Bah humbug! The final two months of the year herald a string of ‘holidays’ that bring many Americans to fever pitch, says Vanessa Neumann
TYPICAL. YOU WAIT for it, picture it, prepare for it, pick out the clothes and accoutrements, count the days, and then, when it arrives, it is a dizzying torrent over too quickly, rather exhausting, and almost inevitably disappointing. No, not sex: the holiday season. The emergent red and gold in Central Park heralded an exhausting two months, bookended by Halloween and Christmas.
It’s a uniquely American thing, the inoffensively named Holiday Season. Stemming from the American impulse not to offend by overemphasising any one ingredient in the melting pot, Americans offer both something for each person and something for everyone. ‘Merry Christmas!’ ‘Happy Hannukah!’ ‘Happy Kwanzaa!’ all line the shelves of Hallmark stores here alongside the ubiquitous ‘Happy Holidays!’ the particular bête noire of my English friends.
The first holiday in the season is Halloween. Although it’s the Brits and the Germans who are renowned for their cross-dressing, it’s the rather more red-blooded Americans who dress up with the most zeal and flair. Halloween is serious business here, and the parties are so high-octane they’re featured on style.com and prompt many to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on bespoke costumes.
It’s a far cry from my first Halloween in New York. We still have the photo of me heading to the parade in Greenwich Village: I am ten years old and dressed as a ‘saloon girl’ with tumbling ringlets and a large purple taffeta ‘can-can’ skirt. It was only later that the parade became the symbol of gay pride it is today.
By the time the leaves drop to the ground, it is Thanksgiving. Celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, it unites all Americans who take a two-day holiday from work to celebrate, well, being American. Americans don’t even need to be in America to have it tug at their heart strings. Around the world, American embassies always host a Thanksgiving dinner for their most illustrious local expats.
Every year but one that I lived in London, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for twenty of my friends, who relished my annual ritual, though I always teased my English friends that the first Thanksgiving was Brits giving thanks for being out of Britain. When my annual dinner was torpedoed last year, I resolved to return to the US for this year’s.
EVERYONE HERE LOVES Thanksgiving — except Buddhists. Somewhere between the sun salutation and the chanting, my yoga instructor tried to persuade me that eating turkey is tantamount to murder. Much better, she said, for me to spend it in upstate New York on a four-day vegan yoga retreat for only several hundred dollars. Somehow: thanks, but no thanks. When I asked if she were going on the retreat, she admitted she was flying to family in LA. How yogic is that?
Unfortunately the pressure of family reunions with high expectations combined with gift-giving on stretched finances can exact a heavy price on the human soul. Shootings, murders and suicides all spike at this time of year, as any emergency room attendant can attest. Black Friday is when the real madness begins.
The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, is the most important day in the US retail calendar: the day the gates get thrown open on the biggest sales in the run-up to Christmas. Last year, when the gates didn’t open fast enough, Black Friday took on another meaning: 2,000 impatient shoppers took the doors off the hinges at a Long Island Wal-Mart at 5am and stormed inside ‘like savages’, according to one witness, stampeding one male employee to death and hospitalising four others, including an eight-month-pregnant woman. They even stampeded the paramedics performing CPR on the man and continued to shop as he died, refusing to clear the premises when the police arrived.
They may have saved $20 on a television set, but they cost a human life. ‘Take a life, save $20’: not Wal-Mart’s preferred advertising. Talk about your commodity fetishism and alienation of humanity. This is certainly not what Frantz Fanon had in mind when he urged ‘the wretched of the earth’ to revolt by violent means.
So I’m being careful to be ‘mindful,’ as Catholics and yogis say, this holiday season. I’m giving my old clothes and furniture to the Salvation Army, going to confession and cooking for friends and family. I only really need to buy two or three gifts. But just to be safe, I’ll opt for internet shopping on Amazon or eBay.