The Christmas Insider

Tracy Falenwolfe has been published in several anthologies, and is currently writing a mystery series. Learn more at tracyfalenwolfe.com.

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If patience is a virtue, then impatience must be a fault. Except when it comes to Christmas, of course! The season is so long and magical, there’s so much build up, that no kid can wait for his or her visit from Santa. I never could. But by the time I was nine or ten I realized along with the piles of gifts he left under the tree, Santa also brought disappointment. Once he came, it was over. Before the week was out the tree was gone, the cookies were stale, and my brother and I were stir crazy. Even at that young age, I felt the best part of Christmas happened before the actual day.

The summer I was 17 I got a job in retail. I started in July, just in time to mark down all the swimsuits and unpack the first shipment of sweaters. By the time September came, I was looking at floor plans showing how the store would accommodate the influx of holiday merchandise that would shortly follow. Anticipating Christmas was now part of my job. I’d found a way to front-load the holiday season. The part I liked. It was great.

Grinches were part of the package. For every customer who complained the merchandise was offered too early, there had been one shopping even earlier for something they planned to pack up and send overseas. For every coworker who complained about the long hours, there was a shopper who rushed in at five to midnight only to be annoyed we were getting ready to close. When people visited the store and mumbled about Christmas music playing already in November, I smiled and bit my tongue—the music was on a continuous loop and if I’d worked the usual ten or twelve hour shift, I was hearing the song they were commenting on for the third time that day, for the sixth or seventh day that week.

Still, I loved every minute. I was a Christmas insider, immersed in the holiday for a full two months before Thanksgiving and the nightmarish day after known as Black Friday. That was the official kickoff of the holiday shopping season. The start, if you were a customer. The pinnacle, if you were a store associate. Every shelf was filled to the brim, every register was stocked with boxes and shopping bags, every associate was eager to please, to experience the adrenaline rush that came when the doors opened and the crowd rushed in, clamoring for the loss leaders, the door busters, the limited time offers.

The ensuing four weeks inevitably went by in a blur of aching muscles, sore feet, and sensory overload. Christmas day was a relief. A long-awaited day off spent with family. But the next morning it was back to the trenches. And if I thought Christmas day was a letdown before, it was only because I’d never experienced the day after Christmas in retail. The crowds were as large as in those leadup weeks, but the vast majority of folks had come not to buy, but to return unwanted gifts. Often they were churlish and rude. Their Christmas spirit, if they’d had any to begin with, was gone. Just like that.

For me it was proof that the deflated feeling I always experienced on Christmas day wasn’t imagined—other people felt it too. And I knew why.

It was because Christmas isn’t about the gifts. We say it. We teach our children about it. But there’s nothing like experiencing it on such a large scale to solidify it.

I’ve worked in retail 15 out of the last 30 years. I’ve taken time out to raise children, to pursue other endeavors, to try other careers. Stores have changed, shopping has evolved, but from my first experience to my most recent, the flip-of-the-switch mood change of the general public from the day before Christmas to the day after has not.

I’m oddly comforted by that. Relieved that I’ve seen proof things don’t make people happy. Instead of complaining that Christmas has become too commercial, or too secular, or too politically correct, I choose to cherish the lead in. The traditions. Even though my kids are older now we still make time to bake cookies, to dress up the house, to covertly fill stockings with candy and trinkets.

When we trim the tree together we make a fuss over every ornament. By the time we put the star on top we’ve reminisced about Christmases past and relatives lost. On Christmas Eve, after church, we host a party for close friends and family. It always reminds me of the Christmas Eves of my childhood. Back then there were eleven cousins, ten aunts and uncles and parents, and two grandparents crammed into someone’s living room. The location rotated year to year, but the food and the activities stayed mostly the same. I can still smell my grandmother’s walnut-filled, powdered sugar-dusted nut tossies, still taste the locally made, fried-in-lard potato chips.

There were presents under the tree, one for each person, purchased by whichever relative had picked your name out of a hat back at Thanksgiving. We opened them one at a time, youngest to oldest, so that everyone could ooh and ahh over the new treasures.

I don’t remember any of the gifts I opened at that party. But I do remember how wound up my cousins and I all were. How we couldn’t wait until morning to see what Santa had put beneath our own trees. My brother and I were nice to each other that night, because you-know-who was watching. We hoped for presents, for things, blissfully unaware that the party itself was the greatest gift we could have received. The happy memories we were making. The family tradition we were a part of. Those are the things that have lasted in my memory. In my heart.

I still give gifts. I still love selecting them and wrapping them and giving them. As an insider I could tell you the best time to shop. When you’ll get the best deals. When you can avoid the crowds. Even which day the store’s selection will be peak, and when it will start to dwindle. What you’re probably better off buying online.

So what should you give? Where should you get it? How much should you spend?

Take it from a Christmas insider. Why not try spending some time, giving from your heart, and making a memory. Just be sure to make it a good one—they’re non-returnable.