Sunday, December 23, 2012

CM: Christmas Misery

For months now, people  have been telling me that I should have a happy Christmas. We had a holiday party in my department. Another department's student group sang carols. Garland went up around the office. People have moaned and groaned about a raging "War on Christmas." And I have nearly gone insane.

I don't know why the US goes crazy over Christmas. Religious people tell me Jesus must have been born later in the year. History tells me that Christmas is celebrated around the Solstice because it made the conversion of Pagans that much easier. But the consumerism? The peculiar decision of parents to create an elaborate, years-long lie to children, that virtually all adults are in on, until that crashing moment when a kid realizes that Santa isn't real and what else is everyone lying to me about....

Misery. We talk about misery here. And for me, Christmas is the most miserable time of all.

Everyone pretends that Christmas is this idyllic holiday, and it seems to be just the opposite. Whether you want to celebrate or not, you are forced, sometimes dragged by guilt or even by simple necessities of going to work, to join in on the "fun." Christmas songs grate on my nerves. And my students wishing me a Merry Christmas makes me want to yell at them. Why do people say that? If someone is Christian and going to celebrate, they will even if you don't order them to have a merry day, and if they aren't, you're just being one of many dicks to say that to strangers in any given day from November 1 to halfway into January. It's like telling someone to have a nice day. As though it would not have occurred to them unless you told them to do it.

Why does everyone pretend that Christmas is lovely?

It's a terrible time of year. A time of year when families get together and say passive-aggressive things to each other about gaining weight, not being married, not having an ideal job, or having a kid who got in trouble with the law. It's a time when extended relatives get tipsy and say racist things. It's a holiday dictated by selfish people who demand that everyone pay $700 for a 3 day trip halfway across the country -- or "your mother will be so very disappointed."

This is the impression I get. My family isn't around anymore, and when they were they weren't Christians. So I can't say this as a personal experience. But I can say that it seems to be the universal experience of all my friends and partners, whose Christmases I attend every year. The crippling guilt about what to buy each other, and whether outdoing each other is generous or rude. The obligation to send annual updates that paint everything as cheerful and bright. The mingling of profound religious belief and secular obligation.

I don't get Christmas.

It wouldn't be so bad if there were an opt-out. But when you don't have people to spend Christmas with, and all your friends leave town, it just becomes this 2-month-long annual period of everyone buying as much as they can in order to get through 3 or 4 days of hellish family fare. Going to the gas station, the grocery store, or using public transit all risks blaring "The First Noel" or those god-awful Bing Crosby songs about Christmas in Hawaii or Ireland or wherever else.

The crowds, the stampedes, the universal assumption that we are all celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, everyone's savior, and the only proper way to celebrate is to buy that electric toothbrush that no one wants and to receive a bunch of thoughtless, cheap gifts and pretend it's all you ever wanted. Like almond-scented soap they were giving away for free at the mall. Thanks friend!! I really understand the meaning of Christmas now that you have given me this token of nothingness.

In an era when everything is so very cheap, is it really an event to give someone such goods? Does buying a DVD of Dark Knight Rises really convey to my friends or colleagues that they mean something to me? And what is the relationship between giving all that crap and the ultimate celebration of divinity?

The reasons Christmas is miserable to me are threefold: the religious side doesn't apply to me and my religion; the singsong happy time with family doesn't apply to those whose immediate families aren't around anymore and whose future families have not yet been found; and the consumerist obligations are so out of control that the concept of a "gift" (an elective appreciation of someone conveyed by selecting a product) has lost all meaning. Every year it's the same battle: either spend it alone or crash a friend's family scene, during which I witness terrible displays of familial hatred.

I think that's what I understand the least: the ability of families to hurt each other so much. Across the board. Every year, different scenes, always someone getting their feelings hurt.

I don't get Christmas. It seems to be misery defined.

(And I apologize if this is too off-topic. The anonymous element of CM made it my only real outlet)


  1. I'm pretty sure you aren't the only one miserable. My family is around (all two of them), and we aren't Christian either, but I agree: Christmas doesn't have a natural joy to me that seems to be warranted, and it hasn't, since I grew up and realized it wasn't about anything other than obligatory gift giving... I blame it on the forced giving and television push to force people into feeling like they're losers if they aren't insanely and frolickingly happy at this time of year (which I got rid of two years ago, so no longer get bombarded by the forced cheer).

    As soon as our 'kid' was old enough to make his own decision about this, we all decided we weren't going to give in to the consumerism demands of the holiday and we no longer feel obligated to give gifts at this time. Instead, we go on as if the holiday doesn't exist; No guilt or frantic stress and faking of liking DVDs we wouldn't have ever bought in the first place... and we're much happier for it. This doesn't mean we NEVER buy each other gifts or show each other appreciation, or get together to celebrate simply enjoying each other's company; we do. BUt when we do, we know it's because of a genuine desire to give, to WANT to spend time together, rather than an obligation.

    Now, for the holidays, I gather friends around me who also buy into our version of 'the holidays.' Usually, these are friends like you. Usually, they don't have children, because apparently it's too traumatic for a child to return to school sans gifts (although ours seemed to turn out fine). As a group, or in smaller groups, we decide on a shared experience, which sometimes takes the form of a game day, or a movie day, or even a non-get-together day, in which we all give in to the mutual desire to ignore Christmas Day itself...

    It's not ideal, but in the last 10 years that we've done this, I've been much happier about the holidays. It works for us. I sincerely hope you find something that works for you, too.

    1. I want to tell you, sincerely, how happy I was to read this comment first. Thank you, Cynic. Made me feel less alone.

  2. Well, at least I feel better about my life after reading this.

  3. I don't mean to minimize your distress, but it seems to me that most of your grumpiness results from choices that you've made. I say this as a person that did not grow up celebrating Christmas at all, but now celebrate it in a big way. You can totally opt out of Christmas because I certainly did, until I was middle-aged. If you're grumpy it's because you've chosen to be.

    Because you don't have to listen to the radio.

    You don't have to buy people presents.

    You don't have to feel guilty about not buying people presents.

    Everyone knows those yearly Christmas letters are bullshit. Everyone.

    No one is dragging you to any celebrations. Seriously. If you don't want to participate, don't.

    No one has to buy into the Christmas guilt unless they choose to. If I had a family member that was pressuring me to attend some gathering three states away, I'd go if I could, and if I couldn't, they can just fuck off if they don't like it. Life's too short.

    You don't have to take "Merry Christmas" as a personal insult, because it's not. Taking it as such is another choice you have made. It's an expression of good will and if you turn it into an insult you're only hurting yourself.

    Now, I am inclined to enjoy Christmas, because I like lights and Christmas songs and I like shopping for people I care about, and making things for people I care about, and sharing holiday cheer and family time. When I was single and didn't celebrate Christmas, I enjoyed the festive hubbub, and the calm that seemed to descend on Christmas itself. Everything slowed down.

    As a religious person I celebrate the birth of Christ, who is my savior, and who brought light and love and redemption into the world. I am part of a church that deliberately attempts to tone down the more secular aspects of the holiday, in favor of the holy ones. The anniversary of the birth of Christ is for me a deep and profound joy. But I love the secular aspects too. I love MY BIG CHRISTMAS TREE WITH ALL THE PRETTY COLORED LIGHTS. I love the ornaments on it that I've made and collected. I love wrapping presents, and giving them. I love getting them.

    The one thing I know, after not celebrating Christmas for decades and then celebrating it very enthusiastically, is that a merry Christmas starts with me. And it starts with you, too.

    Merry Christmas, AM. Merry Christmas.

    1. I think this post is indicative of the larger problem. I have been trying to avoid Christmas for 17 years. Let me tell you: it's very difficult. You have to choose between the obnoxiousness of comments like this or completely and utterly isolating yourself while alienating your friends.

      I live in a coop with 17 people (3 children). Every Christmas, I can choose to stay alone in the dark house, or go with one of them. There is no in between. It's a stark contrast.

      In daily life, it's hardly a choice as you put it. Unless I move out in the woods and live off the land for 2 months of the year, it's out of my hands.

    2. Look, if you post a long screed basically saying you hate Christmas and you actually wonder why anyone would "pretend" that it's lovely, you're gonna get someone out there trying to attempt to explain it to you. Take the answer, or leave it.

    3. That's not what I meant at all. I was trying to explain why it is difficult for me, and trying to understand why obligation and guilt is central to this holiday, and your comment seemed to blame me for this guilt and obligation that perfect strangers push on me. I still don't get that.

      But it's over for another year now, so I don't have to worry about it for now.

  4. Well, although I am an atheist and laugh at the "war on Xmas" BS, and I wouldn't really miss it if it were canceled for a year, I simply can't get this cynical or negative about it. Much of this article rings true, but for me the good outweighs the bad. Some gifts really are cool. We really do enjoy family, for the most part. At least nobody guilt-trips anyone and nobody spends a lot who can't afford it, neither for travel nor for gifts. The frenzied shopping is limited to one or two days. We spend time together playing games or doing crafts with the kids in a way that tends to only happen during holidays.

    The thing that sucks about Christmas for me is the fucking "be online every day in case your students need you" _official policy_ at my 365-day-per-year university. I can keep the online time down to a low number for a few days, but it's still there, gnawing at me.

    BTW, when someone says, "Merry Christmas," that isn't an order, it's a hope or a wish. I try to take those remarks with some empathy, assuming the best in others, even though I know that 80% of it is just as vacuous as the latest batch of final exam essays.

    1. I just put up my vacation message, and am feeling very grateful that I am able to do so.

  5. @AM:
    Il faut être toujours ivre, tout est là ; c'est l'unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l'horrible fardeau du temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.

    Mais de quoi? De bourbon, de poésie, ou de vertu à votre guise, mais enivrez-vous!

    Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d'un palais, sur l'herbe verte d'un fossé, vous vous réveillez, l'ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l'étoile, à l'oiseau, à l'horloge; à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est. Et le vent, la vague, l'étoile, l'oiseau, l'horloge, vous répondront, il est l'heure de s'enivrer ; pour ne pas être les esclaves martyrisés du temps, enivrez-vous, enivrez-vous sans cesse de bourbon, de poésie, de vertu, à votre guise.

    Vous êtes précieux, Singe Académique. Vous êtes aimés.

    1. Ach du Scheisse. Jetzt wird auch hier in einer dieser elenden westeuropäischen Sprachen gebloggt. Ich krieg's Kotzen.

    2. La saison prochaine, j'espere visiter a Paris avec mes amies pour le noel. Mais merci pour ces mots, Bubba...

    3. Wunderbar, Bubba, enchanté, fantastyczny, niin runollinen!

      @CM, How about treating yourself to something good? Chocolate, sauna, a good book? Don't turn on the radio or the TV, but pop the Boss into the CD player, and enjoy the days without students!

    4. This year I'm at my partner's family's house. I was just trying to express the malaise of having to choose between being alone for 3-4 days, or crashing another person's celebration. It always makes me feel fraudulent, no matter what I choose. But now it is over and I mustn't think of it for another 364 days. (relieeeef)

    5. AM, it may very well be the case that whatever family you find yourself hanging with is behaving better than usual to each other because you're there. It's certainly the case with mine whenever we welcome those outside the close fold, so you could be doing a mitzvah there without realizing it. I appreciate your screed. As someone who's comfortable with the religious aspects of Christmas and amusedly tolerant of the consumerist ones (and enjoys the ones that are sort of in between, like music and cookies) I appreciate being reminded of differing perspectives.

    A non Christmas song may cheer you up a wee bit

  7. 良いお年を、アカデミック・モンキー

    With you on the pretense bit, AM.

    And Adjunct Slave, "be online every day". Seriously? I suppose opening the browser and then immediately closing it again is - technically - being online....

    1. And Adjunct Slave, "be online every day". Seriously? I suppose opening the browser and then immediately closing it again is - technically - being online....

      "Every day" is a slight exaggeration. The school has a 36-hour policy. So if I log on in the evening, I can skip a day and log on in the morning two days later.

      To count as logging in, I have to go into each online classroom, if only for a moment, and read and, if necessary, respond to each e-mail and personal message.

    2. Looks like the school can check that shit, too....ouch!

  8. My dad used to make fruitcakes for all the relatives and then drive around California distributing them to all the relatives. They tasted awful but cheered everyone up.


    Because they were literally soaking in Koniak. You could get wasted just from eating a few slices.

  9. Bah, humbug! I prefer to observe the birthdays of Sir Isaac Newton and Humphrey Bogart on the 25th.

  10. I'm kinda with Stella here. The midwinter holiday(s) are what you make of them and you're not obliged to do or not do any particular thing (though admittedly you probably can't use the university library on the 25th, and perhaps for a week or so surrounding that date). But I realize that's easier to say for someone who feels comfortable with the religious tradition (though not the secular consumerist one), and has a family (albeit a complicated one) with which I actually appreciate the opportunity to spend time. And if people around you are talking about the supposed "War on Christmas," it sounds like you may find yourself in a somewhat aggressively hegemonic Christian context. The (somewhat) good news: all those people are about to retreat to their homes for at least a day or two, and you're free to do the same (and spending the time alone doesn't sound like such a bad idea given the alternatives you've described, but maybe that's the introvert in me speaking; several days alone is always going to sound just fine to me). And though the consumerist binge will continue for a while, the holiday-making focus will soon turn to New Year's eve, which is (1)secular and (2) usually celebrated with friends/family of choice, not family of origin (though nobody says you have to spend Christmas with anybody who treats you or those you care about badly, whatever their relationship. In fact, avoiding such situations, especially at times of year when emotions tend to run high, strikes me as a very sane choice).

    Anyway, I hope you find a bright spot somewhere in the whole business, even if it's only the returning light and/or the fact that the 2 months are nearly over, and won't come again for another 10.

    And with that, I'm going to record my hope that everybody here is able to squeeze some measure of hope, joy, or just respite from the coming week, and turn my attention away from the internet for 10 days or so.

  11. I hear you. I don't mind the break, I enjoy the time to read and research a little, and I enjoy some one-on-one time with my daughter and an occasional "get away" trip with my wife (just the two of us; I am male despite my "Harriet" screen name :-) ).

    But as far as the "family"; let's say that not all of us have "Leave it to Beaver" families; remember that those you see in police reports come from someone's family. In some sense this is the time of year in which I am obligated to spend time with people that I would't choose to spend time with.

  12. The "War on Christmas" is a load; the first people to yelp about it were the John Birch Society in the late 1950s, things went quiet for thirty-plus years, then anybody at some box store who was told "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" complained about it. The sniveling reached boiling point under the spastic Bush II regime, finding it's champion in Bill O'Reilly. We were stuck with it for the rest of the decade, but like all culture-war targets, it ran its course by last year. Possibly in twenty years it will flame up again, but only if the GOP doesn't implode in the next twenty months.

  13. Now I do not consider myself anti-Christmas in any way, but I LOVE working and living in a country where I can tailor my Christmas to exactly what I want to make of it. It's my family's holiday, but not my spouse's, so I have adopted the traditions I want to maintain, ditched those I don't, and have made up some new ones to share with others in the expat community. I control exactly how much and what kind of pop culture Christmas I have -- which is a luxury I relish this time of year.

    I miss spending the holidays with my family (not just Christmas, but all the gathering-obligatory ones), but I definitively do NOT miss the two straight months of effing "holiday" music in every conceivable public space. It's a wonder that all of North America doesn't get hauled off to the looney bin by sundown on Boxing Day on account of that sort of overexposure.

    God bless us, CM. God bless us, every one.

  14. I love Christmas. I just love it. But my goofy husband made me sit down to watch this movie "Christmas With the Cranks" last week. He was sure I would think it was hilarious. I did not. I do t have that kind of sense of humorous and He Should Know This. So there I was taking it very seriously and a sense of rage was building at all those jerks who would not leave that poor couple alone. My hubby convinced me to keep watching, promising I'd love the end. I pictured them happy on their non Christmas themed cruise and waited. When their daughter called and I realized they were going to have to give up skipping Christmas after all I just exploded and left the room. My poor hubby right? He did turn it off though.

    AM did you ever hear Adam Sandler talk about this? That man is hilarious! I wish there was a Christmas free zone for you! I think you should sleep late, make yourself a nice brunch and then go see Les Mis. I am so sad I am going g to miss it on its opening day. Another non christmasy Christmas tradition I like personally is the fact that they show the twilight zone all day. A small part of me would love to sit home and veg with the 'Zone.

    I hope you have a peaceful, happy day tomorrow.

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    1. Um, isn't the Vernal Equinox in March?

    2. Sorry; I'm against the Vernal Equinox, as well as the Summer Solstice. I am an inveterate defender of the Autumna Equinox, Winter Solstice and Lincoln Birthday, however, so I face no end of grief.

      I am of reform observance of those holidays, though, so for me they all fall on July 4, which unfortunately coincides with another holiday that I do not recognize; it is HELL for me shopping on those days, and I usually end up in a fistfight with the guy from Best-Buy about it...

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. It's funny, but the Vernal Equinox was the one specifically mentioned by Bill: I should have noticed it instantly. One problem with speaking out about equinoxes and solstices is that it's quite impossible to explain them to a TV audience: there are too many unfamiliar concepts that need to be kept in their minds simultaneously (namely, the Sun's apparent annual motion around the sky even though it's really Earth's orbit around the Sun, the Celestial Equator, and how this is only approximate since Earth's orbit is an ellipse and also because of the tilt of Earth's equator to perpendicular to the ecliptic).

  16. AM, Sorry that you're alone on Christmas; not fun being alone, especially when those you want to be with are are enjoying the company of others.

    But as noted, Christmas doesn't have to be the orgy-of-consumerism that commerce would make it out to be. Those of us for whom this *is* a sacred holiday have to constantly re-make it and clarify it for ourselves, so you can too.

    If you don't want to be alone, you can subvert the "getting" part of the Consumer-Christmas and volunteer serving the poor or keeping the elderly company; you can tick off "Service" on your social resume, and actually counter the dynamics of Christmas that disgust you.

    You're an acadmic; you can take it as a mini-sabbatical and get some reading or writing done while you have some alone-time.

    You can go hang out in a local bar, get drunk and irresponsible, blaming it all on you being "all alone on Christmas." You might even get some sympathy from others who are alone on Christmas, or at least leave a tip that will brighten the day of someone who may have to work on a day they would rather spend with family.

    Or you can snowflake-out and whine about it here on CM, which is fine; we don't judge.

    But if you're still whining on Wednesday, then we tell you to STFU.

    Merry Christmas!

  17. AM, I'm with the folks who recommend that you consider hooking up with a volunteer organization for next Christmas--it's probably too late to sign up for one this year. My family is Jewish and anti-consumerist, and there's a limit to how long we can spend in each others' company without bloodshed, so we did the volunteer thing on Christmas Day for several years. It was nice to have something to do besides watch movies and eat Chinese food. (Mind you, we still did that too. :))

    Hope you manage to find some peace and joy for yourself this season, even if it's not related to Christmas in any way.

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  19. If it's any consolation, trying looking at the season the way I do, as a celebration of the renewal of the annual cycle of the year. Anytime I hear anyone influenced by Bill O'Reilly sarcastically wish me a Happy Winter Solstice, I say thanks, and mean it.

    If that doesn't work for you, remember how, as he did so many other times, Dickens left us words that fit the situation perfectly:

    "Bah, humbug!"

    And of course, I also hate-hate-hate it whenever people who loudly claim to be Christians act in ways so unlike the teachings of Christ. It reminds me of the parables of Jesus involving pharisees. (Hey, I took Comp Lit too, you know.) But then, this kind of behavior is hardly unique to this time of year.

  20. I understand some of Academic Monkey's frustration. Also, as usual, I agree with most of the commenters about choosing to make Christmas work for you. It particularly helps to turn off TV and commercial radio and stay out of as many stores as possible.

    But even though I came late to the party, here's my contribution to this Holiday Potluck: let's put the whole Christmas Thang into global perspective.

    Is there an agricultural society anywhere that doesn't have an over-the-top holiday complete with excessive seasonal music and food, family expectations and sniping, a spiritual spectrum from orthodoxy to hedonism, and symbolic gift-giving with requisite angst over reciprocity? If there is, I don't know it.

    It's just part of the human condition, glorious and vexing as any other aspect of this complicated bag of tissue and neurons that usually prefers the company of others.


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