retail, I’ll still want my kids to work at least one full year in a retail store, especially one holiday season. It’s easy to be a jerk to the workers and leave a mess when you go shopping until you’ve walked an aisle in their shoes. Maybe if more people understood what they’ve turned the alleged “most wonderful time of the year” into, they’d stop acting like a Grinch every year.
Until they do, I’m just going to stay hidden in my self-imposed snow globe, cut off from all of the nativity negativity, giving my family the best Christmas I can.
I’m a stay at home dad, father to a special needs son and a special daughter, a donor baby daddy, a militantly pragmatic liberal, the president of the PTA, a hardcore geek and nerd and I’m going to change the world. Or at least my corner of it.