“Hey, where you going?” my wife called out as I rounded up my keys from the top of my dresser.
“None of your business,” I said. “I just have a couple of errands to run.”
“Ooh, mysterious errands,” she said, walking into the bedroom. “Are you going to get a Christmas present for little old me?”
“Should I?” I said, putting on my best innocent look.
She sidled up next to me, took my arm, and wiggled around a little bit. “Well, I’ll be thinking of you while you’re gone,” she said.
Yes, I was going to get a Christmas gift for my wife. And she knew it, of course. These are the kinds of games people who have been married for a long time play.
My distaste for Christmas has grown over the years to the point where I can hardly stand it any more. It used to be kind of a community holiday, but now people are saying that you can’t display a creche on public property and it’s politically incorrect to wish people “Merry Christmas.” It’s gotta be “Happy Holidays” if you don’t want to piss somebody off.
I’m not religious, God knows, but the whole thing started as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I mean, even if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ or even believe that such a man ever existed. According to the dictionary, the holiday was called Cristes mæsse in Old English and cristmasse in Middle English, and now is Christmas. What it means is “Mass of Christ.” That seems pretty damn clear to me. If we can’t call the Mass of Christ what it is, well, can you imagine saying to the Jews, “Hey, you guys can’t say ‘Hanukkah’ right out loud any more—and you can’t light any candles, either?” Don’t even think about Ramadan.
I do remember the anticipation of Christmas as a kid. The newspaper had a little box down in the right hand corner of the front page that would count down the days until Christmas starting about December 1. (Dang it, here I am getting all righteous about Christmas, and I’m thinking that box might have said, like, “18 shopping days until Christmas,” but anyway.) I remember my excitement growing by the day until by December 24, I was almost vibrating. Then then the day came and we’d open presents (presents!) and have a big meal with relatives and then poof, it was all over. Kind of like air going out of a balloon. Where’d it all go? And then it was 365 shopping days until next Christmas. Sure, there was a lot of commercialism, but the whole thing was fun. I don’t doubt for a moment that I might’ve conflated a bunch of actual memories of Christmases past with wishes for what Christmases should have been and created a history that never was, but still. Everybody had a good time with it and eggnog and the Christmas spirit and NOBODY got pissed off if you wished them a Merry Christmas.
I am an introvert. A serious introvert. One of nearly the hermit kind. One of my favorite quotes on the subject is by the writer Neal Stephenson: “Where did all these people come from, and how do I make them go away?” What this means as far as Christmas is concerned is that even though I enjoy gift-giving, I absolutely hate crowds.
When I was about thirty and single—in days before the Internet—I developed tactics for shopping that made dealing with the crowds easier. I didn’t shower, shave, or brush my teeth for three days before going out to hit the malls (in those days, a stubbly face was a sign of poor grooming rather than a fashion statement). On the fateful day, I dressed in raggedy, grubby clothes. A pair of jeans I’d dragged around the garage floor until they were grimy and reeked of oil and gasoline. A tattered shirt. A holey tee-shirt was the best, weather permitting. Then I’d chew and swallow three cloves of raw garlic, washing each mouthful down with a shot of whiskey. Finally, I’d take a fourth shot of whiskey and slosh it all around my mouth and gargle with it before I swallowed, and splash a little more onto my shirt. At the stores, I’d act a little unsteady on my feet and mutter and mumble under my breath. Worked like a charm. The crowds of mostly women would part before me like Moses and the Red Sea, and I was able to take care of Christmas shopping in jig time.
I thought the commercialism of Christmas was bad enough during my garlic and whiskey days, but now? Dear God. Walgreen’s puts out Christmas wrapping and starts playing Christmas carols on its Muzak even before the Thanksgiving turkey goes into the oven. Thirty percent of all retail sales in the United States are made in the month between Black Friday and Christmas. And 40% of jewelry sales. The Christ child has taken a far back seat to commercial greed.
Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving. The name Black Friday has been associated with calamitous events for a hundred and fifty years, and on November 9, 1975, the New York Times applied the term to the day after Thanksgiving, already known then as “the busiest shopping and traffic day of the year.” The New York Times picked up the term from the Philadelphia police, who used it to describe the negative effects of crowds and cars on them. So now a day named for calamity begins the ramp-up to the hap-hap-happiest season of all. Yep, times change, and you have to keep up with the times.