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It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas

Javier Del Bosque waits with his family at the Toys “R” Us in Times Square, in time for its 9 p.m. opening, in New York, November 24, 2011. (Photos: Marcus Yam / The New York Times) People who buy what Fox News peddles will love this, but I'm going to say it anyway: I have come, over the course of many years, to loathe and despise the Christmas season. Before I am accused of being some “War On Christmas” jihadist, allow me to explain: I like wreathes, and houses festooned with Christmas lights (the gaudier the better, in my opinion), and the way a house smells when there's a Christmas tree in the living room.

People who buy what Fox News peddles will love this, but I'm going to say it anyway: I have come, over the course of many years, to loathe and despise the Christmas season. Before I am accused of being some “War On Christmas” jihadist, allow me to explain: I like wreathes, and houses festooned with Christmas lights (the gaudier the better, in my opinion), and the way a house smells when there's a Christmas tree in the living room.

I love gathering with family, exchanging gifts, and sitting down to a big meal even as my belt strains against the gastrointestinal aftermath of the big meal enjoyed four weeks before. I love snow in the evenings, kisses under the mistletoe, and there is nothing on Earth wrong with a day or two off from work.

I like Christmas. I cannot, however, abide the Christmas season, and I will tell you why. It began in earnest during my sophomore year of high school. I had, at the time, two jobs: a year-round job at an ice cream store, and a Spring-to-Fall job mowing lawns and raking sand traps at a local public golf course. Winter had come early that year, and the golf course job wound up buried under several feet of snow, so I found myself with light pockets as the Christmas-present-buying season approached. Being the go-getter that I was, I went in search of a short-term gig to supplement my ice cream income, just enough to be able to buy Christmas presents for friends and family that were not fashioned out of pocket lint and popsicle sticks…and after a diligent search, I found myself in late November of that year working as a men's underwear salesman for the Filene's department store.

You heard me.

Now, I had been working retail to a degree for a few years at this point – slinging ice cream, and working the snack bar at the golf course – but nothing in my experience to this point had prepared me to be a men's underwear salesman in an upscale suburban department store at Christmastime. Filene's was the kind of place where rich people go to take out their frustrations on whatever hapless register monkey they can bracket, and let me tell you, I never knew people could get so worked up about the purchase of boxer briefs. My first day on the job was an exercise in awe.

While this explains my hatred for working retail (which I wound up doing for many years after in one capacity or another), it does not explain my hatred for the Christmas season…but it was there, amidst the thongs and boxers and unimaginably obnoxious customers, that the seeds of my Christmas season hatred were sown, took root, and bloomed in all their thorny magnificence. You see, I was required by my employer to stand stock still behind the register, unless summoned by a customer seeking assistance in the Fruit -O-The-Loom aisle. Above my station, embedded in the ceiling, was a small, white, circular speaker, and from this speaker came a soul-annihilating, hope-devouring, mind-razing, teeth-gnashing, rage-inducing litany of ceaselessly repetitive agonizing wretchedness.

You guessed it: Christmas music.

But not just any Christmas music. We're talking Anne Murray. “Feliz Navidad.” This joint didn't even have the common decency to go with old standards like “The Little Drummer Boy,” but went instead with a saccharine selection of uber-soft-rock Christmas songs that were played on a 45-minute loop. My shifts were either eight or ten hours long, so you do the math. Trapped directly under that little white speaker, I would hear the same craptacular songs at least nine or ten times in a row before being allowed to flee the building. After my first week of this, I was ready to eat my own teeth.

But wait. There's more.

If you've been to a Walgreens, a CVS, or most any kind of big-box department store over the last several years, you've seen these things. The best example I can think of is the Singing Fish that was popular a while back, but there are many permutations. Essentially, it is an item with a button that, when pushed, makes the item sing and/or dance to a cute little tune. These things are always big at Christmas. If, in the course of time, you have wandered through a store, come across one of these items, hit the button, said to yourself, “Hee! That's cute,” and walked away, I can tell you something from personal experience: the retail worker trapped behind the register ten feet from you was stabbing you in the brain in their mind as you walked away.

I know this for a mortal truth, because I was working at Filene's the year those types of things were first rolled out. They were rudimentary compared to their modern cousins, but the effect was still the same. Maybe five feet away from my register was a display station, and upon that display station was the foot of a mannequin on a stand. Upon that foot was a sock, a Christmas sock in fact, white, with Santas and sleighs and elves all around. At the top of that sock was a button, and hovering over it was a large yellow sign in the shape of an arrow that read “PUSH!” Push the button, and a tiny microchip attached to a tiny speaker embedded in the top of the sock would belt out “Jingle Bells” with exactly as much musical nuance and beauty as an alarm clock in a hotel room.


All day long, people would wander through my embarrassing little corner of the store, come across the sock, push the button and say, “Hee! That's cute,” and then move on…leaving me to seethe through the sock's nerve-shattering rendition of the twenty-eight lost verses of “Jingle Bells,” before finally stopping. The blessed silence, of course, was filled by the sixth “Feliz Navidad” I had heard that shift, until more people came along, pushed the button with a “Hee! That's cute,” only to leave me bereft of anything other than the mental image of stabbing them in the brain as they walked away.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In the fullness of time, I managed to earn enough money to buy decent presents for friends and family, and at the first opportunity dropped that job like a bad prom date. The savage battery I endured at the hands of Filene's Christmas music, however, has lingered over all the intervening years, grown, expanded, and finally established itself as a permanent state of affairs. In those intervening years, of course, the “Christmas season” has gone from being a fairly quaint time of family celebration to an orgy of unbridled commercialism that, quite literally, kills people. There is not much to like about the Christmas season anymore, and the relentless barrage of Christmas music has gone from being the main agitator in my mind to the last turn of a long, sharp screw.

Don't tell my wife that, however. She works retail, and has been getting blasted with Christmas music every second of her days since Black Friday. As I was writing these last few paragraphs, she came through the door after a day on the job with one simple request: “Please, for the love of God, can we put some music on that isn't Christmas music? It's still stuck in my head from work.” I obliged her with Band of Gypsies, and she sighed with pleasure. “Thank you,” she said. “Today was bad, but you know what's worse? When I hear the Christmas music in my head when I'm showering in the morning.”

We are not alone, my wife and I. During a pre-Thanksgiving food-shopping foray, we stopped at a coffee shop before hitting the supermarket, and had a very nice conversation with the barista about how he copes with the ever-present Christmas music he is forced to contend with. “I fantasize,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “about burning the place down.” Later, we had a similar conversation with the lady at the register in the supermarket, who rolled her eyes and shuddered when we asked how she coped with the music. “I don't,” she said simply, with a look on her face that said all you need to know about working retail during the holiday season.

Does this make us nothing more than anti-Christmas curmudgeons, hateful and full of spite? Probably, but we have a damned good reason to be so. What starts with Black Friday – a day where millions of Americans are expected to ram themselves into crowded malls to buy crap they don't need at risk of life and limb, for no other reason than to save the economy from the disastrous mismanagement of the Know-Betters who ran the whole show into the ground – grinds on through an interminable month of shrieking commercialism that, last I checked, has nothing whatsoever to do with the guy who was supposedly born on a way-back Christmas to save us from sins exactly like this.

All over the country, people got trampled by other people looking for deals, people got pepper-sprayed by other people looking for deals, someone got stabbed over a flat-screen TV at the Best Buy next to where my wife works…and is that Christmas to you? To anyone? Would Jesus punch you in the face to be first in line for a door-buster?

People pitched tents outside Wal-Mart to be first in line for the sales. People pitched tents outside Wall Street to be first in line for social and economic equality. Where do you think Jesus would pitch his tent?

So, yeah, I love Christmas and hate the Christmas season, and you can keep the music.

I guess I have two points I'm trying to make:

1. Take it easy on the retail employees you come across as you do your shopping this season. You have absolutely no conception of what they endure in the month of December, and a friendly smile from you will do wonders for them.

2. We seem to be letting this Christmas season thing spin wildly out of control. Average people with little disposable income should not be expected to save the economic day on one single Friday, so we should all work towards a better system. WWJB: What Would Jesus Buy? A little bread, a little wine, and a little quiet time to contemplate what is most important in life.

Being first in line at Wal-Mart at midnight ain't it.

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