December 23, 2012

The Christmas Spirit

We've all heard the lamentations about the commercialization of Christmas. Nowhere is that felt more keenly than here at the epicenter, working in retail. Honestly, it just beats the Christmas spirit out of you. This was the conclusion of a scientifically valid random survey of retail workers scattered around the break room a couple of days before C-Day.

The disparity between how people are supposed to be and how they actually can be is, well, dispiriting. It leaves those of us in the front-lines hollowed out, desensitized by the constant onslaught of people driven frantic by the pressure to get their shopping done.

Let's face it. People are often at their selfish worst at a time of the year when we are all supposed to be infused with the spirit of giving. You want peace on earth and good will to men? Well, stay home then and watch old movies. Out here, it's a jungle. Welcome to the heart of darkness, waiting for you at the end of the line for the doorbuster of the day.

This is true of retail on any day, of course, but this time of the year really does seem to bring out the very worst. Not that there aren't random acts of kindness, but they are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of humanity pushing and shoving to be first in line, driven by the desire to get the most for the least as they buy dozens of presents for people they couldn't possible care all that much about.

This is what has struck me most this year, the extraordinary amount of gifts some people buy. You see the same people day after day, loaded down with packages. Who the hell are they buying them for? I don't even know that many people, much less that many I would buy a gift for. What sense of obligation impels people to feel that everyone who has ever crossed their paths deserves a little something at Christmas, even if it is a 99-cent piece of crap that no one in their right mind would want.

Speaking of which, I'll never forget the look on a customers face--this was several years ago during my first stint in retail--when she returned a gift and found out that it cost 99 cents. You could read the hurt in her eyes. Really? That's what I'm worth? Ninety-nine cents? I would have felt bad, but who the hell brings back a 99-cent gift anyway?

My disillusionment with humanity was first linked to Christmas back in 1969, when I was in Vietnam. On Christmas Day, we had a 24-hour truce, during which there was to be no fighting. That moment of peace illuminated the absurdity of war. We spend 364 days of the year killing the enemy and laying waste to the countryside, but on one day we can just stop the war and celebrate peace and joy? If we have it on our power to agree to stop fighting for one day, why can't we just leave it like that?

A part of me understands that I should be grateful for any 24-hour period when mankind can stop the madness and feel something akin to love and peace, when we can be our better selves. It won't last of course. It never does. The war resumes. The incoming tide of buying turns to an outgoing tide of returns.

Meanwhile, we few, we happy few, we band of retail brothers will sit around the lunch room table on Christmas Eve day and tell our war stories and celebrate our survival of another holiday buying frenzy. Then we will go home and open our presents. Oh well, what the hell, it's off to my shift, the power chords from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" reverberating in my head. For now, comfortably numb is about as good as it gets.

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