With Chicago turns green and red, the Christkindlmarket stands pop up at Daley Plaza and the onslaught of Christmas specials and tinseled advertisements begin airing, many people are swept up in the winter wonder, while I find myself -- as banal as it sounds -- playing the part of the Grinch.
I dread the season. I am as excited for Christmas as someone expecting their next root-canal, or Tax Day. But lest you think my feelings can be chalked up to the trendiness of ripping on the holiday, let me explain:
I worked in retail for three years.
Without droning on again about my spite toward retail (for those interested, check out my article for Linkedin), I'll say the industry's fixation on Christmas as the day to make bank is the poison for anyone who finds some joy in the holiday.
It all started during my time at a craft store. We started receiving Christmas decorations IN LATE JULY and began decorating the store TWO WEEKS before Halloween even started. Christmas music began playing over the speakers by November (with hits like this playing for almost two months). It made the madness of the holiday rush exhausting before it was even close to Christmas.
Also, the impact the holidays had on customers cranked the normal drudge of retail work up to eleven. For some reason, once the trees and lights showed up, customers became unpleasant. It wore me down and took everything just to show up to work, and I wasn't alone; at times, I was one of the few people they could get to show up for a skeleton crew for that day.
Even more insane was that shoplifting and people trying to (possibly) commit fraud through bogus returns spiked around the holiday. One time I rung a customer up for a large order and encouraged them to fill out the store survey online. I even wrote my name on the receipt. Not even 20 minutes later, some kid came right to my register with a bag frantically trying to return the items from that exact order, along with the receipt with my name on it. I told them I needed to see the card from the transaction and stood my ground. It didn't take long for them to give up and walk away, after which I reported the incident to the manager.
I made it through my first Christmas rush all right and but the second season was complicated by a bad manager and some store policy changes that made the work more tedious -- as is custom in the retail industry. Although I did my job with effort despite my callousness toward it, on occasion I got pushed to edge, especially by my manager. The manager pressed us to drive up sales and laid into us when something was not exceeding their expectations, despite never helping out to ease our workload. It boiled up to the point that I took it out on the customers. I would get snarky when they were out of line -- especially when parents would let their children get too grabby with merchandise. Clearly it was time to get out of retail.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of my retail career. After spending nearly a year trying to find an office job, I gave up and started work at my local grocery store. I began as a cashier but eventually transferred over to the bakery department. For the first few months, it was a pretty good gig; I made some friends and was good at my job, which sometimes meant being the only person who cleaned up because everyone else was lazy or a teenager -- or both.
When Christmas rolled around, I was initially spared much exposure to it. Yes, we had to make mounds of Christmas-themed cookies and listen to public domain Christmas music for two months, but the work I was doing isolated me from most of the chaos. But on Christmas Eve, there was a big sale on French bread (which raises some questions), and we were pumping them out in droves. In fact, production got to the point that the higher ups told us to stick the oven-fresh bread into the cooler to cool it faster so we could sell it faster.
This raised a red flag for me. For those who don't know, hot foods stuck in a cooler to cool rapidly could cause bacteria to accrue; additionally, the dairy products in said cooler left in a warm environment could spoil under that heat and humidity. The ignoring of health risks coupled with this near-insane drive to push French bread on Christmas reinforced the sales-driven focus of the holiday. The festiveness was merely a chocolaty coating melting in consumers' mouths to get them to purchase things that have nothing to do with Christmas.
Having seen Christmas from this side, I'm struck by the contrast between the Christmas I remember as a child and the one I witness today. The memories of and ideas of Christmas are different from the reality. In many respects and circles, the holiday has lost its meaning and become an economic instrument of American retail companies. Of course, this is not universal, but still a popular norm that we all deal with every year.
Growing up celebrating both Catholic and Jewish holidays, and now working toward a complete conversion to Judaism, I've felt my personal connection to Christmas fade entirely while my Jewish identity has not only grown stronger but become the core of who I am. The Jewish holidays have always retained their substance and not been muddled nearly as much in our secular culture, and to me they emit a greater presence during this time of year. When I look out at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, it's the menorah set up outside that I notice most, standing proud against the town beneath it, illuminating its light over the shops and bustle below.