‘Bah, Humbug!’ or “How I learned to stop worrying and have a Merry Christmas’
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
The wallets were empty, and spouse fought against spouse…”
So it’s that time of year again – the time when we all get fat on too-rich food, receive gifts we’ll never use, and sing songs about having a ‘White Christmas’ in a part of the world that has an average temperature of around 30°C in December. Add to that that Jesus wasn’t even born in December, and the festive season starts to look more than just a little stupid.
Now, before you all start yelling “Grinch!” and chasing me with sharpened candy canes, just hear me out ok. I’m a Joburger, and in preparation of C-day I recently made the journey that my people are famous for – the other Great Trek – the car ride from Johannesburg down to the coast. At one of the far too few pit-stops we made, as I stood in the never-ending line of women who needed to relieve themselves, I was reminded of something:
A few years ago, while I was still in high school, my youthful, bright eyes came across some articles written by the CNN reporter Anderson Cooper for the American magazine Details. Because I only had one friend at the time (thanks Roxy!), I had the time to read them all. One that stuck with me was Just Say No to New Year’s Eve, in which Cooper laments how hard we all try to make New Year’s Eve a night of epicness, and how it always falls short of our expectations.
“A friend of mine” Cooper writes “who works the door at a big Manhattan nightclub always tries to take New Year’s Eve off.
‘It’s amateur night,’ he explains. ‘All these people who never go out try way too hard to have fun. As the hours go by, they begin to realize this party isn’t going to be the best ever, this night is going to end, and this next year won’t be all that better than the last one. So they drink or take another pill, and that’s when it gets really messy.’ … The truth is the parties and promises never quite live up to expectations.”
As I stood in that line, considering deep existential crises in order to distract from the possibility of my bladder exploding, I wondered if the same thought could be extended from just New Year’s Eve to the entire holiday season – this time of year is for the birds!
Firstly, Christmas time often means travel time – which as anyone knows, means a lot more opportunity for death or untold doom arising from car wrecks/plane crashes/death by exploding cookie dough. Worse than simply dying though, this time of year is when we all go on our long, tedious death-marches to holiday destinations. This action holds a particular type of horror for me though, because I’m a Vaalie*. And as any South African knows, Vaalies are notorious for leaving the crowded, smelly, wonderful city in droves this time of year and heading to the beach for some time off. Tumbleweeds frolic the city streets back home while innocent men, women and children are jammed unceremoniously into their cars for the long, hot, and extremely uncomfortable ride down to spend their off time at overpriced coastal hotels, while also incurring the hatred and wrath of the locals by buying all the food in the grocery stores and introducing the ‘we’re all bastards’ method of driving to their peaceful coastal roads.
A few days ago, on my personal hell-ride of said pilgrimage, we stopped at one petrol station and attempted to enjoy our overly warm padkos* picnic-style on the only patch of grass we could find, which happened to lie between a parking lot on one side and the busy highway on the other. As I chewed my rubbery cheese and stale bread, all I saw around me were sweaty, moody parents bossing around children straight-jacketed by the confines of car travel (and understandably miserable about it), as they were forced to stop in some sleepy, backwater town that is rightly ignored by the rest of country at all other times of year. I dare anyone who encounters such a despondent scene themselves to not feel psychologically uncomfortable about the cause of it.
The second reason Christmas is so overrated is a bit more universal: the cost of it all. In my family, my mother has a strict tradition of doing Secret Santa every year, where each family member buys one present for one other (randomly selected) person, ensuring that the cost and benefit of the holiday is spread out equally in a reasonable manner. But even besides the (mostly) useless gifts (people have a tenancy to be so overwhelmed by advertising at this time of year that they find themselves thinking thoughts like “I think what my mostly blind Grandma really needs this year is a high-def television”), the amount of money blown on a single day is enormous. I went Christmas shopping with a friend last week, a fellow student, and watched in astonishment as she was forced to drop R800 in one go – a ridiculous portion of which was spent on special Christmas napkins (R35 for 12), and the frightfully overpriced ‘deluxe’ Christmas crackers (at a ridiculous R250 for six).
Added to the creation of a whole new cache of merchandise to spend money on at Christmas, I’ve recently heard murmurings that grocery shops also take the time to spread a little festive cheer by subtly raising the prices of foodstuffs like cream and custard, because what holiday table would be complete without these things? While the age of Marxism is dead, I wish good ol’ Karl was still around to help me come up with a cheer against this sort of thing that we could chant together outside of such establishments, probably while drinking vodka.
Thirdly, the worst thing about this time of year is how we feel compelled to cram in as much quality time with loved ones and acquaintances as possible into a span of a few weeks, probably as a result of the guilt we feel at not really spending time with them for the other 50 weeks of the year. And as great as families are, this amount of ‘bonding’ time together, combined with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and any underlying family issues makes for even more stress, and the possibility of Uncle Dave being taken to the emergency room with the neck of grandad’s bottle of gin sticking into the side of his head.
Also, because EVERYONE is doing this, we often end up spending time with other’s guilty-bonding-time people, which doesn’t help with the stress levels, but probably does help make up a good portion of many an alcohol company’s festive season profits. The friend earlier who spent all that money? R300 of that was on random people’s gifts (I’m talking her boyfriend’s step-brother’s something something…). As a result, the holidays can become a days-long example of those parties where you sit awkwardly, fidgeting constantly and avoiding making eye-contact with the other guests, made even worse by the fact that you end up feeling conscience-stricken about not enjoying it.
So I put it to you: how do all these things add up to a great time? We become so obsessed with travelling to the perfect vacation spot, spending all our money on the perfect Christmas gifts and merchandise and fulfilling our conscience-mandated hours of family time that we never actually have a holiday. Vacations are about relaxation, not completing a list of tasks of our ‘to-do’ lists.
I guess in summary what I’m saying is:
No, not really… In all honesty, if you want to join me in the Expedition of the Vaalies , that’s ok. And if you want to spend a chunk of money on others and yourself to make the season a little more joyful, that’s ok too. And who knows, maybe Christmas time is the perfect time to make some effort to be friendly to the strangers around you – like timidly offering the person standing near you at the snack table the soggy pretzels.
What I’m trying to say is that the trappings of Christmas shouldn’t trap you into hating Christmas time. Remember the important things: the ones you love, an opportunity to recover from the year behind and time to prepare for the year ahead. Because when I look around at my own life and family, I realise that time seems to go by far too quickly – and that I should use this time to take stock more effectively.
*Vaalie (slang): a derogatory term for tourists from the inland of South Africa, often refers to people from Johannesburg. However, it is not as derogatory as some of the terms I could use for the people I encounter in inland traffic.
*padkos: food taken along to be consumed during a long trip. Literally translates to “road food”