Seriously. I really do.
But even MORE than I hate the ‘holiday season’ and all it brings with it, I hate people who keep trying to talk me OUT of it. Like I am committing some sort of hideous crime. It feels like I could admit to being an incestuous baby-raper and it wouldn’t upset people as much as it does when I confess to my dislike of Christmas. (…see? I said CONFESS! Like it’s a CRIME! Goddam it, that’s how far these Joyeux Noel fanatics have gotten in my head.)
This year I have finally reached my limit. I am FED UP with all of it. So I am going to explain this once and forever and then everyone can just shut up about it and leave me alone.
It’s not a crime to hate the holidays. Here’s why.
First of all, from roughly Thanksgiving week until New Year’s, everything is about money.
If you don’t have money, you will feel like a failure and that you are doing it wrong. In case you forget that for even a moment, soon enough (and by ‘soon enough’ I mean ‘in less than sixty seconds’) there will be some relentlessly perky pitchman along badgering you about sales, and gifts, and children’s smiling faces on Christmas morning when you shower them with STUFF. It’s everywhere. It used to be just billboards and commercials, but now with the internet and social media, there’s nowhere to run. Email, Twitter, even random texts for crying out loud. I can hide out from most of it but I need my phone, I need to be able to email people, it’s a necessary part of my work. And that’s where they get a wedge in, every time, till I’m so annoyed and distracted I can’t work. One publisher, I am not even kidding about this, emailed me HOURLY the entirety of Thanksgiving weekend to remind me about the Black Friday sale being extended through Saturday, no, Sunday, no, Monday, HELL NO ALL THE WAY TO CHRISTMAS!! Multiple times on that last one. The emails are still coming, I think, though I finally put up a spam filter. I like this particular publisher, even, and have done business with them (I guess that’s how I got on the list twice, as both a reviewer and also as a consumer) but that’s it, I’m done. They broke me.
Here’s a newsflash, entrepreneurs — if you want me to buy your crap, stop shrieking at me. Because it doesn’t work. In fact, I can’t think of a case where any customer ever said, “Yeah, I really didn’t want the new improved widget thing, but that 34th email sold me.”
It’s even worse when it’s something you actually like or that you think would make a great gift for someone. Then you just feel like a failure because you don’t have the money to get it.
Don’t even start with me about the true meaning of Christmas or gratitude or any of that shit. I don’t care what those losers in Whoville say. It’s about spending money and a lot of the time it’s about being made to feel shitty about not spending ENOUGH money.
Think I’m exaggerating? Ask someone who works retail, say, at Target or Best Buy or a food court in a mall. Look at the sick sad weariness in their eyes as they gamely try to keep the grin pasted on. Ask them how it’s going, how they’re holding up. The best you’ll get is a sort of bleak, “Oh, it’s not so bad,” or “I’m used to it.” Never ever is there any indication that they are filled with charity and Christmas spirit. For God’s sake, the biggest shopping day of the year is called “Black Friday” and now it’s spread to countries that don’t even celebrate Thanksgiving. Don’t fall for that corporate okeydoke about how the name means “business going in the black.” It comes from a place of dread.
At this point some Pollyanna in the back will be waving and trying to get in a point about handmade gifts and cards, and I assure you, I’ve SEEN what going down that rabbit hole looks like. Okay, it’s a solution maybe for one person, or at best two. And you have to really like them a lot. (And they better like you back enough to make you believe it when it’s time to look appreciative and grateful.)
But as a way to cope with a whole gift list? I have watched aunts and grandmothers going mad just trying to bake Christmas cookies… not even the good kind, the crappy mass-produced stamped-out sugar kind, for a list of as few as twenty people.
As for the non-culinary arts, that’s even worse. Just trying to do individual sketches for people is daunting (some of us are still scarred from Inktober) and as for doing some kind of design and then using it as the basis for manufacturing cards or gift prints or whatever– that involves, guess what, SPENDING FUCKING MONEY.
Or, okay, sometimes it just means stealing office supplies. (I was desperate to do something that year and– and– don’t judge me dammit!)
Anyway, even then you don’t feel all Christmasy and cheerful about it. It’s more of a wow, I’m pathetic vibe.
A new wrinkle has been added to the money obsession this year: the social-media charity drive. Suddenly this cheerful message or one like it pops up every time you log in to… well, anything. “Arliss has chosen to support the Society For The Preservation of Buggy Whip Technology for the holiday season this year… won’t you consider giving?”
Look. Arliss checked a box and filled in a few blank fields. Facebook or whoever does the collecting and the accounting and all the badgering. Plus they take a cut and I am morally certain they get a tax deduction too… and Arliss gets to feel good without actually, you know, doing anything. Meanwhile, I am getting hammered daily with notices allegedly from Arliss, and a bunch of other people, all of whom are genuinely my friends, and these notices multiply to the point where I feel ridiculously awkward saying anything to them because I haven’t chipped in on the buggy-whip thing, or whatever.
For the record: Julie and I did ONE thing this year. A former student of mine was in a jam and, estranged from the family after coming out and on the run from an abusive ex, they were facing eviction. So we kicked in a few bucks and I put the word out, and between us and other friends for whom I will be forever grateful, we managed to keep them indoors for Christmas.
But that’s IT. We shot the works. And it really didn’t have anything to do with the holidays except it was December’s rent…. but we are counting it as our holiday giving anyway, and we know that at least it actually went where it was supposed to go.
And if not having money doesn’t make you miserable enough…. there are the relatives.
Jesus God…. the relatives.
Just when you’ve achieved some kind of equilibrium with holiday shopping and gift-giving, here come a bunch of people who hate each other and avoid one another the rest of the year, who love repeating humiliating stories about things you did when you were little, but God help you if you try to mount a defense or even just leave early.
Sure, it might seem like it’s going well early on… you feel a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, THIS year will be okay….
…and then they get liquored up.
THEN it’s a party.
Here is the thing– growing up in a deranged, dysfunctional alcoholic household like I (and many others!) did, even when things go well you can’t really enjoy it, because you are always tense, always READY. You know, even if no one else does, that your parents and relatives are ticking time bombs and when you’re a kid, that’s basically a hostage situation. It’s made even weirder by all of society telling you these are people that love you, and hell, you’re a kid, how would you know any different? So you try and comply with what’s expected of you and it slowly makes you insane.
When it’s criminals that phenomenon is called “Stockholm Syndrome.” In my family it was just “the holidays.” (Well, really, it was just “the weekend,” but it was cast into hideously sharp relief at Christmas.)
Every Christmas Eve we grimly made the trek to my Uncle Vance’s house, and all the way during the forty-minute car ride out there my mother would be hissing (seriously; not actually speaking but hissing in a sort of venomous whisper): cautioning us not to bring up any of the horrible things that had been happening in our home, not to make faces at Grandma’s loathesome green-bean casserole or my aunt’s revolting jellied cookie things and just choke it all down and don’t EMBARRASS her. Then she would whirl on my father and add, AND THAT MEANS YOU TOO, FOR GOD’S SAKE, TRY NOT TO DRINK ALL THE BEER IN THE FIRST TEN MINUTES….
It was like getting prepped for a mission behind enemy lines. Of course we never pulled it off. Then the forty-minute ride home was always accompanied by a blow-by-blow analysis from Mom of all the ways we’d fucked it up.
You would think that this pattern would have been broken when Dad died. But honestly by then it was ingrained. By then the tension was reflexive, built-in. We didn’t get the don’t-embarrass-me lecture any more, but we could see it in Mom’s eyes, and after the ordeal had ended we still got the post-game critique.
There’s a joke that always goes around the internet this time of year that DIE HARD is the best Christmas movie ever. I don’t know about that, but it certainly sums up my experience. Starts with a bitter spousal argument, followed by forced attendance at an increasingly shitty Christmas party that escalates to a hostage situation with open hostilities, and the only way to escape is to shoot everyone and blow up the building.
That’s perfect. That was our Christmas. Except my brother and I weren’t armed so we just had to cower with the other hostages.
By this point I was rolling and I found it so wonderfully cathartic that I invited my colleagues to chime in with any of their pet peeves and I’d include those too. They responded with such enthusiasm that I decided to just make this a Roundtable and put them up verbatim. Here you go.
Matt: I have the hate for Christmas music that burns like the heat of a thousand burning suns. The schmaltzy nonsense that pervades the lyrics and the irritating tunes are enough to drive a sane, rational man to mass homicide. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is very difficult to escape as they are incessantly played at the stores that you will invariably find yourself in during this season of madness. There is but one Christmas song that I can present as being reasonable and worthy of our collective attention and that is White Wine in the Sun by Australian comedian Tim Minchin. All other Christmas music can burn in hell. A hell made up of fire. A fire of rage, spite and Justin Beiber music.
However, the audio travesty of this time of year is clearly outmatched by the utter un-salvageable drek that are Christmas movies and television. The last good movie that was based on Christmas (as opposed to one which merely happened at Christmas, such as Die Hard or Batman Returns)? Good luck with that. Just look at the posters; as pointed out on social media, they invariably star a white heterosexual couple (one wearing green, one wearing red) against a white background with facial expressions somewhere between “I need to get a better contract” and “if I stop smiling the director will shoot my dog.” The plots are inescapably inane and meaningless. If you enjoy that sort of thing, that’s fine … but get out of my life and may god have mercy on your soul.
Christmas led to Doctor Who, of all things, having a scene wherein the great William Hartnell broke the fourth wall to wish the audience a merry Christmas. The Doctor is in a time machine which effectively makes whatever holiday it happens to be meaningless. To break the fourth wall makes no sense either. Maybe the BBC saw this nonsense and decided that is why the whole of The Dalek’s Masterplan master tapes needed to incinerated. The Christmas Specials of the Doctor Who modern series have, for the most part, been terrible as well so there’s no redemption to be found there.
There has been but one good Christmas story and that comes not from Hollywood or television studios. It comes from our favourite medium of comic books. The IDW Transformers Holiday Special, to be precise. One of the stories in that volume turned the usual Christmas tropes completely on their head which is what made it work – taking Christmas and making fun of it instead of embracing it. It recognised that the very idea that Cybertronians celebrating such a holiday would be unbelievably contrived and running with that idea.
Greg B: I don’t hate the holidays quite as much as Greg H. does – I hate the money aspect of it, as he points out, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it does him (except the endless new car commercials – Gawd, I loathe those), and my immediate family was always pretty cool, plus we didn’t spend a ton of time with our extended family, so the potential for annoyance just wasn’t there. So I don’t hate the holidays, but I don’t love them either. This time of the year is fine, just fine. I imagine I’d be more annoyed if I lived someplace like northwestern Washington, where the weather has to play a part, but it’s hard to be too angry when it’s 65 degrees and sunny all the time.
Christmas music, though, drives me batty. Matt jumped in and expressed his hatred for Christmas music, but on the Atomic Junk Shop Slack, when Greg asked us to chime in with things we don’t like about the holidays, I was the first one to mention music – Matt just got over here first, damn him!!!!! I agree with him about the bad lyrics and music and its pervasive nature – if I hear “Last Christmas” by Wham! one more time this year, I might go insane – but it’s more than that for me. Most Christmas music is simply typical romance music with the veneer of Christmas laid over it, or it’s more cutesy music about Santa and the reindeer, or it’s poppy crap that skims a religious surface. Why does that bother me? Well, I’m not a terribly solemn dude, but there are times in life when I believe very much in solemnity. I get very annoyed when parents treat high school graduation as a beach party, because I think it should be more solemn (the kids are a lost cause, but parents should know better). Weddings and funerals should be solemn occasions. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ardent atheist than I, I think certain religious ceremonies should be solemn occasions. In the Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter should be solemn occasions. I don’t believe what Christians are celebrating and I think putting your faith in an invisible man in the sky is silly, but it’s a ceremony, and while both are celebrations, I think they should be solemn celebrations because of their importance within the religion. I used to love Christmas services at my church, because we would do the candle-lighting thing and we’d sing beautiful religious songs and everyone would go home happy. Christmas has become too commercialized, of course, and the music, for me, symbolizes that. I loathe the commercial pop we get as Christmas music when we should be getting gorgeous renditions of “Oh Holy Night.” Yes, I know that sounds weird coming from someone who doesn’t believe any of it. But like most people, I contain multitudes. Deal with it!
I should note that, like Matt, I also believe there are some good commercial Christmas songs. Two, actually. One is “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC, because, I mean, duh:
And, of course, the greatest commercial Christmas song ever, “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses:
Neither of these songs are played very much on radio, though, because the station is too busy playing “Wonderful Christmastime,” for which Paul McCartney should be thrown out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all references to his time in the Beatles expunged from history. But that’s just my opinion.
Jim: I have a more complicated relationship with the holiday season. I love some parts of Christmas, have made peace with other parts, and loathe and despise the rest. When I was a kid, a lot of the Christmas season was about waiting anxiously to see what kind of alcohol-fueled train-wreck we were going to get; would it be screaming and violence or just quiet disappointment? But 33 years of my awesome bride and our wonderful children have laid those particular bugaboos to rest, so now that’s not really a part of my thinking anymore, but it did leave me ambivalent about much of the popular conception of Christmas.
Family: My daughters usually make the schlep down from Portland, or we make the schlep up there, so Christmas is always special that way with the whole family together.
Food: Terri cooks a hell of a prime rib. I make homemade eggnog. there’s usually a spectacular breakfast involving maple bacon (bacon cooked in maple syrup; you’ll see God when you taste it).
Traditions: At some point over the holiday period, I will read aloud the greatest Christmas book ever written, Berke Breathed’s Red Ranger Came Calling. I will cry while doing so. My children will refrain from mocking me. We will also watch Opus the Penguin in A Wish for Wings That Work. Berke Breathed gets me.
Black Friday, and shopping in general: I’ve covered this before at my long-neglected lifestyle site, Blue Collar, Black Tie.
Awful music: As far as I’m concerned, there are only two great Christmas songs: O Holy Night (when sung by somebody who doesn’t feel the need to show off), and Judy Garland’s original version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, with the melancholy-but-courageous line “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” a far more honest and realistic sentiment than Sinatra’s bowdlerized remake. I’ve written about this and other Christmas music before as well at the same long-neglected site. I’ll simply add this: Any hint of a mention of “The Christmas Shoes” that isn’t tripping with contempt and derision will not be received with Zesty Jolliness, as Breathed would say. That stupid horrible phony-baloney cesspool of treacle is emblematic of everything wrong with the American Christianese celebration of Christmas. But Patton Oswalt does a far better job demolishing it than I can. (Warning, Oswalt is staggeringly vulgar in this bit. I only share it because he so effectively expresses my hatred for this song and others of its ilk.)
Since we’re on the subject of music, let me take a moment to share one of my favorite Christmas songs with you. It’s by my friend Marina V, a Russian-born singer-songwriter. Here you go:
The So-Called War on Christmas: Let’s be honest. Garbage like “The Christmas Shoes” is far more destructive to everything Christmas is supposed to represent than any number of “Happy Holidays” greetings or Starbucks cups.
Trite and manipulative outpourings of insincere and superficial faith do a lot more damage to the Christian message than any secular displays ever could. I’ll take the squealing about a “war on Christmas” seriously when I hear Christians talking about returning Easter to its religious interpretation. If you’re good with bunnies laying eggs, but you’re going to lose your mind over the absence of a religious message on a freakin’ coffee cup, I have to assume an ulterior motive. Just stop it.
That damned Elf on the Shelf: So some clever lady dug up a bunch of old Christmas decorations from the Kennedy Era and banged out a story to peddle them, and the Walmart-haunting mouth-breathers snapped them up. The Elf itself is cute in a kinda retro way (we had a half-dozen of ’em when I was a kid), but the story they came up with is gross. The blackmail and surveillance premise is repugnant to me, but then we never went in for any of that “Santa is watching you” BS with our kids. Christmas gifts are not supposed to be a bribe for good behavior; they are supposed to represent the concept of grace, the idea of receiving something you don’t deserve just because somebody loves you. You know, like the entire point of the message from the guy whose birthday we’re supposed to be celebrating?
Starting the “holiday season” in September: Say it with me: First the jack-o-lanterns, then the turkey, THEN the fat guy. I don’t want to see a single candy cane or hear a single “fa la la” until after Thanksgiving dinner is over. I will grudgingly tolerate the Christmas display at Michaels or another craft store, because people who like to make stuff for the holidays need prep time, so it’s a legitimate purpose. Everybody else, knock it off. No red-and-green until after the fourth Thursday in November, capisce?
Edo B.: O.k., we were discussing this a bit behind the scenes, and Greg convinced me that maybe I should add a contribution even though, as I said there, I’m kind of in the middle on the holidays. I don’t hate their existence; in fact, I’m a big fan of the eat, drink and be merry aspects of Thanksgiving and Christmas (and New Year’s, I guess), although if spending those days with annoying members of your immediate or extended family gets you down and causes misery, don’t do it. Spend them with loved ones and/or friends whose company you genuinely enjoy.
However, I’m certainly no fan of all the stress caused by the ‘The Holidays,’ to say nothing of the non-stop implication that we all have to spend tons of money buying crap for ourselves and our families and friends to be happy. And yes, I hate that ‘The Holidays’ apparently start before Thanksgiving, or even Halloween, and stretch on until, what, New Year’s Day (or even longer, if you’re Eastern Orthodox)? In fact, I’d go a step further than Jim and say that I’d be perfectly happy not to see any Christmas decorations until about a week (or two, tops) before the actual holiday – and they should all come down on January 2. I know Advent starts at the beginning of December, but if you’re religious (which I’m not) that means you’re only supposed to set up a wreath with candles *inside* your church or home – there’s no requirement to have a big outdoor display. (My only exception to this is the lights: I love colorful lights so much, to the point that I don’t really associate them with any particular holiday. I’d be perfectly happy if the lighting displays stayed up year-round – except I know it’s a massive waste of energy…)
As for Christmas songs, not generally a fan. Not just the cloying, syrupy ‘secular’/commercial stuff, but also – unlike a few others here, apparently – the solemn religious stuff, too (I guess serving a sentence of 8 years in a Catholic elementary school with the mandatory singing of religious carols during Advent cured me of any fondness for them; not even “Oh, Holy Night” does much for me). My idea of good holiday music? Something like this:
Or, better yet, this:
Greg H again. Just a couple of footnotes. First of all, this reinforces my conviction that I am not alone in this, when the reaction to “the holidays” falls somewhere between annoyance and dread.
It’s not the first time I had that realization, though. That was a couple of decades ago, and it was because it came as such a shock. See, the person confessing to me that they didn’t like Christmas EITHER was my friend Helen.
Helen is a deeply Christian lady who writes inspirational books and does a lot of speaking at churches. We worked at the same magazine for a number of years, and though the things she chooses to write about are nothing like the things I choose to write about, I have tremendous respect for her simply as a writer, and I know that this is reciprocated because the only pulp fiction she’s ever picked up in her life is mine; well, that and the comics about Two-Face I sent her when she expressed an interest after an airport layover when I’d spent some time telling her about Batman and why he was awesome. (Seriously, she had no idea who Batman was.) Some day I’ll tell you about the unlikely friendship between us but for now the important part was the time when I was doing my rant about Christmas and she sighed and said, “I don’t like it either. So much pressure, and it’s never about Jesus. This is not what He would have wanted from us.”
My jaw dropped. Sometimes I kidded Helen by airing my heretical views on this or that, mostly because it would make her laugh and say oh, you are not like that at all, stop teasing, but I never expected AGREEMENT.
She smiled at me, amused, and said, “It’s unlikely, isn’t it? But it’s true. I don’t enjoy Christmas.” She went on, “I can only think of one where I truly felt the spirit of Christmas. I had been visiting my daughter when she was on mission, in Africa, and we had a little Christmas dinner in the main hut and then watched the sun setting over the Serengeti. There was a whisper of wind and sometimes we could hear the lions. It was beautiful. I felt closer to God then than I did in any church.” She grinned at me. “And no shopping and no presents!”
Helen nailed it. We each get there on our own, in our own way. So lighten up. It’s the forced participation that ruins everything. Some of us just want the wind and the lions… and no shopping and no presents.
Back next week with something cool… and, one hopes, I’ll be in a better mood then.