Bah, Humbug!

No Joy in Christmas

Here we are. The end-of-year blues are upon us. The promise of the future is obscured by the failures of the past year. Of course, holiday stress is nothing new. Some of us have a regular date with the famous Christmas depression each year. It’s that time when obligations overwhelm, when becoming a “better person” seems to face daunting obstacles, and when there just isn’t enough TIME — hardly enough time to digest that Thanksgiving meal!

Shipping deadlines for cross-country gift exchanges, given supply chain uncertainty, seemed even harsher this year. Always we ask, at this time of year, “what will they think?”: those relatives in California or offspring near us. And the grandchildren? Will they be happy here Christmas morning? Why does it seem like everybody else does Christmas so much better?

Searching for the perfect gifts and the suddenly full calendar of activities is a definite stressor. Yet, this year the less full calendar for our second COVID Christmas hasn’t reduced the strain. Indeed, the onrushing Omicron outbreak crushed our planned first public indoor adventure in two years – to a local musical theater venue. We felt we couldn’t take a chance and ate the money for tickets. Even if we have low risk of serious symptoms ourselves (vaccinated and boosted), nobody can yet give us an answer to that other part of the COVID puzzle, how infectious are we? The holidays are supposed to be about being a better person.

I can’t get my usual fix of vigorous exercise at my gym these days either. It was going relatively well after I convinced myself that my vaccinated status protected me and others at the gym. But nobody wears masks there, despite signs at entrance imploring members to “please continue to mask up” – even the staff seem to ignore that advice when I’m there. No longer do I feel safe, or responsible, despite my own masking.

Then there’s the tyranny of remote work. Over the last two years, it has become clear that many of us lack the ability to punch out after eight hours! I’ve been retired for 6 ½ years now, but my wife has commandeered the dining room for her office. It’s always on. Another stressor. Perhaps the discipline of that daily commute and the physical office space away from home were more important than we realized.

Feeling victimized by consumer abuse and general powerlessness of online shopping is yet another cause of holiday stress. In addition to the requirement to plan for shipping delays, there is not necessarily an efficient, courteous customer service operation when things arrive damaged, or orders are incorrectly filled. Perhaps manufacturers themselves are under extra stress in this Amazon-centric world of consumer “fulfillment.” While Amazon itself usually provides excellent service, my experience with other online sites has been less laudable. I ordered a Braun coffeemaker from Target. It didn’t work properly. I complained to Braun customer support, they offered to send me another from their warehouse in New Jersey. It arrived damaged, with a shattered carafe. They then promptly replaced the carafe but testing the replacement coffeemaker demonstrated it still didn’t work properly — worse than the original from Target. I’m now seeking a full refund from Braun. We’ll see what response I get. Consumer stress.

With the pandemic, the online shopping metaverse, and all the usual holiday turmoil, I long to revisit those blissful Christmases of the past – the “downtown” light displays, department store windows, and relatively limited consumer choices. Things seemed so much simpler and more pleasant then – even as an adult shopping in suburban malls!

Where have those days gone? Many will say that the source of the problem is American consumerism. Related to that is the control that late-stage capitalism exerts over every aspect of our lives. Some, a declining number I’m told, claim the remedy lies in changing our focus from the material to the spiritual. Christmas, after all, is supposed to be about hope and gifts – not anxiety and guilt. Our consumerism has generated the popular expression, “first world problem.” Much of the world, even the secular rich world, has found more joy during the Christmas season in gatherings of family and friends, dinners, Christmas breakfasts, church services. Not the intrinsic value of the presents, they have little worth. If our current inflationary condition discourages some of that Christmas consumerism, so much the better.

It’s always preferable to look forward, not backward. Perhaps the primary preoccupation of the holiday season should be New Year’s Eve, rather than Christmas Eve! If Christmas serves as an opportunity for reflection on new beginnings, fine. New Years can then be the celebration of those beginnings. We make our New Years resolutions mostly to become better people. Let’s internalize them, then empathize, with emphasis on finding meaning through others. But beware of false hopes. Latching onto a sales pitch for yet another consumer item (or service) does not a self-actualizing person make. In any case, action is greater than hope. We should search for others who share our vision, then participate in a joint enterprise with them. That seems like the antidote for our current state of languishing. If you are truly working to “be your best,” you need a plan, and a plan that involves others. Working alone is seldom effective. Groups get things done.

Whether via Zoom, chat room, email network – or (someday?) in-person meetings – we need to socialize, to organize around a purpose. Anyway, that’s my New Year’s resolution.

— William Sundwick

Addendum: It’s New Years Eve, and I already feel much of the stress has disappeared! Just tested negative on a COVID antigen test, as did my wife — relief! Happy New Year!

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