Another Christmas is upon me. Thus begins the annual battle with my love/hate relationship with Christmas. I love what it represents, but I hate what it has become. It’s exhausting to smile with the exuberant lovers of the holiday when, deep inside, I really don’t give a shit.
Please don’t think me cold or uncaring. Unlike most, I don’t feel compelled to share misery like a cold. I keep it to myself. I am as moved as anyone by the excitement of a child tearing open a present. I am as inspired as anyone by the generosity of the season. I am not above respect for the kindness shown from the day after Thanksgiving until midnight on December 25th, at which time I warmly welcome the world returning to its joyless, materialistic and selfish self.
I’m not a Grinch. I’m just realistic and call it like I see it. Christmas is a truce in the war on humanity.
I didn’t always feel this way. As a child I bought into the whole experience. I enjoyed the bustle of the stores. I liked the music. I liked the gentle ringing of the Salvation Army volunteer standing in the cold outside of the stores. And of course I loved getting presents. As I got a little older I developed a contradictory set of emotions that would later morph into disdain.
My father was raised very poor. Through hard work and pure piss and vinegar he proudly elevated us to lower middle-class. We didn’t have a lot, but we always had enough. My father, in a admirable attempt to compensate for his shitty childhood, worked his narrow ass into the ground to shower us with gifts, especially my mother. He worked excessive overtime and side jobs to pay for Christmas. He started early in the season and didn’t stop until the mall padlocked the doors on Christmas Eve. He couldn’t afford it, he paid for it all year, but he did it anyways. He was so intent on pleasing us, his expression of anticipation glued to his face as we opened gifts. I learned early that even if you didn’t like the gift you had better pretend that you did. This was especially true with my mother. He loved her so. He would repeatedly ask her if she was pleased with her gifts. She always was, fortunately, because his fragile ego depended on it. He loved us, he loved the holiday. He sacrificed so much.
As much as I appreciated that, it bothered me tremendously. I knew at an early age that my father put too much emphasis on stuff. He was overcompensating for the abject poverty of his youth. He wanted better for me. What he didn’t understand was that he was the gift, not the stuff. I just wanted to spend time with him, for him to come home from work while I was awake. So many nights he was called into work, many of them Christmas Eve’s, because someone ran out of oil or lost their heat. I respected the shit out of it, but I wished he was home instead. He worked himself to the bone and I began to feel guilty. A Wonderful Life is a lot better when you watch it with your Dad.
When I became a parent, we did the best we could to give our children an amazing experience. My wife did all of the shopping and wrapping. God bless her, I couldn’t do it. I was in charge of assembly, working late into the night after struggling to get 4 excited kids to sleep. We would be woken at 3:30 or 4 to the sound of them rustling under the tree, barely able to contain themselves. We ignored them until 6, my wife being very clear that we would not get up before. At 5:59 they were jumping on the bed. Exhausted but resigned to our fate, we got up. Despite our best efforts to make the opening of presents organized and last for a while, they tore through them like a Oklahoma Tornado through a trailer park. Over before we knew it. As Rodney Dangerfield famously joked about sex, “the hours of bullshit weren’t worth the 30 seconds of pleasure”. My wife would then help the kids move their presents to their rooms and clean up. By 10 AM you would never know that a holiday had occurred…all of the evidence was gone. As Grinch-ish as I could be, I hated the quick clean. For the sake of the kids I wanted it to last. The excitement, the gratitude, the beautiful smiles made me happy. I enjoyed the day vicariously as a parent. Truly a fond memory.
As a husband, Christmas became one more day to dread. My wife ruined it for me. I will never know how someone capable of all of that preparation, organization, and detail with gifts couldn’t handle my mother and father coming over. After a few years of consistent shit storms, her being uptight, anxious and rude to my parents, I began to dislike the holiday. The drama and fallout became more than I could handle and Seasonal excitement became a feeling of impending doom.
Now, the children are grown. The notion of a fat man in a red suit has been put away for their someday children. We no longer have a house to put up a tree and we are far apart. We will get together for dinner and a modest exchange of gifts. The hard lesson of rampant consumerism is firmly ingrained in my chidren. They witnessed a Bankruptcy and a Foreclosure as a result of their parents living beyond their means and buying gifts they couldn’t afford. I suppose it taught them an appreciation. For me, the lesson affirmed what I always sensed. That memories of time spent together with family are so infinitely more memorable than stuff.
My dad and I sat down over a beer and a burger when I was in my late thirties. He asked me if I resented him for being at work so much. I patted him on the arm and told him that I respected him for it. I then told him that what I had wished most for was moments like the one we were having. His greatest gift was a work ethic and a spirit of generosity. An appreciation of good thoughts and intentions. What I hated was the toll it took on his body.
I have yet to reconcile myself with the joy of the Holiday. Religious fervor over the birth of the Messiah aside, I see much more fake than just the trees. To paraphrase The Sixth Sense, “I see fake people.” People that wish you a Happy Holiday and then flip you off in the parking lot. People who act religious but only go to Church once a year. Everyone tries to be so nice, why can’t that last all year?
The Consumerism kills me as well. I wish that people cared as much about the time to be spent together with family as they do about saving 100 bucks on a Flat Screen TV. There is nothing quite like the sound of people stampeding and rioting in the electronics section of Wal-Mart as Joy to the World/Peace on Earth blares over the sound system in a futile and pathetic attempt to drown them out.
The false Charity bothers me to my core. While some people indeed do magnificent gestures such as paying off Layaways and Toys for Tots, many choose to be charitable only at Christmas. Once it is over they go back to their comfy lives. Food pantries and homeless shelters have a need year round, that is of course if it doesn’t interfere with your weekend in Aspen. No matter, the homeless and hungry will wait.
Maybe my attitude will change someday but I don’t suspect that it will. I don’t have a problem with people being happy. I will smile at their joy and feign my own. I will continue to be generous of spirit despite being light on funds. I will have love in my heart and a true desire to help anyone if within my means. I want peace on earth year round and forever going forward and I have goodwill towards my fellow man. It’s all I have and it will have to do. Just don’t ask me to buy into the rampant consumerism and fake joy.
I’m just not buying it.