Coping with Christmas

Christmas. I’m not the biggest fan.

I’ve moved a safe distance beyond the days when my Grinch-like attitude was a downer for my wife Elise, who loves Christmas. I’ve learned to deal with the seasonal affect disorder (SAD) that used to sour my mood as winter solstice approached and cold rains doused my desire to exercise outside. I no longer get particularly annoyed when I see Christmas decorations at retail shops come Halloween. I’ve learned to stop referring to the holiday as “The Effing Great American Winter Greedfest.” Out loud, anyway.

The softening of my aversion is accompanied by a tinge of guilt. My late mother-in-law’s birthday was on Christmas, and our Christmases for about 30 years coincided with her birthday party. Every year entailed waking up on Christmas morning, opening presents, then driving to Sacramento to spend the rest of the day with the in-laws at Toni’s house. I was full of resentment, to the gills. Arguing that other people don’t visit their parents every single birthday (for example, my most recent birthday, which defined “uneventful”) got zero traction. But then Toni passed away a couple of years ago, and along with her the birthday mandate. This year I look forward to listening to my granddaughter play Toni’s piano on Christmas Day.

That piano is now in my oldest daughter’s home in Sacramento, where we’ll still be going for Christmas this year and likely many years to come. Two of our grandkids are there, we have a daughter in the Bay Area, and another daughter and grandkid from Redding who will be visiting in-laws in the Bay Area on Christmas Eve. Sacramento remains the most convenient family rendezvous point for Christmas morning. The resentments I had about driving to Sacramento every Christmas have drifted away.

The family get-tougher aspect of Christmas is great—it’s the reason Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. At the heart of my dislike for Christmas, on the surface, is the rank commercialization. It’s the time of year when cash registers ring like sleigh bells—make-or-break season for many retailers, and we’re happy to oblige. The pyramid of presents under our Christmas tree each year, I would argue, is objectively grotesque—a shrine to material excess.

But if I’m being honest, that’s just the public face of my distain. Deep down inside, I’m insecure. I never know what to get anyone. I don’t enjoy shopping, and I especially dislike shopping for other people because I have little sense what people will and won’t like. My wife is no actor—when she opens a present, I know immediately if I’ve hit a home run or grounded out weakly to the pitcher. Guess which at-bats I remember most vividly? So I procrastinate, and then over-shop for presents in a frenzy, in the hope that a couple will be solid doubles and a few will dribble past the infielders for singles. Alas, that frenzy of shopping closes the material-excess feedback loop—the sin of commercial gluttony, and the remorse that accompanies it.

(Apologies for the baseball analogies during football season. Pitchers and catchers report in 66 days—I keep track. Counting down the days until spring training begins is one of my annual SAD coping mechanisms.)

Now there are grandkids, and I’m not going to let my grumpiness trump their joy. And we do have some Christmas traditions that I enjoy. Each member of the family has a large stocking, knitted by our oldest daughter, and each stocking gets stuffed to the bulging point with all sorts of knick-knacks and treats. These little gifts are my favorites. For example, fingernail clippers from a company that makes knives and samurai swords out of Japanese steel that cut through nails like a hot knife through soft butter. Thoughtful, unexpected, relatively inexpensive little gifts along with practical everyday items of the type that you always forget to buy for yourself. Smartwool socks for everyone. The stocking stuffers are my favorite presents.

So I’ll abide, but I’ll be forever puzzled why my perfect Christmas holiday is such a tough sell, remaining so even after the kids were grown and before their career obligations and the grandkids arrived, making family vacations difficult. My perfect Christmas entails spending the holiday with the whole family somewhere in the semi-tropics: Hawaii, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico…wherever. Skip the online shopping, the malls, the Christmas parties, the tree-cutting, the present-wrapping. Trade the whole shitaree for two weeks on a sunny beach on an ocean of warm, crystalline saltwater full of tropical fish, palm trees swaying in the trade winds.


Steve Towers
Steve Towers is co-owner of a local environmental consultancy. After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Davis and dabbling as a UCD lecturer, he took a salary job with a Sacramento environmental firm. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 50 one afternoon, he reckoned that he was receiving 80 hours of paid vacation per year and spending 520 hours per year commuting to and from work. He and his wife Elise sold their house and moved to Redding three months later, and have been here for more than 20 years. His hobbies include travel, racquet sports, taking the dogs on hikes, and stirring pots. He can be reached at
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20 Responses

  1. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Great piece.

    I don’t think of myself as a violent guy, but when I see Christmas decorations adorning light poles while kids are still devouring Halloween candy, I fantasize about altering them with a 12 gauge.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I no longer see red when the Christmas decorations start appearing around Halloween, but I fully endorse boycotting establishments that put them up before Thanksgiving.

      That forces me to admit that I do enjoy the day-after-Thanksgiving Christmas parade in Ashland most every year.  Ashland knows how to kick it off.

  2. Avatar cheyenne says:

    You really want to hate Christmas?  A couple of years ago, one season only, I was the Santa Claus at the mall here in Cheyenne.  It was interesting.  From screaming babies to adult bikers wanting to sit on my lap for a picture for mom.

    Merry Christmas all!


  3. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I thought I was the only Grinch.  We have no children and therefore no grandchildren.  Our family is spread from Whidbey Island to Arroyo Grande to Cody; so being together is nearly impossible since I don’t hanker to drive those distances this time of year.   I no longer decorate for just the two of us.  The pup doesn’t care about having a trimmed tree so long as her food dish is filled twice a day plus a Greenie at lunch.  I cringe at Christmas decorations in stores by Halloween and in catalogues even earlier.  Reminds me of Daylight Saving Time which was once six months long and now is three-quarters of the year.  I abhor and don’t understand this conspicuous consumerism where Black Friday begins Thanksgiving Day.  So we eschew the doo-dads, make orange yeast rolls on Christmas Eve to have for Christmas morning, roast a prime rib with Yorkshire pudding  or roast a goose Christmas day, and celebrate all the holidays when we are finally with our families.  Grinch, indeed.

  4. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    Just in case there was any doubt, I’m hereby announcing, I’M WIERD!! As in: “a strange, unexplained aberration on the face of mankind!” I LOVE THE LONG NIGHTS AND SHORT DAYS!! And on top of that, I’m the one who gets sad along about May or June when I realize the rainy season is over . . . . and I totally LOVE it when our local radio station goes to Christmas music 24/7 two weeks before Thanksgiving. OMG . . . someone find me a therapist!!! But yes, I agree, I do get a bit irritated when the first Christmas decorations show up before Halloween.

    And, listen here, Grinch, do you understand how very blessed you are to have family close enough that you can actually get together? My grandchildren have never lived closer that 3000 miles away from me and, again this year, my daughter is in So. Africa. (try shipping presents to So. Africa . . . NOT) So, as I have on a number of past holidays, I’m spending Christmas with a family whose kids and grandkids live close enough to get together at some point during Christmas eve/day. The ersatz family will do nicely!! Their Christmas spirit overflows . . . . and THAT is the important part.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I always give a big hip hooray on December 21st because THE DAYS ARE GETTING LONGER!  Having lived in Alaska  for many years, we were always thrilled when THE DAYS ARE GETTING LONGER!  I was always downhearted on June 21st when the big solstice festivities celebrated the longest day of the year because then the days were getting shorter.

  5. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    BTW . . . if you didn’t catch the CMA Christmas Special this year, look up on YouTube Jordan Smith’s version of, “You’re a Fine One, Mr. Grinch!”

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Just watched it.  Thanks.  Our holiday “tradition” includes watching several Christmas DVD’s including How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, plus several Christmas specials.  Those and a hot Tom and Jerry plus a party or two override my dislike for the commercialism that has become Christmas.

  6. Avatar Karen C says:

    I’m with A. Jacoby.  I, too, love the short days and long nights and rain, rain and more rain!  Nothing makes me happier than a rainy day, my gas fire burning, the dog cuddled next to me and watching a great movie.  It is when I feel the safest, the warmest, and the most thankful, that I can do these things.

    Christmas is for families with young kids, it is when it is the most fun.  I still can hear their giggles of delight, and we had our traditions which they all loved.  Now they have their own traditions, and want to be in their  own homes, and that is OK….but I still miss my Christmases of the past.

  7. Avatar Cathy says:

    I’m in sympathy with a lot of what you wrote Steve. I hate the shopping both for the commercialization and not knowing what the heck to buy people. I don’t have a clue as to what to buy for my husband. Listening to lovely Christmas music is helpful.

    Our whole family is looking forward to the beginning of spring training and baseball. Go Giants!!!

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      It’s actually 62 days until pitchers and catchers report—I wrote this late last week.  Go Giants!!!

  8. Avatar Richard Christoph says:

    Just back from a morning of walking rescue dogs at Haven and an afternoon of mountain biking in our splendid late autumn outdoors, and enjoyed reading Steve’s excellent treatise and following comments. I enjoy the music, long nights, family and friends, winter light, but feel profound anxiety when endeavoring to shop for others during this otherwise beautiful holiday season.


    Feliz  Navidad to Esteban Torres

  9. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    Back to my Scrooge/Grinchiness:  the few nieces and nephews I feel the need to gift, they receive money.  All the rest of the family enjoy feasting when we can finally get together, whatever the time of year.  Cooking together or dining out makes up for missing actual holidays.

  10. Avatar cody says:

    I am slightly bothered by the massive commercialization of anything Christmas-related.  Buy more stuff, additional stuff, new items, extra junk, etc.  Be sure to especially purchase items that people most likely do not really need!

    However, it is a great opportunity to visit relatives, family, good friends – and eat way too much.

    That being said, the thing that really upsets me is the businesses, and Government entities that now go out of their way to be politically correct and try to avoid offending anyone in the slightest.  More and more places deliberately will not mention the name “Christmas”, but instead use Happy Holidays, or Seasons Greetings, or other generic terminology.  Also – cannot display a Christmas tree, as maybe a certain religion would take offense.  This is asininely ridiculous – if someone does not like/celebrate one of our holidays, then they can just ignore it.  If they cannot get by with ignoring it, THEN THERE ARE PLENTY OF OTHER COUNTRIES ON EARTH TO GO LIVE IN!!!





    • A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

      Personally, I prefer HAPPY HOLIDAYS . . . which then includes Christms as well as New Years. But I also have several jewish friends. I have no trouble wishing them Happy Hanukkah, but still Happy Holidays includes everyone . . . Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu . . . . I rather like the inclusiveness of the greeting.  After all, historically inclusivelness has been an important part of our culture. I rather prefer to think of us with open arms not locked gates.

  11. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Hillsboro Oregon School District has banned Santa Claus from decorations in classrooms.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      Hummm.  Is that a private school district/  If not , so much for the division between church and state.

  12. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Steve, thank you for a wonderful article.  It took me years to accept that I have Seasonal Affected Disorder and have had it since I was a kid growing up in a north-south canyon that received maybe 4 hours of sun each day during December.  Like Beverly Stafford, I am very relieved when the Winter Solstice rolls around.

    The reason your perfect Christmas holiday idea is so wonderful is that you would be in a warm place where the sun shines this time of year  and there would be lots of outdoor activities for everyone to enjoy.  The whole excursion could be financed by what everyone saved by not engaging in a frenzy of buying ….stuff.  Plus no one would have to worry that  it was the right stuff.  Your idea is a homerun kind of idea.  I have several friends who spend their money and energy on just such an experience with their families this time of year.


    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Of all of the little bergs in and around Shasta County, and in spite of its charms, I could never live in Dunsmuir.  I don’t know if that’s the north-south canyon that you grew up in, but I know that winter in that canyon would have me unable to get out of bed by Christmas.

      Most of my family love the idea of spending Winter Break on a tropical beach.  The problem is that none of them want to accept the trade-off.  It’s a zero-sum game, family—we’re renting a villa on VRBO and buying airline tickets, or we’re burying the base of the Christmas tree in presents.  You don’t get both.