5 Unspoken Reasons The Holidays Suck For Millions Of Americans
Well, it's the holidays, and I don't feel anything. And it's not because of the pandemic or because I've finally been banned from the mall for trying to fight Santa so that I can become Santa: this has been building for years.
For my entire adult life I've experienced this weird disconnect about Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you're a millennial, maybe you've felt or feel the same way I do -- I've never seen any kind of media discuss this disconnect, probably because so much money is spent by Big Holiday's self-mythologizing, and I'm only half-joking here. What I mean is this: an astounding amount of cultural capital is spent, roughly from mid-August to January 1, extolling the virtues of the "holiday season" as a time of happiness, cheer, magic, and good will, when the holiday season has, in fact, been a time of hardship and insane working conditions.
So Many Americans Work On Christmas
There is, statistically, a good chance you already know what I'm talking about. But before I rant further, a quick note: I'm talking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I imagine you've experienced this no matter what winter-adjacent holiday you might celebrate simply by dint of what a cultural colossus Christmas is. Be it Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or Skweltegog: The Feast of the Undying Doom Serpent, you've probably felt the effects I'm going to describe.
And in fact, not really celebrating Christmas is part of what I'm talking about. I was raised a devout Catholic, so now as an adult I don't believe in God (but I do believe that I'm a horrible iniquitous piece of shit who CAN'T DO ANYTHING RIGHT and DESERVES TO BE PUNISHED for BEING SUCH A BAD PERSON). What I'm saying is I don't believe there's anything inherently special about Christmas. And, based on the demographics of people who read Cracked, there's a good chance you don't, either. There's about a 40% chance you're religiously unaffiliated, and about a 50/50 shot you don't call yourself a Christian.
To me, the idea of Christmas is a lot like Thanksgiving: a broadly secular received holiday tradition during which time I shall chase down and consume neighborhood birds (because turkey is too expensive). Christmas is such a huge part of American culture that I'm not certain if not believing in the magical aspect of it makes it any less powerful. And you know what? Despite my general cynicism, to quote my high school drama teacher at the casting of our winter play, I'm no Scrooge.
My teacher said it's because I'm "too ugly," but here I mean because, well, I kinda like the idea of Christmas. A time of comfort and coziness and treats and being around the people I choose to be with? Well, that just sounds dandy! But that's just not the reality of Christmas for me and most other people my age. For us, Christmas is synonymous with work.
Look, I'm not breaking new ground by saying any of this given that 25% of Americans are definitely going to be working on Christmas, and 45% say there's a chance they'll be working then, which pretty much precludes making any big holiday plans even if you don't end up working. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that retail service workers make up about 5.3% of the total workforce. In 2018, half of all retail workers were between 16 and 34 -- so millennials are disproportionately working in retail, including, until very recently, myself, since it turns out most college degrees are about equally as useful for getting a job as a tub of Owl Lotion(TM): The Lotion for Dry Owls(R). Retail has a higher concentration of millennials than even craft beer microbreweries and the Nihilism Supply Store.
Thanksgiving Is Actually A Weeks-Long Affair
And if you're lucky enough to have the sort of retail job where you get time off for the holidays, let me lay it out for you: Thanksgiving and Christmas are basically one long nightmare. Starting about two weeks before Thanksgiving is prep time for Black Friday, the American blood sacrifice to a mysterious entity known as "The Economy."
We're talking overnight shifts to re-tag every price in the store, re-arrange all the new holiday products, and put up decorations and signage such as a cartoon turkey with a word bubble that says "You'll GOBBLE up these deals!" or "These savings are just GRAVY!" or "My very purpose is to be devoured by those more powerful than I! I'm a clumsy, unintentional metaphor for the working class! When you think about it, it's pretty pilGRIM!"
And while you're working on Thanksgiving, every single year, more reliable than the sunrise, a customer will cluck their tongue and say "They make you work on Thanksgiving? That's awful!", because no snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.
So for about two weeks you're working overtime and clopening (which is where you work a closing shift and then an opening shift and wonder if sleep deprivation can be substituted for food). Then comes Black Friday.
You might be thinking, "I'm sure Black Friday is busy, but it's just one day. How bad could it be?" To which I reply: "When you're in your private jet, can you force the pilot to let you sit in the cabin and pretend you're flying an X-Wing?"
Black Friday isn't one day, oh no. Oh, no no no no no. At the store where I worked it started on the Monday before Black Friday. And then Black Friday itself actually started at 5:00 PM on Thanksgiving, which of course means we'd be there on Thanksgiving making sure we had enough stock. Then we were open all night on Thanksgiving into Black Friday itself, where it was insanely busy. Something happens to people on Black Friday where a brain parasite makes them scream "YOU'RE RUINING MY LIFE" at you when you try to explain to them that we don't carry "hot pink velour suit jackets" because we're not a 1987 cocaine orgy.
People behave like werewolves except worse because I don't think a werewolf has ever told me that if I didn't like the way they were treating me I should try being smarter and getting a real job. Once, on Black Friday, I was ringing up a woman in a GOOD VIBES ONLY t-shirt and her young kid and the kid asked, "Mommy, why is he behind a counter?" and she said, "Because he didn't work hard in school." Fuck you, lady, the only lesson I should be serving as for your kid is how being a smarmy know-it-all actually is a viable career path, no matter what your teachers say.
And It Just Keeps Going At A Grueling Pace For Weeks
After Black Friday comes Cyber Monday, and since many chain retail stores match their Cyber Monday deals in-store so as not to lose business at their brick-and-mortar locations, it's basically a second Black Friday. This is the beginning of the Christmas Rush.
You might think that as Christmas gets closer people would have most of their shopping done. You would be incredibly, hilariously wrong. This is why many stores are actually open extra late on Christmas Eve -- to accommodate dumbasses who were somehow taken by surprise by a day that happens on the same date every year. It's a month and a half of extended hours, a lack of sleep, and nonstop work. Just a long, dreary blur of exhaustion and customers asking if this shirt comes in an "extra medium." And then, after Christmas Day, you come in early to tear down the Christmas decorations and advertisements (a sexy cartoon Santa Claus saying "Ho ho ho! The truest God of America is acquisition!") and set up for the inevitable New Year's Sale.
And there's a solid two-ish weeks of people returning the things well-meaning but clueless family members purchased for them and using gift cards that were given to them as gifts, an interaction which always ends in me having to explain that yes, if you use a $50 gift card on a $300 suit jacket, you do still have to pay the difference. Oh, the gift card our store sent you in the mail doesn't actually have any money on it, the idea is we send it to you to put money on and give as a gift. Yes, I'll give you my manager's phone number so you can get me fired for this decision that I personally made about a nationwide advertising campaign.
Changing Any Of This Will Take An Impossibly Seismic Cultural Shift
My experience isn't unique. That's my whole point. Besides the insane demands of work, many youngish people moved from their hometowns to seek opportunity, so they aren't near their families anyway. It seems like we've created a shadow caste system where the holidays are just another thing that exclusively older people enjoy, like home ownership or going to the doctor or Steely Dan.
Assuming -- and this is a big assumption -- that in the next forty years "Christmas" isn't just the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" played during the fifteen-second vacation before the Amazon droids start shocking you with cattle prods to increase productivity in the Water Mines, will it still maintain the cultural cachet it currently has? Or have we created a system that's so completely burned through an entire generation's positive associations with the holiday season that they just don't care about it anymore?
Truth is, I think there's too much money tied up in it to let that happen -- not to mention the cultural inertia around having to decide what a third of the year is now about. Fuck it, October to the New Year is all just Halloween now. Wait, I wrote that as a joke but now that's literally all that I want?
There's a bit of irony that the possible death of Christmas was perpetrated by mass capitalism when right-wing ghouls like Ben Shapiro (a wooden puppet brought to life by the wish of a lonely racist) have been claiming that the left has been waging a War on Christmas. This is all even weirder when you consider how much of Christmas' attendant media is about poor people teaching the true meaning of Christmas to the embittered bourgeoise. But even Ebenezer Scrooge, a man whose name is literally synonymous with callous anti-holiday sentiment, gave Bob Cratchit Christmas off.
I don't know, maybe it's not a great sign when we're nostalgic for the state of worker's rights in Victorian London, a time when gainful employment was considered "guy who cleans the orphan fingers out of the Pollution Machine and is paid in bread crusts deemed insufficiently rich in mercury to sell." Imagine what it would look like if we actually did value the things we culturally claim to regarding Christmas. What if we gave everyone five days off they could use whenever they wanted in December?
You know, time to fly out to visit the family you haven't seen all year, to eat dinner and do dishes together and listened resigned as your uncle tells you that Q just posted that Joe Biden is actually the lovechild of JFK and Skeletor. And then, when everyone else is asleep, you can sit in a dark room lit only by the cosmic glow of the Christmas tree, warm and safe as childhood, and watch the silent snow fall out the window and just relax. Breathe. Really breathe. For a few days.
But that's insane, of course. The idea that business might have to miss out on five whole days of profit? And that they're supposed to pay their employees? For not working? Sure, whatever you say, Comrade Marx. Because that gives the lie all the talk about togetherness and family and comfort that we associate with the holiday season. That's all just the thin veneer of sentimentality that we use to justify our all-consuming materialistic indulgence.
So yeah, maybe Christmas is going to die a slow cultural death but remain propped up by a business landscape that's become accustomed to doing three hundred times their average profit for several months at the end of the year. Maybe Christmas will stop being a thing around on exactly May 3, 2542 A.D. and you're all welcome to try and prove me otherwise. The Grinch knew what was up: just your average mountain hermit trying to warn his neighbors that the winter celebration they so delighted in was doomed to cannibalize itself.
William Kuechenberg is an aspiring screen and television writer in the Top 50 of the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship seeking representation (HINT HINT). You can check out his work on Script Revolution and he is on Twitter.
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