1999 was the year Christmas and I broke up.
I was 6 months into opening my first venture, a tiny, bootstrapped little winebar in the college area of Kitsilano, Vancouver. It had been a hard start, fueled almost entirely by blind enthusiasm, long hours, and the relentless fear of failure that only crippling debt will instill. I was Facing the coming January February shoulder season which had the potential to bankrupt us, and decided that was the year I just plain didn’t have time for Christmas.
I had been spoiled by Christmas growing up. Fantastic family outings, a fully decorated house, mom’s celebrated feast (famously featured in Western Living ’74), and a month of seasonal baking that carried well past the holidays. The Sears catalog was always handy in the months prior for us to circle and dog-ear our wish-list, and even when we were struggling to make ends meet, the tree always went up and would be bursting with perfectly wrapped gifts for me and my brother.
Christmas was a sure bet in our family, when 364 days of attempting good behavior had a guaranteed positive result. When you’re of the age when you measure happiness in toys, candy, and cartoons, it’s become the benchmark by which all other holidays are measured, and found wanting.
All of this is why I could never understand why one year, everything changed. I had long since transitioned from toys and candy to aged cheese and brandy, quite happily, and being on the first step of a journey I’d spent 10 years preparing for, I still had a dreamer’s optimism percolating through me. Maybe it was that first year of being truly too broke to buy anyone a present, or the year i rolled my jeep in the mountains on Christmas eve and found myself with a sleeping bag full of presents trying to find a way home to be with the family. Maybe it was just that time in my life when I thought I’d outgrown it. I never really could pinpoint it, and year after year I found myself drifting further from the yuletide spirit, until one year Sue came right out and said it to my face.
‘You’re a grinch’
Dealing with me and my Christmas hate had started to grow thin, to the point where i think i was wrecking it for her as well. She grilled me, and I mumbled out the regular ramblings about commercialism, money, the religious hypocrisy of appropriating pagan holidays for their own, cabbage patch dolls, barbie, Walmart, Hallmark holidays, yada yada yada, and it started to turn into a rant. Accumulated years of angst and watching what i had thought was this pure magical holiday turned to shit started a cathartic vomit from me in such a tirade that even I hated me when i was finally out of breath, out of words, but still not out of anger at my once favourite holiday.
I understand now, 15 years removed from the first time i quit Christmas, why it happened, but it wasn’t for any of the reasons I sputtered on about, even though they were straight legit reasons to quit. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for 15 years I’ve wanted only one thing, one thing i know I’ll never get, and i’ve been in a 15 year temper tantrum ever since.
I want more time.
In only 6 months of entrepreneurial life I had learned that time was more valuable than anything else, and it might be the one thing i could never afford. That first year I needed one more week of revenue out of a month that would see 6 days of holiday shutdown, and I didn’t know where to find it. In following years we honed the science of maximizing holiday sales with party bookings, gift cards, New Years events, but we worked like dogs every December to make it happen. The holidays became a crucial time for execution, and there was no time for shopping, friends, family, trees, baking, snowball fights, or holiday parties. I vividly remember sitting alone at the bar after closing one Dec 23rd, pouring a baileys on ice and watching the Grinch. Exhausted, stressed, and hoping we had done enough to carry us until Valentines day, Christmas had become one hell of a business disruption, despite being a great excuse to drink baileys at breakfast.
That year I decided it would be different, and as I scowled at the TV Grinch with Bailey’s breath, I turned my back on Christmas past, and decided to build a Christmas future.
The restaurant business is famous for Christmas orphans. Staffed predominantly by travellers, students, artists, and dreamers, a restaurant becomes a family around holidays, and ours was no different. That night, inspired to change, I called upon every cherished holiday memory, and decided to cook a feast for my new family.
I invited any who would come, staff, regulars, people off the street, friends, for a Christmas Eve dinner, just like my Mom used to make. I painstakingly recreated her signature red cabbage, and Danish almond pudding (the single whole almond hidden inside nets a marzipan pig to whoever finds it!). I had a commercial kitchen at my disposal, an empty restaurant, and loads of people around who might otherwise not get a feast of their own. I cooked for a day and a night, straight through, and 40 friends, staff, and strangers had a family for Christmas that year.
Year after year I picked up the knives and the apron and would cook for my restaurant family after a grueling Christmas season, and spend Christmas day passed out, blissfully sleeping until noon and skipping the typical ceremony. Year after year we skipped the tree, decorations, and even instituted a ‘no gifts’ rule with the family. Socks, underwear, and booze, of course, were all gratefully accepted. It seemed I might be able to vanquish the Grinch within me, albeit mostly with alcohol and work.
Selling the restaurants in 2007, however, introduced a significant stumble to the 12 step program, and soon I was back to my old Grinchy self. Everywhere you go during the holidays, people are lining up to buy shit they don’t need with money they don’t have. If you stand back and watch Christmas as a spectator, it’s genuinely horrifying. Black Friday brawls, parking lot road rage, offshore factory worker suicides, Monsanto hormones in the eggnog, factory farms churning out Turkeys by the truckload…and the band plays on. Jingle all the way you crazy bastards, thanks for shopping at Walmart!
That was it, I was finished with Christmas for good, and was glad to be done with it. No presents, no tree, no lights, no goddamn way I’m getting caught up in that bullshit. With no other Christmas orphans around to cook for, I was free to wallow in my own Grinchitude. Bah Humbug, damn rights.
Now listen, anyone can quit Christmas, it’s easier than quitting any other vice. You can cheat a little, with minimal consequences. You might find yourself enjoying some gingerbread, absent mindedly humming a carol, or indulging in an eggnog latte, but come January you can go right back to ignoring Christmas for another 11 months. Christmas is so forgiving, because you can sneak a little of it one day a year, and you know you won’t be shaving 10 years off your life for one bad decision.
My problem wasn’t quitting Christmas, that was easy. Like any breakup, I’ve done my best to hold on to the great memories, remember what brought us together in the first place, and focus on all the things that mattered. I still keep those tucked away in the part of my brain that refuses to believe I don’t have superpowers (I just haven’t figured out how to unlock them), the part where the excitement and curiosity I had when I was 6 has built a blanket fort to keep the cynicism and harsh reality at bay. This is the safe deposit box that my entrepreneurial brain dips into when it needs a spark, and needs to believe that a great idea can succeed in the face of insurmountable odds.
Rifling through those memories as a new father, though, I started to see them through a new lens. I imagined being in my parent’s shoes, struggling with the same entrepreneurial stresses, financial troubles, and problems of their own, and facing a couple of brats like me and my brother. They rocked Christmas hard every year, and every year we lost our minds with excitement. Lego, handmade clothes, hand baked cookies, and the best Christmas dinner you could imagine. They never mailed it in, not even once, and they had every excuse to do so.
I realized a torch had been passed. I had been on the receiving end of so much awesome Christmas, and I was in danger of breaking the chain. My daughter deserved to love Christmas like I did, she deserved to believe in magic, and fairy tales, and make believe, and just because life got hard for me shouldn’t wreck the holidays for her. If I had any respect for the sacrifices my parents had made, I had a duty to pay it forward.
So, last year I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and dove in, jingle bells deep, to Christmas.
It didn’t hurt, not even a little, despite being broke, bootstrapping 2 new companies, and completely stressed for time. I dare say I even enjoyed it a little. I still had issues with Christmas, but I kept them to myself. I stopped paying attention to how everyone else is doing it, stopped being a spectator, and started taking it shift by shift. Every day was about giving my family the best Christmas they could have, and it was awesome. I spent two months building my daughter a custom dollhouse that she never plays with, but her face on Christmas morning was the face that every parent plays the game for. That was the day I started using Christmas again.
I didn’t discover that my mom’s Christmas dinner was actually famous until we were sifting through old pictures and Dad pulled out the 6 page magazine spread from 1974. If you look closely, you’ll see the red cabbage and almond pudding, and I kid you not we still have those same serving dishes 40 years later.
This year, Christmas will be just the three of us, and for good reason. Next year we’re opening up Christmas dinner to the public again, at the house, so if you find yourself without a date on the 24th of Dec. 2015, give us a ring.
15 years after I quit cold turkey, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m off the wagon, and high on my own supply.
Happy Holidays Everyone!