I am usually only vaguely aware that Black Friday, the day that heralds the start of the holiday shopping season, is going on somewhere out in the world. It’s one of those annual nonevents that local news crews are obliged to cover, like empty shelves at the supermarket before the first snowstorm of the year. It has become a sort of depressing new American holiday, with people lining up the night before and waiting for hours in the November cold, malls opening their doors earlier and earlier, some as far back as Thanksgiving night. A website called BlackFridayDeathCount.com — it’s unclear whether this is adolescent ghoulishness or a grim electronic conscience — lists four fatalities and 67 injuries sustained during Black Friday sales from 2006 to 2012. Statistically, this is not a national epidemic; it’s about as many people as are killed or mangled every hour enjoying the freedom of the roadways or exercising their Second Amendment rights. It’s the triviality of these deaths that makes them so appalling.
I have always regarded people who enjoy shopping as a leisure activity the same way I do people who like going to nightclubs or shooting animals or being urinated on — incomprehensible and faintly disturbing in their bizarre enthusiasms but essentially harmless. I have my own weird vices, and life’s too short to spend it being snobby about the imbecilic things other people do for fun. It’s a laissez-faire attitude that collapses annually the first time I hear Christmas Muzak in a store, which this year was on Nov. 17. Christmas, like its parents, Christianity and capitalism, isn’t content to go its way and let you go yours; ultimately it wants to force everyone to join in the fun.
As a child, I loved Christmas, for the same reason I loved Halloween and my birthday: I got stuff. Kids are insanely, shamelessly greedy — they shriek and keen for checkout-aisle candy, resort to physical violence to defend their proprietary rights over 25-cent vending-machine prizes, sob with rage when they see other children getting presents and they’re not. It’s an attitude they have to be slowly and patiently socialized out of. (Not all of them grow out of it, of course. Those pathological cases whose antipathy to sharing and fairness is permanently arrested at the developmental age of 2 currently drive the economy and exert disproportionate influence over the running of this country.) But atavistic greediness rears up and repossesses a lot of adults for one month of the year, in a sterile, joyless saturnalia.
The Christmas season is by now one of those vast, inexorable institutional atrocities that almost everyone hates but to which we all helplessly acquiesce, like yearlong presidential campaigns or car commercials in movies we’ve already paid 14 bucks to see. At this point, the only people who look forward to it with anything other than dread are small children, retailers and the kinds of people who’d be wearing Minnie Mouse sweaters anyway. Since I’m a childless grown-up and an atheist, Christmas has pretty much nothing to offer me. In my early 20s I asked my family whether we could stop exchanging gifts, since I now had enough stuff and hated shopping. This plea resulted only in my not getting presents for anyone and everyone else getting presents for me and my feeling like a heel. So I’ve given in, and now go Christmas shopping once a year, usually around Dec. 23 and well anesthetized. A few years ago I had some kind of a breakdown in a large chain bookstore in a mall on Christmas Eve and had to be gently led out by my friend Alicia, a performance artist and fetish model. She tells me I was gibbering that this year I was getting nuts for everyone — macadamias for Mom, hazelnuts for my sister, cashews for her husband, party mix for the kids. I remember none of this clearly.
I don’t want to sound like some Scrooge here. I love gifts and surprises 11 months out of the year. I was elated when I happened across the sound track from “Phantom of the Paradise,” my friend Ellen’s favorite movie, on vinyl. I’ve spent a month tinkering with the playlists of some mix CDs for a friend. I crosshatched for weeks drawing the view from a friend’s kitchen window in rural France as a thank-you gift to her for letting me stay there this summer. I recently found an entire vulture skeleton intact on my beach, delicate elongated radii and all, and immediately saved it for my friend Roxanne, an artist who I knew would love it and use it in her work. To me, this dead vulture symbolizes the true spirit of Christmas.
Ritual gift giving would seem to be a fitting observance of the birth of Christ, who preached a bottomless generosity and heedless altruism and whose life was itself, according to Christian creed, a gift. (And there are, of course, people who celebrate the holiday not by buying crap but by donating to charities or volunteering at homeless shelters or soup kitchens.) But obligatory gift-giving is an oxymoron. Having to buy gifts under duress is like teaching children to say “please” and “thank you” by yelling at them. In any case, most Christmas shopping now involves people giving you a list of what they want and you dutifully buying those items and wrapping them up so that they can then unwrap them and pretend to be pleasantly surprised. It would be more efficient for everyone to just agree that we’re all going to buy X dollars’ worth of crap for ourselves once a year. Checking off names on a Christmas list is to true generosity what a job is to a passion, what prostitution is to love.