Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Making of a Christmas Grinch, Dec. 24, 1992

Standard-Examiner staff

This is a story about a Christmas grinch. It's a story about me, and about how I got that way.

I wasn't always a grinch. I used to look forward to Christmas: the colors, the music, the giving, the receiving, the time spent with family and the expressions of joy on the faces of my children.

But three, maybe four years ago, I began noticing that not only was I less enthusiastic about Christmas, but I had grown cynical about the holiday. For me, it became less about celebrating a miraculous birth and more about money -- spending it and, most troubling of all, earning it. Instead of making me happy, Christmas was making me sick.

It wasn't the holiday blues, the infamous bouts of depression some people suffer this time of year. It began with the simple disappointment born of walking through department stores two and three weeks before Thanksgiving, discovering Christmas decorations already in place and Muzak versions of "Jingle Bells" playing on the public address systems. This year, I noticed Christmas aisles in stores just days after the Halloween displays were dismantled.

Now, I don't begrudge anybody's right to turn a buck; I'm all for the American Dream. By the same token, I'm free to complain about things that make me cranky, and retailers celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving darkens my mood, even if that's what it takes for stores to make enough money to get them through the leaner months. I get my teeth cleaned every six months because it's a smart thing to do, but I don't have to look forward to it.

I've said as much to friends who, in turn, give me their patent "Get a life!" responses. "Ignore it," they say. "Concentrate on the good things about Christmas, Don, because you're not going to change anything."

And, of course, they're absolutely correct. I'm a grinch because I permit it to bother me, because I fixate on the merchandising. I know what Christmas means to retail and advertising executives and CEOs all over the country: It means bonuses and profit-sharing and job security.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe they can separate the hunger for cash from the symbolism of that baby in a manger. But I'm having more trouble every December.

There's a little figurine that's become quite popular over the past few years, and I'm seeing it more and more on store shelves and in the homes of friends and family. It's Santa Claus kneeling before the Christ child. There's one on our family room mantle; my wife, Jan, put it there, but I don't remember whether she bought it or it was given to us as a gift. I've registered my distaste annually since it began appearing, but she leaves it there to annoy me.

Santa worshipping Christ ... now there's a Christmas concept for post-Supply Side America if ever I've seen one. It sort of personifies every profane thing Christmas has become, wedding the free market and religious aspects of the celebration. The logical next step, I guess, would be to dress the Holy Child in Osh-Kosh jeans.

You might not assume this to be true, especially after reading this far, but I go to church on Sundays. I'm a believer. It's just that for me this holiday has been ruined, completely co-opted by commercialism. Furthermore, I'm not clean. I'm a contributor to what I loathe most this time of year: I scramble to buy the kids what they want. I agonize over what to get for my wife and so on down the various branches of the family tree. I shop the holiday sales. I buy the tree early to avoid slim pickings later on. I take my daughters to the mall to sit on Santa's knee. I know the words to most Christmas carols and sing them in the car, in the house and wherever my kids want to sing them.

In other words, I go through the motions expected of every parent this time of year, with varying degrees of sincerity. At the same time, however, I have given up attempts to recapture the feelings of my youth, when Christmases in my family were a bit more humble and a lot more meaningful.

Don't misunderstand -- I still smile and feel immeasurable happiness when my children open their gifts. Even so, something's missing.

My wife said this to me when I told her I'd been assigned to write down the stuff I've been carping about for years: "They ought to let me write that article. I know what it's like to live with a grinch, that's for sure."

My attitude takes its toll on the holiday. Because I'm being grinch-like, Christmas is different at our house. As a result, I'm cheating my family and myself out of the fun we might otherwise be having.

If my parents were grinches, they hid their emotions admirably. I remember on Christmas Eve when I was young my father reading about the birth of the Savior. If you asked my kids, they'd probably say Dad isn't a Christmas kind of guy; about the closest thing we have to a tender Christmas Eve tradition is watching "It's a Wonderful Life" together.

The burden of keeping the holiday cheer alive in our house is left to my wife, who seems to have enough for both of us. She even organized a family trip into Ogden a few weeks ago to drop off food, blankets and clothing at the Rescue Mission. In my doldrums, it was something I hadn't really considered doing.

The season excites her; the decorations go up every Thanksgiving weekend and the Nat King Cole Christmas CD gets more play than anything else for the next month. I ought to be more like her, I know.

Instead, I dwell on news of layoffs and furloughs. IBM plans to jettison 25,000 people. General Motors is cutting back. And so on. These companies have impeccable timing: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a kick in the teeth.

But the guys at the top get their golden parachutes; even when they're fired they usually take thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars with them to cushion the fall. What does the guy who makes $25,000 a year take? A "thank you" and "gee, aren't times tough" -- that's what.

I know the Christmas spirit is alive out there. American soldiers and relief workers are spending their holidays dodging armed dope fiends in Somalia, trying to get food into the mouths of starving Africans. That's the spirit of Christmas, the brotherhood of man.

Being a grinch isn't hard. In fact, it may be the laziest, easiest attitude to adopt this time of year. And, now, reading what I've written, it all seems such a silly confessional. But I don't know how else to say it; frankly, it's what I feel.

This is the part of the story where writers of traditional Christmas stories tum soft; they set you up with tales of woe and desperation, then swoop in with an upbeat punchline. My apology to you is that I don't have a punchline, upbeat or otherwise.

Of one thing, though, you can be sure: Come the day you read this, on Christmas Eve, I'll be hunkered down with my loved ones, searching for some meaning behind the lights, bells, gift wrap, music and the salvation of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."

With any measure of luck this will be the year I become an ex-grinch. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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