Christmas used to constitute a well-earned, end-of-year break. But increasingly, work is taking over.
Religious aspects aside, for many people Christmas has been that unique time of the year when the demands of work finally disappear, if only for a brief period. We get a well-deserved break, time to indulge in fatty food, drink more than we should, and quarrel with people we love and hate (often both at once). In short, we get to enjoy that wonderful thing that was once called leisure.
Christmas starts early these days, and goes on for a long time. This is no wonder as it is the most important commercial event of the year. For many retailers, Christmas brings in over 40% of profits. There is also a thriving Christmas economy involving everything from Santas who work short term contracts to package trips to Lapland.
Although Christmas is big business for some, for others it never really happens because they’re stuck at work. Over the last decade there has been a staggering increase in the number of people working over Christmas. The most recent available figures show that in 2010, 172,000 people were working on Christmas day (a 78% increase from 2004.)
Christmas at work
Meanwhile, companies spend more money on Christmas festivities than ever before. Last year almost seven out of ten employers arranged Christmas parties and over 80% decorated their workplaces. Not a bad thing in itself, but if you are one of those who will be working over the Christmas holidays, these festivities may appear to be cruel mockery.
Consider the irony. Many employees will spend months unwillingly staring at tacky decorations arranged to emit the right Christmas spirit. They will listen to familiar Christmas tunes on the radio, which become exponentially unbearable each time they are played. They will be subjected to the annual Christmas party, replete with snogging in the toilets, bad dancing and excessive amounts of Merlot (for a painful example, watch The Office Christmas Special). And all the while, these employees know that Christmas will never really happen, because work will get in the way.
We should be familiar with the trend by now. Holidays, weekends and other occasions for non-productive leisure have become increasingly unfashionable in an era that is work-obsessed. The five-day work week, with two uninterrupted days making up the weekend, is a relatively modern phenomenon. But despite only becoming the norm in the 1940s, it is already in danger of extinction. Work, sleep and leisure used to be distinct activities, organised in blocks. Now they have dissipated and been replaced by an on-going stream of time, which in various ways has become invaded by work.
When we think seriously about these changes, supposedly fun festivities in the workplace can develop a bitter aftertaste. The after-work drinks on Fridays will probably not have the same appeal if you know that you must be in the office the next day to work on that report due on Monday.
That the Christmas holiday is getting squeezed out is no surprise. How many of us will be working on Christmas is hard to tell. Apart from the thousands who are officially working we have to add those people who will pay a sneaky visit to the office, secretly work from home, and those whose Christmas will be spoiled because they could not think about anything except work.
The white plastic tree blinking, the cheery Christmas songs playing on the radio, the ugly sweaters with the snowman on – these merry symbols may be seen as an insult to those who, in one way or another, will be working over Christmas. For them, the whole of December is turned into a month of compulsory fun. Like everyone else, they are required to take part in the festivities, add to the mood and to fantasise about the holiday that will never come.
But perhaps this is not so much an insult as a way to make them appropriately bored with Christmas. Remember the story about Andrew Park, also known as Mr Christmas, who decided to celebrate Christmas every day, with a decorated Christmas tree and new gifts waiting for him each morning? For most people, such repetition would not elicit much joy. It would become monotonous, exhausting, and depressing.
In December, we are all Andrew Park. Everyday, we get a little chunk of Christmas, not much, but just enough to make us sufficiently sick and tired of it when the day itself finally arrives.
It wasn’t always this way. Previously it was tradition to fast up until Christmas Day, then engage in continual feast and merry-making for the 12 days of Christmas, before fasting again. Now, however, we’ve drawn out the festival to include most of December, making the whole thing a little tiring.
But here is the positive thing. We don’t get too dragged down if we happen to miss it. Without being too conspiratorial, perhaps these Christmas festivities at work are partly designed for this purpose. Could it be that the increasing amount of money spent by companies on Christmas festivities is related to the fact that more people work during Christmas? Whether this is true or not, one month of compulsory fun is not a particularly good way to prepare for an imminent holiday. It is, however, a perfect way to make us accept that a proper holiday, away from work, will not happen.
Photo: Andy Devine/Flickr