They say you don't know the worth of water till the well is dry. You also don't know the worth of gravy till ... the gravy boat breaks in a mad rush to make it to Macy's on Thanksgiving.
When you're a kid, Thanksgiving can seem like a lame holiday. At school, it's all pilgrim hats and cornucopias, which for some reason are filled with boring things like vegetables instead of candy. Dinner itself is full of dull grown-up food: turkey, more vegetables, bizarrely textured cranberry sauce. There are no presents. By the time school rolls around Monday, you're good and ready to go back.
In retrospect, I realize how much I took for granted about Thanksgiving: a warm home, loving parents, abundant food on the table—things I no doubt still take for granted on most days. But, also: naps and a four-day-weekend at home.
Black Friday was probably a "thing" back then, but we didn't participate. My first taste of Black Friday came when working at Target during high school. At the time, Target was still years from opening on Thanksgiving Day, so I got a night of picking at turkey slices before setting an alarm to get up for my 12-hour Black Friday shift.
And as my "career" in retail progressed to working in a bookstore, I had plenty of tastes of holiday work. Not many Black Friday shoppers storm bookstores looking for deals on already relatively inexpensive novels, but there was always a rush around 6 p.m., as exultant shoppers, their eyes glittering, flowed in a triumphant stream from other mall stores to hang out among their new purchases and spill hot chocolate on books they didn't plan to buy. The store made more money than usual, but it took all of our resources and left the staff feeling as though the money had been roughly shaken from each of us personally.
After that first eye-opening day of the holiday retail season, though, comes a certain exhilaration. The days pass quickly, and the nights are spent in heavy sleep. Panicked shoppers looking for books for all 10 grandkids will actually listen to your recommendations and leave with a pile of what you hope will soon be beloved books. Your co-workers become fellow soldiers in the fight to restock displays, mop up hot chocolate and track down the very last copy of The Glass Castle or whatever the must-have holiday book has turned out to be.
While you're in the heat of battle, family members and friends with "normal" jobs are thoughtlessly throwing holiday parties and "getting together for dinner." Who are these people who can spontaneously decide to go to a movie or socialize? "Don't you understand? It's the holidays! I'm working nights for the next 12 days straight!" you scream self-righteously into the phone, like a harried father in a TV movie. In another corner of the break room, a co-worker bursts into tears after talking to her husband for five minutes, the only contact the two of them will have until January because of their totally opposite work schedules.
The happy holiday energy soon begins to twist into something darker. Customers begin to see retail workers as mindless puppets dancing to the tune of a sadistic master who's engineered the long lines and empty shelves to thwart them specifically. The 23rd spilled hot chocolate of the season is something you stew over for the rest of the night, muttering to yourself as you pick up stuffed animals and slam board books back onto the shelf. Seeing that the last copy of The Glass Castle, which you took 20 minutes to hunt down for a nice man, has been left carelessly on a display of wrapping paper, incites a murderous rage. The cries of children being ripped from the Thomas the Tank Engine train set mingles with shouting from the register as some customer threatens to call corporate over a forgotten gift receipt.
But at about 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, people finally start going to their own homes and staying there, thank God. You clean up the store and head to someone's house to glare balefully at rested family members who've spent the day playing in the snow or baking pies or whatever people who don't live in shopping malls do. You don't know.
And less than 24 hours later, you're heading off to bed, alarm set for 4 a.m. so you can strip the store of Christmas and push out the clearance items.
How's that for holiday spirit?
Despite the less-than-cheery memories I just lost myself in, I've learned to enjoy the holidays again. Giving gifts is fun, and so is shopping—well, at least when it's done far away from malls, at small boutiques and quirky gift shops, and well before Thanksgiving.
Nov. 27, I'll be at my parents' house, co-cooking dinner with my sister. I've cast off my hatred of turkey, though I still prefer smooth cranberry sauce from a can. I might have to work for a few hours Thanksgiving weekend, but, freed from my retail shackles, I'll be more than a shadowy, bitter figure to visiting relatives. I've joined the ranks of "normal people" who keep normal hours.
Except, it's not normal. In this world of a 24-hour demand for stuff, it's not just nurses and firefighters and law enforcement who work Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's pretty much anyone who doesn't work at a comfortable job with desk chairs and health benefits and holiday bonuses—jobs that are becoming harder to obtain.
People talk about the War on Christmas, but the problem isn't a retail worker saying "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" after a 30-second transaction during which they earned one-fifteenth of a cent. It's the fact that this adulation of giant stores and giant deals is making us lose our humanity and regard for our fellow man. Because, yeah, that person you just bought that scarf from is a person who probably likes turkey and napping just as much as you and I do.
This isn't a rallying cry to cancel your holiday plans, return all your gifts, and wear sackcloth till Dec. 26. But there's no reason to trample all over the holidays of mindless retail workers—er, people—in your quest to have a more exciting Thanksgiving and a cheaper Christmas. Just sit back and pass the gravy.