The soft underbelly of a humbug

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Maybe it’s because I was born the day after Christmas that I became a humbug. Throughout my childhood, Christmas always loomed before my birthday; the annual eclipse that left my “special day” a mere afterthought somewhere in the darkness.

While my schoolyard chums held birthday parties at the roller skating rink or Silverwood, my birthdays were always a slight inconvenience — a quiet street after the parade, strewn with the wrappings from Christmas presents that were given with the usual statement, “Uh, this is for your birthday, too.” (Fellow late-December-born will know exactly what I’m talking about — “There are dozens of us. DOZENS!”)

As a result, my skin began to grow thick in winter. The day after Thanksgiving, when Christmas songs began their tireless loops at malls and stores, I would roll my eyes and prepare for the usual humbuggery.

To be fair, my mom has always gone out of her way to celebrate my birthday separate from Christmas. To this day, she mails me separate cards, proving that mothers are the eternal antidote to darkness.

The notion that humbugs dislike Christmas isn’t accurate, though. We actually quite enjoy this time of year. Winter is my favorite season, after spring, summer and fall. I love the bitter cold, the thigh-deep snow and the quiet melancholy of a winter morning before you shovel the driveway for two-and-a-half hours.

I enjoy the way Sandpoint quiets down in the winter, but walk through the right doorway and it’s hopping just as much as any summer night.

What I disliked was the obligatory gift-giving, the often-forced sentiment and the commercialization of a holiday that is supposed to be about love, hope, joy and togetherness — not stressed-out shopping trips and hectic family gatherings that end in sullen door slams and arguments.

As I grew older, I started a tradition of my own around Christmas: I stopped participating. I stopped stressing about if I forgot to give someone a gift, or if I got them something useless. I stopped spending money I couldn’t afford to spend on trinkets and baubles, just to prove to someone that I cared about them.

Armed with my new salt-encrusted winter skin, I would go on to celebrate the holiday stress-free. If I saw something that made a perfect gift for someone, I’d buy it. If I didn’t, I didn’t. I kept expectations low and was often rewarded because of it.

It reminds me of an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin’s mom comes into his room in the first panel and says, “Why, look! You made your bed without even being told to! That’s wonderful, Calvin!” In the next panel, Calvin’s imaginary tiger Hobbes says, “Gee, your mom sure is nice when you help her.” In the next, Calvin answers, “Yeah, that’s the reason I usually don’t. I like Mom to be impressed when I fulfill the least of my obligations.”

And so it went for many years. I set the bar low and never had trouble crawling over it. After college, while I lived in Los Angeles working about 60 hours a week, I always spent Christmas alone. I’d skateboard down to Venice Beach, loving the quiet boardwalks, the light traffic and the absence of people. It was like I had been set free.

One Christmas remains a strong memory. I boarded a Greyhound bus in downtown L.A. on Dec. 22, expecting it to arrive in Sandpoint the next day, but because they were overbooked, a second bus was assigned to the overflow passengers. This second bus didn’t go north, but straight east into Arizona, then north into Denver and Salt Lake City, with long overnight stops at each city.

The trip took three full days. Anyone who has spent more than an hour on a Greyhound knows what I’m talking about. Now imagine three days of it.

Christmas day was an hour-long stop at a gas station diner in a podunk roadhouse in central Montana. I didn’t have enough to buy a meal at the diner where all the other passengers ate in stunned silence, like survivors of nuclear winter. A Christmas song played on the radio, but it sounded haunted, as if the cassette tape playing it was one step away from breaking. Instead of a diner meal, I purchased a frozen burrito, cooked it in the microwave and ate outside on the curb.

The bus driver exited the diner and saw me. He asked why I wasn’t eating and I told him I couldn’t afford a full meal. He then frowned, walked back inside and emerged a few moments later with a hot meal in a box: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and a slice of apple pie. 

“Nobody should eat a gas station burrito on Christmas day,” he said, walking back to the bus.

This man, who probably didn’t have much more money than I did, went out of his way to buy a stranger a Christmas meal. It brought tears to my eyes and I’ll never forget it.

So here’s to that bus driver, and to all of those who remember the less fortunate ones on Christmas.

Humbugs might seem like grumps this time of year, but scratch their soft underbelly and you’ll discover the sentiment never left; it might’ve just gone dormant, beaten into submission by the callous corporate effort to fleece as many people out of their hard-earned money as possible before the sacred day. Humbugs still cherish this season. We just love it for what it’s really about.

Here’s wishing you all love and joy this holiday season. 

Even the humbugs.

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