Monday, January 30, 2006

DON'T DO THIS

If you walk into a restaurant and apply for a job, say - oh - as a server, and the manager sits you down right then and interviews you and really likes you and offers you the job on the spot SAY YES AND TAKE THE JOB RIGHT THAT MINUTE. In the restaurant business things happen fast. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can sleep on it or get back to them in a few days with your answer. This is NOT the corporate world of long, drawn-out interview processes and taking days/weeks to think over decisions. It’s restaurant! You decide in the moment or the job is GONE.

Gone.

...gone...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Peers

Seriously, of all the women who read my blog and offer comments, am I the oldest one of us all? Really?

I hope not, but not for the stupid "oh no, I'm old" reason women usually have. I relish the community I find here, and all of your comments are always important to me, even if I don't respond to all of them. I'm very grateful for the comments I get from all women, but I especially cherish the input of women who are older than I am because a huge part of my lonely feeling of relationship failure is feeling this way at the critical page-turn of my 40th birthday (in six months). I know that lots of women have had my experiences and it shouldn't make much of a difference if they had those experiences at age 25 or 36 or 38. But to me it does.

There are no women readers of this blog who are over the age of 39? Really? Or maybe you just haven't made your presence obvious to me lately?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

First Prize

This happened on January 3, but it took until now for me to work up the nerve to publish it.

I hate all that new age bull&#%* I used to dwell in, but for some unknown reason the following question grabbed a hold of me this past holiday season: what belief or fear might be getting in the way of me reaching a goal? Now I've asked this a million million times, but for some bizarre reason I went through the old motions again: I want a relationship but I’m afraid of intimacy, I want a relationship but I’m afraid of being suffocated, blah, blah, blah. Nothing new there. Same old crap.

Tuesday [January 3rd] I was turning the dating problem over in my mind (again) and I thought of all the people who have reassured me that I’ll meet the guy, it’ll happen, don’t worry, it’ll happen, I’ll find him, I’ll meet the guy. I thought with scorn about these people, all these friends and therapists and strangers and the entire world. All of them so certain that I’ll fall in love one day and every single one if them a complete idiot because I’ve never fallen in love and it’s nowhere on the horizon and everyone is completely wrong.

For the first time I noticed the satisfaction I take in telling people they’re wrong. Every few months I announce that everyone is wrong and I still haven’t met anyone, so there. For the first time I was able to see that the deep down reason for my behavior is one of my core beliefs: I have to be unique. I have to be different from everyone else in any way possible. And that includes being without a relationship. I saw that I have been working hard to distinguish myself as the Amazing Solitary Hot Chick, totally hot yet totally alone, almost 40 yet never fallen in love, but everyone’s crazy about her, isn’t it a mystery? Have you ever known anyone like her? No? Great!

I wondered briefly why I hadn’t tried to be unique in the opposite way, by being in the happiest, most long-term marriage ever known to man because that sure as hell would be unique, too. But that question only flickered briefly because the answer is obvious: marriage is terrifying to me while being alone is familiar, easy and safe.

I got this image in my mind of being alone on a bleak open plain, with no one else in sight. “Congratulations!” I heard in my head. “You have won! You are completely alone, against all odds and expectations!” The picture made me feel devastated, isolated and furious with myself for doing this for so long.

After the kleenex, I forced myself to look hard at that lonely image: “Congratulations, I have won. I’ve won, okay? I’m completely unique. I can stop this now.” Then it occurred to me that the experience of falling in love has seemed too ordinary for me and I have scorned it. Well, this is the end of that. I could do with being a little less unique. If falling in love is common, then let me be fucking Jane Q. Public.

Afterwards I felt like a part of me had softened and become more yielding. I felt like dating might finally feel different now in a significant way, and although I knew better than to think my pathetic, hopeless, suckrat love life could ever really improve, I felt myself moving less slowly to stomp out this new smoke-wisp of hope. As I walked away with this new feeling, I decided that even if there was no change in my sad, crappy love life, this slight feeling of being altered was pretty good.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Louie Update

My Bar Louie job is going fine. I worked the lunch shift on Monday and Wednesday (a 7-hour shift) and walked out with $60 each time, so I'm satisfied. I don't like that it takes so many hours to earn that $60 (almost twice as long as it took at Nick and Tony's), but it's money and I'm grateful. And I get to wear girl clothes!

Red Rabbit from Musings and Migraines came by at the end of the busy period and I had a great time chatting with her and her friend. They were my only table at that point so it was perfect.

Good shift.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

How to leave a job without burning your bridges behind you

I don't feel as much like an expert on this topic, but first I'd say give them plenty of notice. Two weeks is, of course, standard and sufficient, but if there's some event or project they really feel like they need you for, you might consider staying for that IF it doesn't interfere with your new job or your job search. If they want you to stay for another two months, you'll have to negotiate what feels comfortable for everyone concerned. I once had a boss, let's call him Danny, who did NOT want to let me go. He actually tried to get me to stay for weeks and weeks longer than I wanted to. I finally had to be firm with him and accept that Danny just wouldn't be an ally in the future.

At work, don't talk disparagingly about your job even if you're sick of it. Any of your co-workers could be valuable references or resources in your future job search efforts. If you criticize the job or company, it could make them feel bad about their position or their choice to stay. I've made this mistake before.

Regarding the sneaking around you have to do in order to find a new job, I don't know what to say. Does anyone have any suggestions? Danny let me know that he took my leaving his company very personally and he seemed hurt that I had lied about taking a long lunch hour so that I could interview. But I doubt that's typical. Maybe someone else has a good suggestion.

Any other advice anyone can add?

(today I am exactly 39 and a half years old. I'm the only person I know who recognizes her half birthday)

Monday, January 23, 2006

How to Get a Job With No Experience

[This is for those who want to change jobs. For anyone else, the following post might be long and boring.]

At various times in my life I got sick of whatever I was doing to earn a living and decided to totally change it. At the end of my time in gradual (yes) school, I was ready to leave my academic world of make-your-own-schedule, write/read papers whenever you want and discipline yourself (I also hated grad school, HATED it, but that’s another story). I was ready to get away from the other eggheads. Instead, a more strictly monitored, conventional job appealed to me, just to see what it was like.

POINT: If you can’t figure out what you really want to do, at least figure out what you don’t want and get the hell away from it.

I was able to type and answer a phone politely, so I applied at a temporary agency. I had no office experience, but temp agencies look for well-groomed, dependable, adaptable workers. If you have potential, there will eventually be a job assignment you'll fit. I worked my way from receptionist work to administrative jobs and eventually landed at a tiny (two-person) marketing firm that needed an office manager. The owner was impressed with my ability to adapt to a computer system I didn’t know, edit a paragraph and talk in complete sentences. He eventually hired me. Did I have office manager experience? No. But it was a fledgling company that didn't have a big budget and they were willing to take a chance on me. They recognized a good worker.

POINT: Temping is a great way to get inside a lot of companies that would normally never consider someone with your background. They're often hiring for the position you’re temping in and once they discover what a great employee you are, you'll most likely be a candidate.

By the Way: Many employers know that an office worker who can WRITE WELL is worth her weight in gold. We bloggers are infinitely valuable just because we can put a sentence together, so never sell yourself short.


When I got sick of running an office, it took me a couple of tries to figure out my next move. I wanted a dayjob connected to music, so I took a support staff job at a music school. I wasn't happy. Soon I realized I longed to teach music, but the school required certification I didn't have. Over six months I became so unhappy that my mistakes multiplied and the school let me go. Yes, I was fired, but I was SO relieved because I knew that wasn't where I belonged.

POINT: Never be afraid to quit or get fired from a job that feels like a bad fit. I’m serious. Do not feel bad about this. Now you’re free.

BTW: When you get fired or laid off, apply for unemployment immediately. You're entitled to it and you deserve it. Do NOT let feelings of failure or shame stop you. It’s just money and money is always useful.


Now I could pursue my dream to teach singing, but how? My bachelors and masters degrees were in English literature. I had no teaching credentials and didn't even know how to play piano. I dug into my memories of all the singing teachers I'd learned from. I remembered that my favorite one didn't use a piano at all. She incorporated yoga, movement and deceptively simple voice exercises in her lessons. Could I do that? Sure!

I began compiling vocal exercises and techniques I could do without a piano, used a lot of creativity to develop new exercises and form lesson plans and decided that I was a voice instructor. I implemented a marketing plan and started taking private voice students who I taught in my "studio" (dining room of my one-bedroom apartment). Yes, I really did. I charged $50 for a 50-minute lesson and $25 for a 25-minute lesson, usually had between 6 and 10 students a week and I was a music teacher! (Those are prices I used in 1998.)

POINT: What do you do well? Chances are, there’s someone who will pay you for it, whether it’s playing guitar, cleaning out basements, mediating conflict, calming nervous parents, anything. If you’re creative about it, you can market it well and if you can market it well, someone will buy it.

Every once in a while someone would ask about my background and certification and I’d say this, “My degrees are in English literature and everything I know about music I’ve learned on my own. I’ve taken classes and studied extensively with private instructors to learn voice, theory, guitar and the keyboard. I’ve had excellent private voice instructors and I incorporate their techniques in my lessons. What I teach my students is a very body-centered approach to singing...” and then I’d go back into my pitch of how my lessons will benefit them and why I’m different from all other voice teachers.

POINT: Don't be afraid to declare yourself an expert. If someone needs your skills, they'll often choose you based on your personality, your presentation and the specifics of what you offer. Make a good impression and they'll often give you a chance, regardless of your official degrees, certification, etc. or lack thereof.

At the same time, a former co-worker from the music school had a baby. I told her I had lots of free daytime hours in case she needed childcare. Of COURSE she needed childcare, she was a new mother trying to figure it all out. I told her I had babysitting experience (as many of us have) and based on that, plus the dependability and intelligence she'd seen in me at the music school, she hired me. Eventually I was taking care of her son three days a week (with no former nannying experience) and between that and the voice lessons, I was financially solvent.

POINT: If the employer is new to their field (whether it’s a fledgling marketing firm or a new mother), they might not be able to afford someone with lots of experience, or know how to find them. If you can convince them that you have the necessary skills, attitude and desire to learn, they have every reason to give you a chance.

Years later (next big shift), my previous office manager experience got me an administrative assistant position at Arthur Andersen, not an easy company to get hired at (I went through three interviews). After that company went under, the president of a small holding firm hired me in large part based on my job at Andersen (he knew of their rigorous requirements).

POINT: Once you get the ball of experience rolling, working your way up to better positions isn’t that hard. You just have to be willing to keep looking and move on.

My last extreme transition was a year ago when I decided to try restaurant work. I’d never waited tables in my life and knew that going in as a rookie would mean a huge pay cut. The holding company job had paid me $40,000/year, but I believed waitressing was the right thing since it would allow me the nightlife I needed as a musician (remember, all this wage earning is always in support of my music). I decided to do it.

POINT: Sometimes you just have to suck it up and take the pay cut. But if you’re good -- and I know you are -- you’ll work your way back up to your former income bracket before long. (I’m convinced I’ll do it within the next year. OH, yeah.)

Most restaurant want ads say they require experience, so I focused on the ones that didn’t mention experience required. The best times to find restaurant work are during the busy summers and the busy Christmas holidays. Searching in mid-November, I spent just two weeks finding my first serving job at Carson’s.

POINT: You can always find someone to hire you with no experience. You just have to be willing to pay the price. The price can be a low wage, not great working conditions, a place with an unknown reputation, etc. You just have to decide how bad you want that new career direction.

And part of it is just luck. After I moved from Carson’s Ribs to Nick and Tony’s Italian, I found myself at a place owned by a company that owned lots of restaurants across the country. After Nick and Tony’s closed, I had a great opportunity: Restaurants America would have been willing to place me at one of their restaurants in Florida or Arizona if I’d wanted to relocate. (But I love Chicago and hate sunshine, so you couldn’t pay me enough to move to one of those wimpy-weathered states.) Working at Restaurants America’s Bar Louie, I’m still part of a company with many opportunities and I will be taking advantage of them.

POINT: Sometimes it’s just about luck. Be on the lookout at all times for luck!

I’ve had lots of jobs in lots of different industries and my resume looks quite unconventional. But my odd resume hasn’t yet stopped me from making a move I wanted to make. Just like all those elective requirements in college helped me try different fields and figure out my major, so have these varied jobs helped me figure out what I really want. And startlingly, at the age of almost 40, my heart is set on waitressing, the job most people start with.

And now I’ll take questions. Yes?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

My new job at Bar Louie (or, when the bright side is darker than Dick Cheney)

Bar Louie at Dearborn Station in Chicago is where I work now. Last night I worked my first dinner shift. I am straining, straining here to be positive and look on the bright side, etc. but I have discovered that I am NOT a late night person. If you check out their hours online, it says Bar Louie Dearborn is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. I WISH it were open til 1:00 a.m. It's actually open until 2:00 a.m. and on Saturdays it's open until 3:00. Who works those hours? Who wants to? Two a.m. used to be the very, very latest I might have gotten home from closing a Carson's Saturday night shift. Now it's closing time. Last night as it got later, the music sounded louder, the people became more difficult and I wondered how people get through these kinds of shifts.

The good news is that next week I'm not scheduled to work any dinner shifts at all. So come on by for lunch on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday! You can see me in my cute Bar Louie t-shirt that I get to wear with blue jeans. One of the benefits of working at Bar Louie is that I don't have to dress like a little man (white shirt, black pants, men's tie) as I did at Carson's and Nick and Tony's. God, I miss Nick and Tony's. Hell, I miss Carson's.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Coming Soon

On Monday: How to Get a Job With No Experience (one woman's story).

In the comments section of the previous post, I made the following flippant remark, "Need help getting a job when you have NO EXPERIENCE? Ask me how!" Chris called my bluff by responding, "How?" Because I keep my word (and don't want to be a tease), I'm working on answering that question. Now when I publish it on Monday it might be one of my longer posts, but this is specifically for those who have asked (and Chris wasn't the only one). And also I enjoy a writing challenge like this.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why Waitressing?

I have a B.A. in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and a masters in English lit. from Cornell University. I’ve been (in this order) an English instructor, an ESL instructor, a bookstore salesclerk, an office manager, a non-profit organization development assistant, a part-time nanny, a choir director, a private voice instructor, an Arthur Andersen secretary, the executive assistant to the president of a holding company and a waitress. (The only consistent thing in my life is that I have, no matter what else was going on, always sung, but it’s exquisitely difficult to earn money as a singer and I’m not interested in wedding bands, cruise ships, etc. I’d rather sing my original songs and earn my rent in a non-musical way.) Why, with this education and work history, do I want to wait tables?

I love teamwork and I love helping people feel welcome in a social situation. I am never happier than when I'm in the middle of throwing a big dinner party where everyone's having a great time, and waitressing is similar. My other jobs were quite limited in the number of people I dealt with, and usually it was the exact same people every day. Working in a restaurant, I get to know and trust the team I work with, plus I get to play hostess to countless people every week, heck, every hour. I really enjoy that. Plus restaurant people are some of the most fascinating, hilarious, bizarre characters you can work with. The fun never stops (and I'm home!).

In waitressing there are a finite number of tasks, there are co-workers to help me out, and a supervisor/manager is always around somewhere. There's a place where the buck stops and it's not with me. I also love organizing/cleaning/stocking work that is set in stone, repetitious and predictable. Just tell me what to do and I’ll happily do it exactly like that forever. I'm a much better footsoldier than leader (except when it comes to music, social stuff and my personal life. Ahem).

Waitressing is also a very contained job, at least at my level. As a waitress - all right, all right, as a server - I never have to take work home. All hell might break loose and it might take all my energy and wits to dogpaddle through an eight-hour shift from the devil, but when it’s time to clock out, it’s time to clock out and that, is, it. No matter what happens, the end is always in sight.

I like how physical the work is. Sitting at a desk all day always felt unnatural to me.

The main reason I decided to try restaurant work a year ago is the schedule. As a musician, I prefer a job that doesn’t start at 8:00 a.m. I’m willing to sacrifice lazy weekends for a couple of languid mornings each week and a couple of afternoons each week when I’m done with work by 3:00 p.m. I never knew what to do with two days off together anyway.

And the money, ah yes, the money. The following has proven true in my life: the best-paying jobs require the least work and the lowest-paying jobs require the most. I did so much less work at Nick and Tony’s (where a foodrunner served the dishes and bussers cleared tables, etc.) and earned so much better money there than at Carson’s where I had to hustle for everything. Also I did so much more work at the crappily-paying office jobs than I did at the $40,000-a-year executive-assistant-to-the-president job where I sat and surfed the Net all day (and yet I hated that job). Waitressing is the first thing I’ve ever been interested enough in to want to stick with until I get to the real money. By “real money” I mean I intend to get back to the finer restaurants where I’ll be supported by bussers/bartenders/foodrunners/hostesses, etc. and I won’t have to do nearly as much physical running around, but where I’ll command EXCELLENT tips from high, high-ticket menu items and plenty of bottles of expensive wine. That’s where I’m going.

Because I really enjoy serving tables. I’m just back in the trenches for a while. Moving from Carson’s Ribs to Nick and Tony’s was like a dream come true. Maybe it was too good to be true. Now I just have to work my way back up there.

Thanks, Baritone700, for your question that allowed me to remember why I'm doing this. It was the perfect exercise for me because my first day of training was not encouraging, but I feel better now.

P.S. And at a restaurant I will never have to deal with those stupid job performance evaluations with asinine questions like "What are your goals in the next six months?" when I'm just a lousy secretary and my "goals" involve re-organizing the travel folders or synchronizing my bathroom breaks with the receptionist. I HATE JOB PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Relief-Bitterness-Relief

I have a new job! And it's about time because I haven't worked a day since December 21st. Okay, how many of you reading this have enough money saved up right now that if you suddenly had to stop earning money for the next three weeks, you'd still be in good financial shape? Yeah, that's right. Suddenly having to stop working for three weeks SUCKS.

And then imagine you finally get to start working and earning money again, but it's just a part-time job, earning you about 45% of what you were earning before, and you don't have a spouse or roommate or anyone else who pays rent with you, so you totally have to ask for money from your parents, even though you're almost 40 YEARS OLD, because the three weeks out of work drained your savings. Yeah, that's my reality.

But I AM grateful because if I had to sit around my apartment for another week, I was going to stop getting up in the morning. And it really is difficult to find restaurant work in Chicago in January so I'm very grateful that Restaurants America came through with a job for me. The restaurant is called Bar Louie and it's owned by the same company that owned Nick and Tony's. The menu has a lot of bar food (burgers, fried calamari) and different kinds of drinks, but they also have fish/steak/chicken dishes and salads. I doubt I'll get rich there, but I can be very patient and this job is part of my big plan to come out on top in the Chicago restaurant scene. I've never had a career that actually made me want to achieve anything. In my other jobs (as an academic, a secretary, etc.) I could have cared less about becoming a tenured professor, administrative supervisor, store owner, mother, etc. But I want to work this restaurant gig and wring as much out of it as I can.

My first day is tomorrow. I'm a Bar Louie server. I was a server at a totally cool restaurant that sold expensive bottles of wine, able to earn a $40 tip off of a single table, but now I work at a Bar Louie. I'm trying not to be disappointed about how this has all worked out. Maybe I'll like Bar Louie. Maybe it won't be too long before I'm earning enough to live on. Maybe I can work my way back to a cool restaurant I totally love, like I loved Nick and Tony's, and it won't be years and years away.

Yeah, maybe.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

My Gig Was Great!



Pick-A-Cup Gig, originally uploaded by regrodriguez.
Many people came, I was happy with my performance and a friend took photos (sorry they're blurry). It was a great night. Thanks again to Dave Lykins for getting me out of "retirement." I think it's time to start performing regularly again.

Gig



Pick-A-Cup Gig, originally uploaded by regrodriguez.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Take My Poll, Please

Feel free to participate in my first poll. It indicates how much I really am preoccupied with weight and fitness, I just don't blog about it as much as I think about it. The way you guys think about sex? That's more similar to how I think about food.






People often gain weight as they age. Which of the following best describes your attitude about this?
I am trim and fit and will do whatever it takes to stay that way for as long as possible
Carrying an extra 5 to 10 pounds is okay, if I'm otherwise healthy
I figure I'll end up looking like my parents no matter what, so why fight it?
Carrying 10 to 30 extra pounds is okay, if I'm otherwise healthy.
I'm okay with being overweight. Thin doesn't necessarily mean healthy


  

Free polls from Pollhost.com

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Unemployed

I want to thank everyone who has jumped into this discussion of how much we're all thinking about sex. It has really helped me because Nick and Tony's Italian Restaurant closed on December 22 and I haven't worked since. Depressing. But our discussion of erections and stuff has made me laugh and given me something to look forward to each day.

Restaurants America has made good on their promise to find jobs for all the servers they laid off last month, but I seem to have fallen through the cracks. Everyone else is working at their new jobs, except for me. I'm telling myself it's because I was the last one hired, I'd only worked at N&T's for three months when they went under, I have no seniority and eventually I'll be placed, too. But it's hard to have no place to go every day. I've filed for unemployment for the third time in four years.

A couple of temp agencies I've applied to have work for me, but I dread dread dread going back to office work. I just don't want to. I want to keep waitressing. I've been putting off the whole office thing while I keep calling Restaurants America, I keep calling, I keep calling to find out where I'm going to go. The biggest possibility right now is that I'll end up at one of the Bar Louie's in town. I hope so. I'll take anything at this point as long as it's a restaurant (and yes, I'm also looking for other restaurant work, but January is THE worst month to be looking for restaurant work in Chicago). I just need to work. It's not just a matter of rent, it's a psychological need. These days I'm waking up at 5:00 a.m. unable to fall asleep again (a sign of depression). So I'm not getting enough sleep at night, but these days an hour and a half nap in the afternoon is no problem!

The only good part of all this is that each morning I go to Bally's, since that's the only place I have to go every day. My usual 45-50 minute workout has stretched to 90 minutes. Then in the early evening I go back for a 60-minute exercise class. It gets me out of the apartment. It's great for losing the extra pounds I put on during December. And it gives me the endorphin rush that helps my mood: physical exercise is critical when I'm fighting depression (as I suddenly am). It's unemployment weightloss! Soon I'll have to ration my groceries even more strictly and then I'll REALLY reach a whole new level of fitness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Erections - Your Opinion, Please

How often do men think about sex? How many erections does the average guy have during a typical day (when he doesn't even have any dates)? Yes, I have wondered these questions and now someone has finally offered his own personal data. Thanks LocuTus of Borg. He uses "PoE" (possibility of erection) to present some hard numbers.

Now my question is: what do you guys think? Is 4-5 erections per day typical of most guys? Do you think most guys' erections tend to happen at the same times of the day as LocuTus (in shower, on public transportation, etc.)? Do you think there's a difference in the number for guys in their 20's, 30's, 40's? LocuTus is 35.

Confidentiality Statement: I will be sharing this information with as many people as possible.

Monday, January 09, 2006

I Have a Gig!

For the first time in almost a year, have an actual gig this week!

A guitarist/singer named Dave Lykins is performing this Saturday the 14th and he's asked me to open for him. I'll play for about half an hour starting at 8:00 p.m. at Pick A Cup Coffee which is at 1813 W. Dempster in Evanston (see links on the right.)

After my last real performance last February (which many of you attended, thanks), I had a crisis of faith about why I'm even doing this music thing and that's why I haven't performed since then. I've just been playing at open mic's for the past year. It's hard to believe I'm actually going to have 30 minutes onstage, especially since I wasn't looking for a gig, but this was one of those rare opportunites that really just fell into my lap (thanks, Dave!). How could I say no? It'll just be me and my electric bass, but what the heck. It should be fun, at least for me.

BTW: This is how everybody should do new year's resolutions: on Así Es Joel describes his underachievement approach. My new year's resolution for 2005 was to start drinking. That's right, for almost 40 years I'd hated the taste of alcohol and I finally forced myself to get over it. It really took months of effort but, motivated by my new restaurant career and the need to know wine, I did it. This year I'm so proud of how well I did last year, I have no resolutions for 2006. I think if you do well one year, you can take the next one off.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Digital Camera


Christmas 2005, originally uploaded by regrodriguez.

I got a digital camera for Christmas and I finally figured out how to download photos from it. I'm not really tall. My tree wasn't even five feet.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

“Isn’t There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas Is All About?"

Recently the History Channel aired Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. Here’s my summary of the program because I found it extremely relevant to the annual discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. The following historical facts are from the History Channel program, but the strong opinionated statements are mine.

Christmas Started Without Jesus

It turns out that early Europeans were observing a winter solstice celebration centuries before Jesus was even born. In Norse country it was called “Yule” and it lasted for as long as the enormous “Yule log” took to burn, which was about twelve days. In preparation for the cold, dark season people would kill almost all their livestock since they couldn’t feed them through the winter. The feasting and general revelry that resulted became the annual Yule celebration.

In Rome the winter solstice marked the period known as “Saturnalia.” During this festival people drank, behaved raucously and generally overturned the normal social order. While this was going on, the upper classes of Rome worshipped Mithras, the sun god, whose feast day was December 25th. Mithras was also believed to have been born in a field and worshipped by shepherds (hmm?).

In fact, the early Christians didn’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth, focusing on his resurrection. But by the fourth century the new Church needed to establish Jesus’ holy birth, so it began to put together the nativity story. It knew it would never manage to outlaw the pagan traditions already in place, so it adopted them and that’s how December 25th became Jesus’ feast day.

It Had More Sex Than Saints

In England during the middle ages, the pious went to church on December 25th for “Christ’s mass,” but most of the population just carried on as it always had on that day. Christmas was a festival of drunken revelry and sexual activity that would look more to us like Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It was a saturnalian free-for-all with little connection to Jesus except in name.

By the 17th century the Puritans had had enough of this and they made attempts to outlaw Christmas in both England and the New World. These devout people saw Christmas as a debauched and depraved tradition that had to be stopped. It didn’t work, but the holiday was greatly downplayed for a long time, as evidenced by the U.S. Congress being in session on all Christmas Days for its first 67 years.

America Needed a Tradition

When the United States were established in 1776, the early Americans wanted to rid themselves of all things English, including Christmas. But over time they also needed new culturally shared holidays and a reinvention of Christmas was on the horizon.

One new aspect of the American Christmas was how it addressed the growing class divide of the industrial U.S. In the early 1800’s the holiday became quite dangerous as working class people turned it into a time of violent payback for the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In response to growing economic imbalances, writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens created works of fiction that instilled a spirit of generosity and demonstrated sharing wealth with the poor. These popular stories gave the upper classes guidance about what their responsibility was to those who had less and established “giving” as a central Christmas theme. Christmas now gave people a chance to correct some of the socioeconomic unfairness of newly industrialized America.

The view of the family was also changing. Traditionally it had been seen as a mechanism for disciplining children and turning them into hard workers. But by the end of the 19th century the family was seen more as a nurturing body that protected childhood innocence. Christmas, with its emphasis on giving gifts, allowed people to lavish attention on children without seeming to spoil them. The holiday became a celebration of children, honoring them with presents and witnessing their expressions of pure joy.

Why Shopping Is Central

The creation of Santa Claus in the mid-1800's did a few things: it reinforced the idea that Christmas distributes wealth, it solidified the focus on children and it removed gift-buying from the marketplace and placed it in the realm of family love and affection. This diminished the obvious commercialism of gift-buying and obligated parents to fulfill their children’s expectations. Thus did shopping become the central activity of the Christmas season.

But Where Was God?

By the late 1800’s Christmas was just about everywhere, except in church. In fact, the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was an Episcopalian minister who initially kept his authorship a secret because he thought the poem was too friviolous; after all, it didn’t mention Jesus once. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was an established part of the Catholic tradition, but for quite a while American Protestant churches pretty much ignored it. For decades they stayed closed on December 25th until their parishioners made clear that they wanted services on that day.

So much for Jesus’ birth being the real reason we have Christmas. December 25th was originally part of a pagan festival that morphed into a holiday of gift-giving that American churches didn’t want anything to do with until almost the 20th century! There was no golden age during which people observed Christmas primarily as a holy day. That idea is as much a myth as Santa Claus. Sorry Charlie Brown, but Snoopy's not off target: Christmas is as much about the big decorated tree as it is about the manger.

Does Christmas Even Need Jesus?

By the 1920’s all of the sex and revelry were gone from Christmas and by the 1950’s it was all about kids and presents. So, where does Jesus fit into this again? Clearly a spiritual focus is appropriate since religious services recall the need to connect with a greater power. In the centuries before Christ, people needed to believe they’d survive the winter and they worshipped the sun as their source of life. Modern Christians worship the son of God, whom they recognize as the source of life.

But for as long as December 25th has been recognized as Jesus’ feast day, there have been lots of other activities going on at the same time. If Christmas were really just about Jesus, the holiday wouldn’t occupy public space as it does. Strictly religious holy days tend to be observed only by those who practice that faith. Our grand scale yuletide traditions -- big decorations, big eating, big shopping -- support the religious significance of the day, but they don’t really engage it.

What’s the True Meaning Again?

The History Channel’s program ends with the observation that only children understand what Christmas is really about: pure joy and celebration, and the magic and mystery of opening gifts. That’s why, even as grown ups, we often experience a moment of delight when we see a Santa truly in his role or glimpse a dazzling light display. Such moments take us back to our childhood and the unadulterated awe and glory that Christmas held for us then. Our American Christmas tradition was tailor-made for children and they are critical to its magic.

SOoo righteous religious people who say the true meaning of Christmas is about Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas includes Jesus, but today it's just as much about children and gift-giving. There has really never been a time during which people treated December 25th as a solemn holy day. In fact, the drunken orgy it used to be caused the Puritans to try to stamp it out altogether. So although Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's just as much about decorations and presents as it is about God, an interesting outcome for a holiday with a rich pagan history of drunkenness, gluttony and sex.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Double O's

2006. How did we get to the downhill side of the Double O's? (That's what I think we should call this decade: the "double oh's.")