"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I Hate The Holidays–Here They Come Again

I hate The Holidays. Come Thanksgiving my spirits drop; and by Christmas, I am in the tar pits.

Women appreciate The Holidays more than men because they want to keep tradition alive and family together.  In a world where children leave the nest early and only come back in times of penury or broken marriages, a happy Christmas with shared mulled wine and the promise of presents is an anchor, a statement of solidarity, and an expression of warmth and generosity.  The women in my life, therefore, have never understood my dark feelings.

I am not sure either why they come on like a Black Dog depression every year.  The easy answer, posited by the liberal intelligentsia, is crass commercialism. Christmas was once a beautiful holiday, they say, all white snow, holly wreaths, carolers, and good cheer.  Presents were simple – an orange, a warm scarf, or a fruit cake made by Aunt Margaret.  Nothing like today with a shopping season that begins before Halloween, the feeding frenzy of Black Friday, and a month-long gantlet of advertising for useless, senseless, and inane products.

In an article in The Guardian (11.26.13) George Monbiot rails against the hijacking of Christmas by commercial interests.

Christmas permits the global bullshit industry to recruit the values with which so many of us would like the festival to be invested – love, warmth, a community of spirit – to the sole end of selling things that no one needs or even wants. Sadly, like all newspapers, the Guardian participates in this orgy. Saturday's magazine contained what looks like a shopping list for the last days of the Roman empire. There's a smart cuckoo clock, for those whose dumb ones aren't up to the mark; a remotely operated kettle; a soap dispenser at £55; a mahogany skateboard (disgracefully, the provenance of the wood is mentioned by neither the Guardian nor the retailer); a "pappardelle rolling pin", whatever the hell that is; £25 chocolate baubles; a £16 box of, er, garden twine.

There is nothing new in the observation that the retail industry has transformed Christmas from a Grandma Moses pastoral to a Macy’s free-for-all; and that most of us have fallen for it. We are the shoppers who line up at big box stores in the middle of the night and who stampede down the aisles like a herd of buffalo as soon as the doors open.  We are the parents who listen to their children’s obscene requests, and then fight the crowds to get Sofia, The First Royal Talking Vanity, one of Toys ‘R Us hottest toys of the Season.

Not only is Toys ‘R Us the temple of American Christmas commercialism – that would be bad enough – but it is an aggressive proselytizer for shopping.  Its ads do not simply promote toys and celebrate buying, but take a broad swipe at the opposition:

Watch the latest advertisement for Toys R Us in the US. A man dressed up as a ranger herds children on to a green bus belonging to "the Meet the Trees Foundation". "Today we're taking the kids on the best field trip they could wish for," he confides to us. "And they don't even know it."

On the bus he starts teaching them, badly, about leaves. The children yawn and shift in their seats. Suddenly, he announces: "But we're not going to the forest today …" He strips off his ranger shirt. "We're going to Toys R Us, guys!" The children go berserk. "We're going to get to play with all the toys, and you're going to get to choose any toy that you want!" The children run, in slow motion, down the aisles of the shop, then almost swoon as they caress their chosen toys.

This, despite Monbiot’s laments, is an example of brilliant marketing.  It isn’t just about the toys, but about the experience. Modern day kids in a candy shop. Shelf after shelf of dolls, action figures, vanity sets, dress-up kits, army fatigues, little princess wands, Humvees, battle armor, space ships, Barbies, video games, bikes, kitchen sets….The list is endless.

Modern marketing theorists understand that the shopping experience is even more valuable than the purchased product itself.  Women are agog at the displays in Nordstrom’s, Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue; and children are bedazzled at Toys ‘R Us. Once toys and must-have blouses are unwrapped and given a short run, they pile up unused and unnoticed in closets and playrooms. The ad cited by Monbiot is part of an overall marketing strategy – Christmas is the highest of High Holidays and shopping for toys is a sacred ritual.

In the dynamics of the marketplace it takes two to tango – buyer and seller.  Economics 101 is never far from view; and if it weren’t for the rabid, materialistic American masses, Toys ‘R Us would be out of business.  And without the canny, insistent, and persuasive advertising of toy manufacturers and retail outlets, consumers can only wish in the dark.

The mastery of product retailers is that they create demand where it never existed before.  What little girl ever imagined that there was such a thing as a talking princess vanity?

So, no, the commercial blitzkrieg is not what sends me down in the dumps.  Fortunately I am insulated from most of it anyway.  I live in a leafy, traditional neighborhood of Washington and rarely see a mall, a commercial strip, or shopping center.  I watch little TV, and in my narrow little privileged strip of DC there are no bright lights, banners, or advertising posters.

Other observers have noted that the reason for Holiday Depression is unmet expectations.  The once-a-year happy family reunions that nine-times-out-of-ten turn bad. The adult children resent that parent guilt drove them to give up a perfectly good skiing holiday and spend a treacly present-opening faux-celebration with the folks. Cousin Kerry is still pissed at something Cousin George said five years ago, and as soon as she hears his catarrh, her bile rises.  The tree is a pain in the ass to put up, and old Aunt Mary knocks it on its pins every year as she tries to right it. “It’s not plumb”, she croaks, and nudges it left and right until it starts to totter.

Uncle Bill starts with hot toddies, moves on to straight single malt, drinks far more than his fair share of burgundy over his turkey wings, and by liqueur and coffee time won’t shut up about Obama and the Damn-Ass-Craps.  Nieces and nephews have other parties to go to, the dishes pile up in the sink, and everybody wishes they were somewhere else.

It is all supposed to be a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but it never, ever is.

I don’t think Christmas get-togethers are my problem either.  My mother hated ‘company’, and so we made the trek every year down to New Haven to my more sociable aunt’s house.  I loved her Christmases because of the food – antipasto, lasagna, eggplant parmesan, corn fritters, baked ham, custard pies, sfogliatelle, canoli, and boca notte.  My cousins were older so it was fun hanging out with them, and the day was all about eating.  No presents.

“Hating The Holidays is all about all about obligation and routine”, said Bob Randall, a close friend of mine. “I resent the fact that we have to have a tree, presents, big dinners, and company.  I love my children, but I would rather see them in Charleston and Santa Barbara, eat at great restaurants, be with them in situ, meet their friends and partners – laugh and joke on their terms and on their turf.  I would rather the impromptu visit, a free weekend, a trip to Savannah or San Diego. There is nothing expected, nothing dutiful, no demands or expectations.

“Last year for the first time ever my wife and I did not have a family Thanksgiving and went to our favorite resort on the Chesapeake.  A short getaway on the water, lots of oysters, Northern Neck wineries, and a relaxed, simple, and old-fashioned hotel ambience. Best of all, no turkey, stuffing, creamed onions, candied yams, mince and pumpkin pies, and Aunt Julia’s lumpy mashed potatoes.  I would have loved to have my children join us there, but they are busy with their own lives.. I love the idea of the family getting together, not just in Holiday harness.”

One morning while working out at the gym, I ran into an old friend. We talked about our plans, what we were doing, and when we might get together.  He asked me about The Holidays, and I replied that I hated them.  He looked startled, and said, “So do I.” We found that we both go into funks at the first sign of a Christmas wreath, Salvation Army Santa, Toyotas wrapped in Christmas ribbon, and stands of fir trees on church lawns.  We both knew that Holiday Funk was a common American phenomenon; but this was the first time we had admitted our own personal misery to anyone else.  It was elating.

I will get through The Holidays one more time; but secretly wish that I were sitting down to dinner with my children at Delfina’s or eating oysters in South Boston.  Last August my wife and I visited our daughter in San Francisco and went to the biggest flea market ever – acres and acres of stuff just across the Bay in Oakland – moose antlers, 1940s saws, old prints of Sausalito, medical forceps, ancient dolls, masks, and frilly dresses.  Now THAT was a Christmas to remember!

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