Welcome back to State of Affairs. For those of you who are regular followers of the blog, you will be pleased to hear I’ve got some big, big SoA news to announce very soon, but it’s taking a lot of work on my part, so my update schedule is going to stay a bit off-kilter for a while. In the meantime, I’m working on a mega-post for tomorrow that won’t be done by day’s end, so I thought I’d treat you to a little something from the archives. I wrote this piece exactly two years ago today, and it’s just as relevant now as it was then. So without further ado, take a little trip with Uncle Alex, the Ghost of Bitching Past.
It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas.
You know the smell. The unmistakable scent of pine wafting through the Home Depot as they load in their crooked overpriced yuletide arboreal shit festival. The delightful vapour of bargain-bin gingerbread baked within an inch of its structural integrity at your local grocery chain. The nostalgic aroma of gasoline fumes fairly crystallized in the minus-thirty Canadian winter air, fumes that pervade every stitch of your seasonal garments and leave you wafting petrol in your wake like you work at a Sunoco. And then, of course, there’s the spicy, metallic olfactory joy that accompanies this farce of a holiday every year without fail: the invigorating smell of desperation.
There’s a lot of things about Christmas that have never made a great deal of sense to me. I mean, I was raised sort of Christian, and I was definitely raised white-North-American, so I know the religious angle inside and out. Woman gets knocked up, convinces husband she’s carrying the child of benevolent bearded man who lives in the sky. For some reason husband does not stone her to death. The two of them walk halfway across Arabia so she can give birth in a barn. Three fellows on camels chase Halley’s comet halfway across the known world in order to deliver gifts of questionable utility. Child grows up to become spiritual leader, is nailed to a tree by his own people, expires, comes back to life in time for Easter.
Like so many hackneyed comedians before me, the part where I start having trouble is where this charming story translates into a totally different mythology: fat guy, red suit, reindeer, elves, all-night sleigh ride, chimneys, et cetera. As though one fictional omnipresent entity who “knows when you’ve been bad or good” wasn’t enough, Coca-Cola and its affiliates decided to construct a contender: enter Kris Kringle, Jolly Old Saint Nick, The Big Elf Himself – Santa Claus.
Now, I get the whole marketing angle, especially the consumerism and the corporate promotional value of an easily-identifiable spokesman for the holiday. Everywhere you look, it’s Santa-themed wrapping paper, tee-shirts, pajamas, decorations, children’s stories, made-for-TV specials, lunch boxes, jewelery, musical CDs, telephones, wheelchairs, foodstuffs, bedding, silverware and sex apparel. I am not even kidding.
I even get the moralistic cause-and-effect that the idea of “Santa” teaches kids: do the dishes, take out the garbage, say “please” and “thank you”, don’t put venomous spiders in your sister’s bed, because Santa is watching and you won’t get any presents if you’re a little shit all year. (If you have ever been to church, you’ve heard a similar version of this: just replace “Santa” with “God” and “not getting presents” with “going to Hell”) Fine. I guess that’s the link between the manger and the North Pole: maybe Santa’s more palatable than Jesus in this day and age.
But to me, either choice feels like parents passing the buck. Fear Santa? I don’t know about you, but when I have kids, the omnipresent entity they’re going to fear and respect is me. Because I’m bigger than Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Great Pumpkin, the Thanksgiving Turkey, the Hanukkah Troll, and the Kwanzaa Leprechaun combined, and most importantly, as far as my kids are concerned, I am God.
Anyway, I digress. I’m currently sitting at my job as a front-desk guy for a car dealership. It’s November 23rd. The last of the Halloween candy has just gone the way of the dinosaur. Two days ago the weather decided to take a sharp right-turn out of pleasantly Warm Fall (formerly known as Indian Summer before the INAC finally got around to politically-correcting that blemish) and into Freezing Bitch Cold Canadian Winter. Two weeks ago my neighbours were swimming in their pool, and now I’m getting ninety-five calls a day from frantic idiots who ignored last week’s warnings about an impending snow storm, and waited until two feet of freezing white shit fell from the sky to book an appointment to get their snow tires put on.
Canadians have memories like goldfish. Every year around the same time in this country, we start experiencing the same weather: snow, freezing rain, hail, and other assorted cold unpleasant conditions, and every year people wake up on the first morning and go “OH SHIT! WHERE THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM?! I’M TOTALLY FUCKING SHOCKED! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GET TO WORK WHEN THERE’S A QUARTER INCH OF WET SNOW ON THE GROUND?!” Never mind the fact that you’ve probably been living in this country most, if not all, of your life. Never mind the fact that it’s the same goddamn thing every year. No, instead of being prepared for the inevitable return of cold weather and bad driving conditions, they assume since the snowstorm didn’t hit exactly when it was supposed to that it’s never going to snow again. And, predictably, when it does, everyone loses their shit, forgets how to drive, gets in horrendous accidents causing hundreds of deaths each winter, and yet the population of people who are this stupid never seems to diminish. Good, now I have another reason to hate this season.
So I’m sitting at my desk, on November 23rd (it’s a work story, remember?) and I’m listening to the radio they have playing in the show room. Generally it’s a mid-range mix of soft-rock, easy-rock, easy-listening, easy-soft-rock-listening, and elevator music. This is okay with me. Unlike my last job where the speaker was located two and a half feet over my head and blasted at a hundred and seventy decibels right down on top of me, the speakers here are a good twenty feet above me and the volume is set to a more tolerable background level (read: easily ignored). I’m really not a big fan of the Beegees, but if I can tune out their whiny caterwauling then I’m hardly going to have a fit about it.
But there’s one kind of music I can’t tune out, and slowly but surely it’s working its insidious little way into the regular rotation. You all know what’s coming. Now, it’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas too.
A couple of things about Christmas music. First, I understand there are people out there who actually enjoy and look forward to this time of year, and in fact enjoy and look forward to hearing a different version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in every different store they enter during their week-long cash hemorrhage consumerist orgy. But the fact of the matter is that I am not one of those people, and further, I can state with reasonable surety that no one who has ever had to work a retail or customer service position over the Christmas season falls into the above category either. More on this later.
For you, the valued customer, a sampling of Christmas music is a pleasant reminder of the joy and nostalgia and fuzzy cuddly warmth of the holiday season. You walk into one store and hear “Jingle Bells” as performed by that irritating adult-contemporary disaster with the big nose (you know the one – where the tempo is accelerated so it sounds like it’s being performed by a speed-addled Tourette’s patient), and that’s nice.
Walk into the next store and you’re treated to Louis Armstrong doing his best Cookie-Monster impression to the tune of “Winter Wonderland”. And that’s nice too.
Another store might even be playing a song with religious undertones – go figure – but they’ll be sure to play the version recorded by Jewel “Just Jewel” Kilcher or Celine “The Aural Holocaust” Dion so as to maintain the illusion that they’re merely playing “pop” recordings and not actual hymns (even though it’s allegedly a Christian holiday…apparently Santa is a liberal). And that’s even nicer. Surely you, the valued customer, appreciates listening to that snaggle-toothed one-hit wonder from Alaska reaching for the high notes in “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and not quite making it.
Or, contrarily, stepping over the shattered glass that resulted from the nuclear force of the highest C note known to man, as it expelled itself out of the gaping sing-hole of a psychotic French mannequin from Charlemagne.
Nothing says Holiday Cheer quite like tinnitus. But whatever trims your tree, I guess.
Anyway, the point is that Christmas music, to paraphrase Karl Marx, is supposed to be the opiate of the mall-going masses. I’m told the intent of piping this Holly Jolly nonsense all over major consumer outlets is to remind people that the whole point of Christmas is to be with the ones you love and spend quality time with them, not to murder other parents in a desperate bid to claim the last Molest-Me-Elmo, or whatever the hot item is this year.
I know, this philosophy is somewhat at odds with all the corporate hyping that goes on around this time: Last Minute Sale, Christmas Eve Blowout, Forgot-Your-Wife’s-Gift Special, et cetera. The whole point of that side of the equation seems to be to whip the masses into a bloodthirsty, stress-generated buying frenzy, and let the winner take all. On some level I’m surprised they don’t hand out small-caliber firearms or bladed weapons at the door, a la “Battle Royale”, and just let these last-minute morons and Ho-Ho-Homicidal Maniacs have at it, because really: is that too far from what already happens?
For example, I once saw two customers (both women) get into a fist fight over a bottle of Jean-Paul Gautier cologne because it was the last one the fragrance department had in stock. These women were both impeccably dressed in designer brands and they both had wedding rings set with diamonds the size of the goddamn Rock of Gibraltar, so not only could they obviously afford to buy pretty much whatever they wanted from the counter, they were probably already using their husbands’ platinum card to buy him his own gift anyway. Yet, they were kicking the shit out of each other over a fifty-dollar bottle of cologne shaped like a naked man’s torso, complete with tastefully blended Ken Doll jockstrap genitals. I’m sure any man would be thrilled to grab a hold of that little treasure in his stocking Christmas morning. It wasn’t even a nice scent, unless their husbands really wanted to walk around smelling like they fell in a big bin of potpourri. Eventually, somebody called security and the boys managed to break these two out of the death-grips they had on one anothers’ throats.
What does this have to do with Christmas music? The consensus in upper management seems to be that Christmas music promotes higher sales (check) because it puts people in a generous, gift-giving mood (check), because it adds to the “festive atmosphere” of the store (all right, fine) and finally because it promotes a general sense of holiday cheer and joviality between customers during a stressful time of year (wait).
Seriously, that’s as close to a direct quote that I can give you – a floor manager at the department store I worked at last year actually said that during a floor meeting. Holiday cheer and joviality, huh? Tell that to Steve in Loss Prevention who caught a Gibraltar diamond above his left eye while subduing the Gautier harpies and needed three stitches. Peace on earth my Aunt Fanny.
So it’s fairly safe to say that Christmas music as it is defined by upper management does not, in fact, have the calming effect on you, the valued customer, for which it is intended. It’s also fairly safe to say that the average employee, if lambasted for eight hours a day with every conceivable version of “Santa’s Coming to Town”, will likely become sick of it (if by “sick” I mean “violently ill and/or certifiably psychotic”). I’d be willing to accept it as one of the many, many necessary evils of this stupid holiday, except for one thing: if all of what I’ve said so far is true, and many of you will agree, then why, why, why must we start this process earlier and earlier every year?
I’ve been tracking this disturbing trend for the last ten years or so. Look, I know that “holiday”-themed sales, with the exception of some token Thanksgiving crap, go through sort of a slump between November 1st when the Halloween thing is all over with (and when did people start treating Halloween as a legitimate holiday, complete with full-house decorations and light show? More on that another time) and the onset of the Christmas thing, which is still realistically five or six weeks away.
I’m sorry that for those five or six weeks, you might actually have to try and sell something worthwhile and/or useful to your customer base, rather than stuffing all this throwaway holiday pabulum down their throats. I know it’s not entirely your fault, because you work on supply and demand. and generally speaking your customer base is downright stupid. “Gee, I really should invest in something intelligent like a microwave that doesn’t make a horrifyingly loud buzzing noise so it sounds as though you’re cooking a beehive every time you set the power level above 3, but holy shit, look! For the same price I could get this enormous ceramic turkey that looks like it was stolen from the set of ‘Three’s Company’! I know it’ll take up half my dining table since it’s larger than the actual turkey my measly wage down at the Stop and Go can provide my family for Christmas dinner, but damn it’ll look classy when I pair it with my ‘vintage’ (read: bargain basement) circa-1977 ceramic Santa-and-Elf salt and pepper shakers!”
It’s hard not to take advantage, I’m sure. But still, you could show a little restraint for the sake of the rest of us who actually need to go get that microwave, and don’t really want to be inundated with all this “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” horseshit.
About that: who gave you the authority to arbitrarily decide when the Christmas season starts and stops – particularly when it starts? Why is it that I walk down the street, still having to step over smashed pumpkin bits left over from Devil’s Night, and I’m already seeing tinsel and holly and pictures of elves everywhere? Isn’t this season, with the snow and ice and canceled transit and family theatrics and gift-related guilt and alcohol abuse and rampant consumerism and depression and suicide bad enough, without extending it by another whole month and a half? Last time I checked the song talks about the twelve days of Christmas, not the twelve weeks.
Look, everybody who was going to do their Christmas shopping early this year is already done by November, okay? You know why? So they don’t have to go to the mall and deal with people like the Gautier twins or the savage parents. And all the rest, the people that constitute 95% of your customer base, are going to do the same goddamn thing they do every year. They’re going to wait until a week before the day and then flip out, jump in their car, repeatedly hammer the horn and smash into other cars in order to get to the mall before everything is picked over, and once they get there they’re going to battering-ram their way through all the other toe-headed morons that wonder why hot-ticket items are no longer in stock by December 23rd in the hopes of finding something, anything that will appease their kids and/or their significant others or ailing parents or bitchy coworkers or greedy friends or whatever. They will spend inordinate amounts of money on a credit card they cannot really afford, which will take them until next Christmas to pay off, and then they will get in their cars and smash their way out of the nightmare back to their suburban shit holes, just in time to catch Tim Allen starring in “The Santa Clause” on TBS for the ninetieth time this week.
So if that’s true (which it is), what’s the point in subjecting the intelligent consumers – not to mention your employees – to a month and a half of totally unnecessary holiday cheer?
I know, I know. You will now quote facts and figures to me that prove Christmas decorations and a Christmas soundtrack are guaranteed to increase sales in November and early December. You will point out that if I don’t like the music that is being played in my store, I can happily go find another job where music and indeed contact with the outside world is not required. You will smugly suggest that if I like getting paid, since it’s not terribly feasible for someone to find a job this late in the Christmas game (thanks to your arbitrary dating system), I will shut up and do my job and like it. You will tell me these things and you will be right, and I will not care. I will hate you anyway.
Fuck Christmas and fuck you too.
…Wow. Sorry about that. Much of the preceding off-kilter rant, I can only assume, was the result of post-traumatic retail stress disorder. In fact I like my current job very much, and in fact I’m doing my damnedest to keep an open mind about the holiday season this year. I’m not complaining about the weather since it’ll be a while before I see this much snow (doesn’t happen in Toronto), and I’m not complaining about the customers since I get to pass the buck to the service department and they can deal with the snow-tire morons. In fact, I’m keeping everything pretty simple this time around. My Christmas wish list for this year: to see my friends when they’re in town and to make it through the day without being incarcerated for mischief, public drunkenness, assault or murder. That’s all I really want, so please, Santa, please make this boy’s wish come true. Make it a Christmas miracle, for me?
Wait…what’s that smell? It’s metallic and vaguely spicy and…oh, right.
It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas, folks.
And it smells like shit.