Christmas appeared early this year in our local stores–about three weeks before the Fourth of July, I think. It’s not that I don’t love the site of a freshly-decorated fake tree with a pine-smelling air freshener trying to convince me it’s real–I do, don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff. I love mistletoe and wilted cranberries alternating with stale popcorn strung in strands wrapped around light poles. I love walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the outrageous perfection of window displays planned months in advance and revealed for the season. I love knowing that the largest tree in the world has been hunted down, exterminated, and will be waiting for me in Rockefeller plaza if I get a chance to get down to see it, which I used to try to do annually but haven’t done for some time.
I love all the trimmings of the American Consumer Christmas that was created in tandem by Coca Cola’s plump carbonation-consuming Santa and marketing genius W.H. Macy–the first great entrepreneur to give St. Nick an emolument for sitting in his department store training kids to want stuff on the occasion of the birth of someone else. And then to be ballsy enough to have a parade in honor of that desire. That’s America! And who doesn’t love the movies–the Bing, the Jimmy Stewart, the “Christmas Story” 24-hour marathon. Because I can watch it twelve times. It’s a cult classic.
I don’t mind the secular side of Christmas, or the leftover relics of other holidays so intelligently disguised by the Holy Roman Empire–I love the German Christmas tree, the Yule Log, and the fact that the mistletoe was actually a fertility ritual. I’m even willing to forgive the fact that in the year 350 the Roman Catholic Pope Julius I picked the date of Christmas to coincide with everyone else’s holidays irregardless of the historical birth of Jesus, just to make it easier and more convenient for other religions to convert and still keep their celebrations in tact.
I want to share this holiday spirit with everyone–religious, secular, Christian, non Christian–it’s the season of awesome carols (also a pre-Christian tradition, I might add, but I’ll steal a good song like Vanilla Ice lifting Freddie Mercury when it presents itself). It’s the season of million-calorie egg nog. It’s the season to give cards, token gifts, and smiles–even to the people we don’t like. They all seem a little nicer to me. And that’s a good thing…
This is a tradition I just can’t wrap my head around. I didn’t mind so much when it was the stores opening a bit early to publicize a few doorbuster sales. But then it got vicious. Stores opening earlier. Stores staying open all night. People fighting over the last Whatever’s Hot That Season and selling it on Ebay for ten times the cost. Almost all of the “seven deadly sins” wrapped up in a – bow for the news coverage to see. One person reported to me that he had to go to Black Friday training to be permitted to work the all-nighter, because stores taught techniques in loss-aversion and crowd control.
Let me get this right–we have to train employees in law enforcement so they can deal with thieving, pushing crowds the day after Thanksgiving–the holiday of gratitude? Workers need to learn how to mediate disputes between people fighting over consumer goods at rock-bottom prices made in countries that are underpaying poorly treated workers? In honor of love and spirituality?
I pause to think.
One year, I did take part in Black Friday–I didn’t set my clock. I’m naturally awake at Dumb O’Clock in the morning. The reason I decided to venture out was because I lived in the city near the store. We were really struggling that year–we were building a business–the entrepreneurial spirit is never quite as glamorous as one thinks–the Great Recession hit hard, and there was so much uncertainty in the air. I was flat broke and my step-daughter’s holiday list was on the table. I went out to one store, and got the simple things–as many as I could so that I’d have something to wrap under the tree. Things made in countries by underpaid workers made available to me at rock bottom prices.
I started thinking of a time before Black Friday existed. I was somewhere around eight years old. My father was out of work during that generation’s Great Recession, but there wouldn’t have been box stores offering huge sales at that time, and if there were, my mom would have had to make choices between things like food or presents. Somehow, there were presents. The gift I remember most was a radio. I now know this came from a tag sale, and it was broken. It only got one channel–the Spanish station. I think my mother was upset, but I loved the Spanish station–I still love it today. Por eso, hablo espanol bastante bien, claro.
Because the things we truly love cannot be measured by money, sales, or consumerism.
As a child, that Christmas was just like any other Christmas–family, community, and fun. Community was much closer in those days. Friends stepped in and helped. They were there in person because computers did not exist. When there was no food, food appeared, when there was no money, it magically grew in the Christmas cactus. When someone was sick, people came and took the kids and gave parents the break they needed.
This is the essence of the holidays and Christmas seasons I remember. My friends Karen, LIsa, and Cheryl–how we used to make Christmas crafts together. All my parents’ friends and their circles of guitars. The traditions at the church and the houses of the people with whom I grew up. As we got older we sang in the choirs. As we got older still, the last people awake and still coherent enough to read the words on the page had to go back to the late Mass to sight sing Latin a capella…I miss that. And you can bet this holiday season, I’ll throw on the sacred music, even if I don’t always land in church in person.
Black Friday–taking employees away from their families and communities–is the opposite of this feeling of warmth I remember. Although I caved to Black Friday that one year due to the year of fear and uncertainty for my family and for many Americans–I will not be doing it again.
This year, Thanksgiving will be small and peaceful. I suspect my extended family will show up for cheesecake, egg nog, and the list of pies they requested. The day after Thanksgiving, I plan to fence off my garden–I just moved, and I want it to be ready for the spring. I want to take the weekend to reach out and thank the people to whom I’m grateful–friends new and old, new colleagues, family members I don’t see enough. I want to make actual phone calls rather than sending texts and emails–I want to hear voices on the other end; just a small attempt to stop the rat race for a little bit.
And if I venture out into the commercial arena, it will be to my local businesses, which have pulled out all the stops better than the stores on Fifth Avenue ever could. I’ll meet the shopkeepers in my new town, and buy some gifts from them–because Small Business Saturday, I think, should not be a holiday, it should be a way of life. It should be a way of shaking hands and building back the community that the rat race seems to have stolen from us.
I’m guilty of joining the rat race, too. Of seeing how much I can get done in order to defy the physics of time. This holiday season, I want to prepare, connect, build relationships, and enjoy. Black Friday seems the perfect time to do just that.