Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reflections on the Recent Winter Holidays

I'm no grinch! If other people enjoy the winter holidays – more power to them.  Especially kids.  That is the one redeeming part of the holiday season – kids love it.  I was really glad to see my niece and nephew and I hope they liked the gifts I got them.  So I'm no grinch – a creature who was so upset that others enjoyed the holidays, or so the story goes, that he attempted to ruin it for everyone.

Another redeeming quality of the holidays – they are an excuse to take time off work.  But besides time off and happy kids, the holidays suck.

If I were Christian or Jewish or had a faith-based reason to celebrate, then maybe that would help.  I'm not.  But plenty of people still enjoy the traditions without being particularly religious – even the religious traditions.  Maybe there are one or two traditions I enjoy – the lights certainly put a warm glow on an otherwise cold, grey time of year; though they certainly waste a lot of energy.  A mug of egg nog with a spot of adult beverage included is also soothing after a busy and stressful time of year at work; though egg nog is pretty high in calories and fat; and most sold is not organic.

Still, I'm willing to concede that the time off work, giddy children, lights and nog are redeeming  qualities.  Besides that, the holidays are miserable.

There is community and family.  Back in olden times holidays probably made more sense because people lived near each other – your family stuck around and you were likely to stay with your community longer.  Without digging up any data, I would posit that modern times have scattered our families and friends about the globe; also communities are much more fluid than in times past.  Just the fact that we are able to travel so easily now than, say, 100 years ago, is reason enough for that phenomenon – people are scattered in really distant places from those whom they know and/or are related.  But the annual celebrations continue as if we could all just wander to the town square or shout out of a glass-less window to our distant cousins, inviting them to come over and enjoy a hearty meal.

I am one of a few members of my family who lives far away from home base in South Texas.  So coming together for the holidays also means getting to the airport, taking off my shoes and belt, removing my laptop from my bag, waiting in line, sitting very close to people I don't know for hours while fighting gravity and risking my life.   I do this once before the family celebration and again after; all for a few hundred dollars.  Millions do the same – polluting the environment and crowding airports with miserable passengers.

Oh and (obviously) X-mas is so horrifically commercial – another crappy thing about the holidays.  To put this in perspective: Imagine that the "Where's the beef?" commercial, of 1980s Wendy's Hamburger fame, came on for a month every year, maybe two, year after year; perhaps July and August; every year.  Sure it was different every time – the old ladies changed slightly.  Maybe one year they are dressed up as rapping grannies, the next they're wearing skinny jeans.  Maybe on one station they're hocking burgers with square patties, but on another they're asking the Progressive insurance lady where the beef is.  "There is no beef here," she replies grimly.  "This is just a store for insurance – really boring – it might look like there is something more substantive we're selling – but really just various options to insure your motorized vehicle or vehicles."

So Christmas, with its overwhelming commercialism, is the same advertising campaign year after year.  The stuff Santa is selling us may be different, but the template is basically the same.  It might be exciting for kids – and I suppose that's why most adults give it a pass – but we'd all be smashing our television sets if we had to watch the same Madison Avenue characters every year for every ad on everything everywhere.

That is the worst aspect of the holidays – commercialism.  We were expected to believe, this year for example, that Old Navy sweaters are made by a festive "grandma bot," knitting such a high volume of material that the chain store can sell tons of sweaters at rock-bottom prices.  Don't ask about who actually makes those sweaters.  It's Christmas! Could it be sweatshop workers? ---blah blah blah -- IT'S CHRISTMAS!!!

But alas, I cannot wall myself off completely from a society that teaches us from such a young age that consumer culture is a major reason why we are here on planet earth and a primary way for us to acquire joy during our short lives.  Now that I think about it, maybe that is a reason why I shouldn't be so pleased about happy children this time of year – they're happy for the wrong reasons.  That's an aside that I'll put out of my mind for the time being.  Getting gifts is nice, and giving them ain't bad either.

Except that we are told that we must buy gifts at one of a number of major retail outlets; we must get the hottest gifts of the season; and we must wake at 4 AM to get the best deals (or spend the night outside the Best Buy or pepper spray competing customers or some combination).  There is another option; and I don't know which is worse.  We must buy local; buy organic; buy from small businesses; buy sustainable gifts.  The latter option – consumerism with a conscience – is probably better for our communities and the environment, but it's also somewhat elitist and sometimes downright obnoxious.

So what to do about that?  We could create an alternative holiday – maybe sometime in February.  We could give gifts all year round – gifts we made from scratch - perhaps a homemade gift card offering one free back rub from your favorite friend and/or relative.  I don't want to remake the whole holiday though.  This is about trying to reckon with a holiday season I don't care for (except for those few things I like about it), which is fairly impossible to escape.

I have no solution.  Do you?