Category Archives: Holiday

Ugly sweaters

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

Now how many holiday parties do I have to wear this to?

I have been invited to an overwhelming number of holiday (read: Christmas) parties this year. As a non-Christian, I don’t normally pay much attention to Christmas, beyond enjoying the opportunity to have some time off work and see my family and loved ones.

But, after all these years abroad, now that I have experienced the full lead-up to Christmas – and “lead-up” is the right word, because it seems the “season” starts right after Halloween, gains momentum after Thanksgiving, and reaches a full frantic frenzy by early to mid-December – well, now I’ve realized that it’s impossible not to pay much attention to Christmas.

Unless you want to risk social ostracism by opting out of the multiple, back-to-back, often conflicting holiday party invitations. Taken individually, you want to attend them, but taken as a whole CONSTANT-CHRISTMAS-PARTY-MARATHON-MASS – I was literally invited to ten holiday parties in ten days – you just want to crawl into your bed and hibernate until January.

Well one of the holiday party traditions which I discovered this year is the so-called “ugly sweater party.” A friend of mine hosted one, and my office also hosted an ugly sweater contest. (Sadly, due to my insane work schedule of late, I ended up participating in neither, despite having ordered a sufficiently ugly sweater from eBay for $0.99.)

Apparently this is a thing that you wear horrendously ugly sweaters with a Christmas or winter-style design in a tongue-in-cheek fashion (evidently it’s also a trend in the UK, if the “Christmas jumper” entry of Wikipedia is to be believed, although I must have missed it when I was living there).

I’d never heard of this before, but now I know it’s cool / camp / hipster / [insert other appropriate word]. To the point that it even has dedicated websites, such as www.buttuglysweaters.com. Yup, Christmas parties are some serious stuff.

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Too busy for vacation

I wish I was at the office.

I wish I was at the office.

It’s Thanksgiving day and I’m on vacation right now. As you read this, I am either on a beach, on a mountain, or in a bar. Or possibly still in bed. Why, then, am I writing a blog post, you ask? Well, I’m not. I actually wrote this blog post last week, before leaving on vacation, and just scheduled it to be published in the future (a nifty feature of WordPress).

And why would I do that, you ask? Well, because I don’t particularly fancy being behind my computer while on vacation, or doing anything that remotely resembles “work.” Blogging is, in fact, my hobby; it qualifies more as fun than work. Nonetheless, spending time at my computer is not my idea of a holiday. And I am most certainly not going to do any work work while away; I won’t even read my work emails, less do anything about them.

I’ve come to realize this is not an attitude shared by most Americans. Everyone talks all the time about having to do work on the holidays (or over the weekend for that matter). It seems a matter of course, even expected, that people will check (and respond to) their work emails while they are on “vacation.” When someone comes back from a few days out of the office and you ask them how their break was, it’s not uncommon to hear them say “Well, it wasn’t much of a break…” Or before a holiday, when you ask people what they  have planned, they might say “Trying not to work on the holiday…”

What’s up with that?! Americans have less vacation time than any other developed country in the world. Indeed, the US has no statutory minimum employment leave (even China has a minimum of 5 days). Compare this to the UK, where employers are required by law to give their employees 20 days (4 weeks) of holiday (in addition to the 8 bank holidays). The Netherlands also mandates a minimum of 20 days. And in France, workers enjoy a whopping 30 days (6 weeks) off each year.

In the US, meanwhile, employers are left to decide for themselves how many vacation days they want to give to their employees, and most times they give only 2 weeks (!). If you’re lucky (like me), you get 3 weeks. It’s exceptional in the US, in the private sector at least, to have even 4 weeks vacation. So essentially, the best deal in the US is… the bare legal minimum in Europe.

And the worst part about it is that oftentimes “vacation” days actually mean “Personal Time Off” (PTO), which comprises any day you are not in the office, whatever the reason. Fall sick with the flu and need to spend the week in bed? Well, there went a week of your “vacation” down the drain. Compare this to the UK, where if you’re sick, you just phone in sick and don’t come into work. Nobody is counting or limiting your sick days for routine short-term illnesses (if employees are off sick for more than 7 days in a row, then they need to provide a note from the doctor).

So, let that sink in. Of the 52 weeks in the year, Brits are not working for 4 of those weeks, a little less than 8% of the time; the other 92% of the time, they are working (assuming no sick days). The French, meanwhile, are on holiday 11.5% of the year and working 88.5% of the time. Miraculously, the economies of Britain and France still appear to be functioning, despite this excessive laziness on the part of Europeans (read: sarcasm).

And then there’s the poor Americans, with their paltry 2 weeks vacation. They are working 96% of the year. And then for the 4% of the time that remains – the 4% of their wage labor life that truly belongs to them and no one else – they “try not to work.” I do not understand.

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Gourds

Ah yes, this is exactly what I need to cover my front porch in.

Ah yes, this is exactly what I need to cover my front porch in.

Since I’ve been stuck on the topic of fall lately, I thought I might as well have a rant about gourds. Yes, gourds. Like pumpkins (which are indeed themselves a gourd), gourds are one of those things that inevitably pop up in America sometime around September and remain ubiquitous through November.

But, unlike pumpkins, which serve a number of uses – including pumpkin pie, jack o’ lanterns, roasted pumpkin seeds, and of course pumpkin spice lattes – gourds seem to have no discernible purpose. They are just suddenly there, and Americans impulsively buy them.  For no good “use” other than decorating one’s doorstep or dining table.

Of course the futility of gourds (or should I say, the fruitlessness of gourds – yes, pun intended) is not innate. In Africa, the calabash (a gourd which grows on a tree) is used for all sorts of things: when hollowed out, the hard shell of the fruit can be made into a bowl, a cup, a water jug, a container, a ladle, or a musical instrument.

But I’ve never seen anyone in the US use gourds in any sort of practical way, be it crafting useful things from them or even cooking with them. Gourds are just there, chilling out, making up your autumnal centerpiece and looking all ornamental.

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Halloween

Halloween from cradle to cubicle.

Halloween: an American institution from cradle to cubicle.

I like most holidays, but Halloween has always been one of my favorites. In all the years I lived abroad, I tried to celebrate it as much as possible. But it always struck me as a very American holiday – one that Brits may enjoy, and Europeans may make a nod to, but no one else goes quite over the top like the Americans.

This year – my first year back in the US – Halloween falls on a Friday. This weekend I have been invited to no less than three Halloween parties. That is in addition to my office Halloween party which took place yesterday (yes, you read that correctly: professional adults get dressed up at the office in front of their co-workers, during working hours… hell yeah).

And if I hadn’t been feeling under the weather, yesterday evening I would have also attended Night of the Living Zoo, the National Zoo’s annual Halloween event. Yes, a party at the zoo. For Halloween. For adults. Really.

When I was living in the UK, I’d be lucky to get invited to one Halloween party to attend. Now I’m swimming in them. Finally, I can give Halloween the attention it deserves.

Given the four Halloween parties over three days, I even momentarily considered ordering more than one costume, so as to avoid donning the same Alice in Wonderland dress three days in a row. But then I thought maybe that would be going overboard. So instead, I decided to simply sleep in my costume for three nights. A reasonable compromise.

But even if you’re not going to any Halloween parties, you can’t escape. I just stepped out for a coffee, and there are people in costumes everywhere: so far today I spotted a chef, a footballer, a prisoner, and a woman on a bicycle covered in gold sequins and technicolor feathers. Rock on.

The great thing about Halloween in the US is that a costume can be anything. When I was celebrating Halloween in Europe, for example in France, I noticed that people were a lot more limited and formulaic in the costumes they wore. Women pretty much stuck to the standard witch or devil, and men were vampires, ghosts, monsters, or zombies, not straying far from the original meaning of All Hallows’ Eve as a celebration of the dead and departed. My European friends would often question non-scary costumes: “What does Superwoman have to do with Halloween?”

Americans, on the other hand, are as happy to be a nurse as a nun as a ninja. And, if you’re an adult woman (or even a tween, according to this article), generally the idea is for the costume to be as short and skimpy as possible. Because Halloween is the one time of year when it’s totally acceptable for (a) women to dress as provocatively as possible, and (b) men to dress in drag.

P.S. Being child-less and yard-less, I can’t/won’t even begin to touch upon all the other integral and amazing aspects of Halloween in America, including children going trick or treating (an unforgettable part of my childhood), pumpkin picking, carving jack o’ lanterns and roasting the pumpkin seeds, dressing your infant  up in a costume that you enjoy more than they do because they have no idea what is going on, and last but not least the practice of decorating one’s front yard for Halloween. When I was growing up, the only “decoration” that occurred for Halloween was when the high school trouble makers threw eggs and toilet paper at unlucky people’s houses. But now it seems to be a thing that people do: decorate your house/yard for Halloween in the same way you would for Christmas. Take it to the next level, America.

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Filed under Americana, Clothing, Holiday

Not So Good Friday

When I lived in the UK, I always looked forward to the double bank holiday weekend around Easter Sunday. In case you are wondering what a “bank holiday” is, it is a public holiday in the UK, so called because the banks close, as do most offices. Some bank holidays occur on religious or national holidays, such as Christmas or New Year’s Day, whereas other bank holidays don’t seem to represent any “holiday” at all – the first Monday in May, for example, is always the “early May bank holiday” and the last Monday in May is the “spring bank holiday.” Nobody can explain what the “holiday” actually is, but nobody cares, because it’s a day off.

But of course it’s clear what Easter Sunday celebrates (the arrival of the Easter bunny, right?), and in the UK, Easter is always a four day weekend, because Good Friday (the Friday preceding Easter Sunday) and East Monday (the Monday after Easter Sunday) are both bank holidays. So, nearly everyone takes time off work and many people go away for the weekend or visit their families. Likewise in Canada, Good Friday is a federal statutory holiday.

NOT SO IN THE U.S. of A., where neither Good Friday nor Easter Monday are federal holidays. Office workers continue to type away in their cubicles, postal workers continue to deliver mail, bank clerks continue to process checks, and federal and state government workers continue to do whatever it is federal and state government workers do (although I read online that apparently some states do celebrate it as a state holiday). And of course every supermarket and retail establishments remains open, lest observant Americans be prevented from engaging in the holiest of activities, shopping for Easter candy and baskets.

Easter Sunday is on a Sunday, and Sunday is already your day off, so what more do you want? Now get back to work.

 

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The green holiday

Authentic color.

Authentic Irish food.

I went to my local bagel place the other day for my regular bagel and cream cheese. As I was waiting in line, I scanned the baskets of bagels of various flavors to make my pick. What will it be today… an onion bagel, a poppy-seed bagel, or maybe a raisin bagel? Wait, what on earth are those neon green ones? Is that a new flavor? What could it possibly be?

And then I remembered: it is Saint Patrick’s Day. And those are St. Patrick’s Day bagels. With the traditional Irish flavor of… green food coloring.

Yes, this is a real thing in the US: dyeing food green for St. Patrick’s Day. No, really. I’m not making this up. Beer is similarly morphed into a bright green color using food dye. Some cities even dye entire rivers green for the holiday, a well spent use of municipal funds. Today I saw a girl with green highlights in her hair, but I didn’t dare ask her if she had died it especially for St. Paddy’s Day.

It is as though the St. Patrick’s Day “holiday” has been distilled down to the color green, in the same way that Valentine’s Day has co-opted the color red, Halloween is represented by orange and black, and red and green are the colors of the birth of Jesus Christ. But, perhaps in the case of St. Patrick’s Day, it makes sense for the holiday to be so focused on the color, because after all, what American has the foggiest idea who St. Patrick is? And what are we celebrating about him? His love of green bagels and beer?

Well, it turns out St. Patrick was a 5th century Christian missionary born in Roman Britain around A.D. 390. He wasn’t even Irish. He did live in Ireland, working tirelessly to convert the Irish to Christianity until his death on March 17th, A.D. 461 (well, no one is entirely sure about when he died, since he was mostly forgotten immediately after his death, but March 17th is the date that is generally agreed).

So this is the man the Irish are celebrating. Or are they? A bit of historical research reveals that St. Patrick’s Day is basically a holiday invented by Irish Americans. The first celebrations for St. Patrick were recorded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737. And the first St. Patrick’s Day parades were held in New York in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the British army in the US Revolutionary War marched through the streets to reconnect with their Irish roots. Today, New York City has the largest St. Patrick’s day parade in the world. Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s day was nothing more than a minor religious holiday in Ireland (now it is a national holiday). Would any Irish readers like to comment on if/how St. Patrick’s day is celebrated in Ireland?

At the café today, I sat next to a guy who was chatting with his friend about the café’s offering of pastries and ice cream. He said, “Maybe I should get something green flavored for St. Patrick’s day. They have pistachio flavored ice cream. Pistachio is green.” Mind you, this guy was also wearing a green tie and a green ribbon medallion saying “Kiss Me, I’m Irish.” So maybe “real” Irish people do eat green food on St. Patrick’s Day.

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Valentine’$ day

In all these years abroad, I think I had nearly forgotten about the existence of Valentine’s Day.  It’s just one of those non-events that doesn’t factor into my life in any way, whether I am in a relationship or not. It’s not a holiday I anticipate or plan around, and certainly not an occasion on which I spend money.

Well, I’m back state-side now, and Valentine’s Day is the first “holiday” since my return. I suddenly find Valentine’s Day accosting me everywhere and all the time. Clearly, I had my guard down and was totally unprepared for the full-on red assault of the heart-shaped marketing machine.  I feel as though every establishment I pass has launched some marketing effort in conjunction with this non-holiday: restaurants are offering Vaentine’s Day specials, bars are throwing Valentine’s Days parties, my local café has put hearts up on the wall, and of course CVS is a riot of red and tacky plastic expressions of love.  Even when I went to look up a word on Dictionary.com, the home page featured a slideshow on “slang for love and lovers.” I can’t escape.

Suddenly, I find myself “worrying” about what I’m going to do for Valentine’s Day. This, I acknowledge rationally, is absurd. But I’ve clearly been successfully pressured by the collective concentrated campaigns of every single business which stands to gain from me potentially acting on that nagging feeling that I should be doing something for Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t I be going somewhere? Shouldn’t I be buying something? Because, after all, how does one celebrate Valentine’s Day without buying something? Is it even possible?

I appreciate that by writing this post, I am ironically contributing to the proliferation of Valentine’s mania. I was tempted to upload a photo of a white teddy bear holding a red heart. But I stopped myself. And on Valentine’s Day – otherwise known as Friday night –I’ll be hanging out at a friend’s place, eating and drinking, like any other night. Nor will I be wearing red. 

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Filed under Consumerism, Holiday