Our “step aunt” and her husband had three kids, the older two staggered perhaps a year behind my sister and me, and the third a few years younger than that. So the older two were past the actual Santa-believing years and the youngest was probably still in it. But they got all major Santa action—more presents than I’d ever seen in one place, all wrapped in this shiny white paper that I remember vividly to this day, because it remains this emblem of envy and dissatisfaction. My sister and I got a few things from our Dad, and token presents from the steps, but mostly we spent that morning watching these three kids gorge on their mountain of booty.
Even then, I recognized the absurdity of my dissatisfaction. I had gotten just what I wanted, and yet it suddenly wasn’t enough, because of everything I had to see myself not get. I’d been disappointed at Christmas before—those Christmas mornings that were heavy on sweaters and educational toys, when there was not enough plastic stamped “Made in Japan,” not enough monsters or weapons—but never like this. Never existentially disappointed. Never disappointed to a point of despair.¹ It was perhaps appropriate that this was the last Christmas of my childhood, the last Christmas where I’d ask for toys, because my childhood and Christmas died as a piece that year. I have mostly hated the holiday ever since.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]Hating Christmas is neither original nor endearing. Like pessimism or diarrhea, it’s something that everybody experiences—some more than others, but no one never—that you’re expected to keep to yourself. [/gn_pullquote]
Hating Christmas is neither original nor endearing. Like pessimism or diarrhea, it’s something that everybody experiences—some more than others, but no one never—that you’re expected to keep to yourself. I have done a poor job of that. My past is littered with people who never want to hear me bitch about Christmas again, and I am old enough now to take that to heart. Complaints about Christmas are familiar and boring—the commercialism, the traffic, the forced joviality, the family dysfunction—and I’ve mostly made my peace with the holiday, and generally find a way to enjoy it. But I do want to say something about why I came to hate Christmas, and how it was not the same reason I first hated it.
The second memory I have of hating Christmas is probably two or three years after the first one—which, in terms of adolescent development, might as well have been decades. My grandparents were spending it at our house, and they were profligate gift-givers. I’m sure their gifts to my sister and me were generous—they always were—but what I remember was the endless stream of gifts my mother opened from them, one giggly ooh-fest after another, and unlike when I was 12, I reacted with not envy, but disgust. It struck me as obscene, like something from a Richie Rich comic book, a spoiled child bathing in a fountain of gold.²
If it seems that this marked a moral shift in my being—from stuff-grubbing to stuff-repulsed—there’s some truth in that, but it’s probably just as much the fact that my interests were shifting from tangible goods like toys and comic books to the less tangible goods of sex, drugs, etc., which despite the cliché really were the fascinations of my adolescence. But as the years passed, my moral revulsion grew more and more distinct, and a clear theme emerged: I hated the waste of the holiday, and especially the waste of getting things I didn’t need. By the time I was in college, I’d come to loathe the question, “What do you want for Christmas?”, because I rarely wanted anything. Sometimes I could identify things I needed, and it was a relief when I could, but usually I felt like I had what I needed. And that only worsened when I had a real income, because then, when I needed something I just bought it. So Christmas became a time when I got a bunch of stuff I didn’t need, and in turn bought other people stuff they didn’t need. It literally made me nauseous (and I mean that “literally” literally; I would feel queasy on Christmas morning, like I was strapped into some cheap carny ride).Though my own nausea has abated over the years (in part because, despite how it may appear, I’ve learned how to take bad things less seriously), the Christmas season as an objective phenomenon has only gotten more nauseating. As recently as a decade ago, when the recorded trampling deaths still numbered in the single digits, Black Friday as a concept and a term was still a novelty. Now, it’s a permanent cultural fixture, and it has become such an easy symbol for what’s wrong with Christmas that it’s barely worth remarking on. But there is an observation still worth making. [gn_pullquote align=”right”]The real meaning of Christmas, as presently constituted: If we don’t buy all these things that no one really needs, the economy collapses.[/gn_pullquote]
Although future generations will (if present ones do not already) likely assume Black Friday was named descriptively, as a token of evil or disaster—“Black Monday,” “Black Tuesday,” “Black Wednesday,” and “Black Thursday” (yes, those all exist) all refer to calamitous economic events—the name “Black Friday” has its origins in accounting. It’s traditionally considered the day of the year when retailers finally start making a profit. Until we all start buying all these things that no one really needs, the machine is running on fumes—which means our frenzied Christmas consumption is required in order to keep the economy afloat. That’s why the handwringing gets so severe when the early indicators are weak. If the madness ever took a holiday, we’d plunge into recession.
I find that an amazing and telling fact, but it’s also a familiar one, and I don’t want to revert to form and just gripe about the obvious. Because the point I want to make is subtler than that. When I look back at my relationship to Christmas, I see three stages. In the first, I am entranced by all the goods, as if they could sate me, as if they are legitimate reasons for being. In the second, I experience the dissatisfaction of not getting enough of what I want, and of realizing that I could never get enough of what I want to be truly satisfied—of seeing that my desire is unquenchable, and futile. And finally, I experience a different kind of dissatisfaction: not the dissatisfaction of not getting enough of what I want, but the dissatisfaction of getting too much of it—of getting what I don’t need. That’s when Christmas became nauseating, because it was like eating after you’re totally full. You’re not feeling deprived of a supposed good, you’re feeling over-saturated, stuffed with something such that it’s no longer a good at all.
It’s no accident, I think, that these stages are suggestive of a spiritual progression. Because that is what we’re talking about here: a problem that is essentially spiritual, that turns on questions of existential value. What really matters? What do we live for? Those are contested questions in human life, and I would not expect them to be absent from our most freighted holiday. The fact that the greed of Black Friday seems to have Christmas’s nobler sentiments on the ropes is just part of the drama—and it might even be cause for encouragement. Because I was as greedy as Black Friday itself, and that didn’t change because of anything I did. My progression through those stages was just a natural reaction to environmental conditions. Why did I have that reaction while others don’t? Probably because I was born irritable, the same way I was born sensitive to poison ivy, when other kids could roll in it with impunity. But I’ve seen those kids grow up into adults who finally break into a rash after weeding the garden one time too many. Toxins are toxins, and they will make themselves felt.
We won’t break Christmas’s unhealthy grip by trying to push away from the table hungry, by trying to wean ourselves from things we still want. That’s why I want to kick my habit of complaining about the holiday. Because we already know what the problem is. We’re just not sick of it yet. If anything, I should cheer us on, and hope that we consume to our heart’s content, consume for all we’re worth, so that we will one day wake up sick of it, and do something different.
So in this season of hope, I have hope. But part of that hope is that by the time we come around, Thanksgiving is still standing. Because that is a holiday I truly love. It’s got most of the best parts of Christmas—the big family meal, the football by the fire, the vaguely ignored religious themes, the break from work and school—and none of the worst ones. If Gray Thursday takes over Thanksgiving, I will complain to my grave, without apology.
¹Here I should mention that some of this despair might have been due to sleep-deprivation, because the boy in the family, whose bedroom I shared, snored like Santa after an aquavit* bender, and given that I was always jacked up on Christmas Eve to start with, I don’t know if I slept at all.
*A very nasty liquor favored by Scandanavians, the people who invented Santa Claus.** Thanks for everything guys!
**Alright, technically the Dutch did, but whatever.