I knew the dark days were here when I snapped at a woman over wrapping paper yesterday.  I was minding my own business at Jack’s when she appeared, musing out over whether to buy this gift paper or that.  Slowly it dawned that her loud utterances were an attempt to suck me into her indecision (“oh, this one is pretty, but…I don’t know…”), a misguided meet cute if ever there was one.  After a few moments of this, I wheeled around and said, “What is the big deal?  Either you want 6ft or 1ft for 1.99—it’s that simple.”  Startled, she hastily grabbed a fat cheap roll of paper and left.

Miss Holiday Cheer had met her Grinch, er, match of the season.  And I regretted it.  This is why I go out of my way to avoid buying such things at peak hours, lest I confront others whose IQs suddenly drop when surrounded by the shiny offal meant to celebrate the aggressively poor Baby Jesus.  Why I start looking for gifts as early as the end of summer, and limit my exposure to things like holiday parties and stores that play treacle-rimmed renditions of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”  At the best of times my patience with meandering crowds is nil, but in a store that shouts, “Spend Money!  Be Happy!  It’s Christmas!” as people stagger like zombies, well, let’s just say I discover how quickly my heart shifts from chocolate melt to cinderblock.

I confess the times are out of joint.  I’m enduring a layoff, the first time I’ve been without a job since I was 14, and the financial challenges of unemployment (the tiny payout is the price one pays for living in the world’s greatest city).  My feckless sinuses have tortured me since October; the flu shot I got on the first of December has induced the genuine article, which means my nose runs like a faucet as I endure the kind of coughing spells that give me headaches.   But these triggers are simply variations on an old background: these holidays have been a trial since I was a kid.  Face it, Christmas is a child’s holiday, and the joy of it hinges on expectations of gifts under the tree—as the sixth of ten children I always found that aspect, compared to that of my friends (who of course came from smaller families) wanting to say the least.

As an adult I experienced a paralyzing loneliness my first few years in New York.  I couldn’t afford to return to my hometown; my then-spouse was an only child whose folks flew him back, leaving me to wander NYC streets devoid of their usual spark.  Years later, that same man slowly died over a series of Christmases and New Years as I and his friends looked on; years after that, I could barely look at a lighted tree or do an office party without being plunged into a deep depression.

That quotient of sadness lingers, albeit in a muted form.  I find that I can bury the emotion for the sake of my dear friends (one bonus is that suddenly everyone has more time) and a boyfriend who doesn’t share my history.  I’m happy to make it all about him, and in this I’m consoled by a pleasure I’d indulge no matter the holiday: I get to give him gifts of things he wants and things I think he should have (read: I get to make him over.  Sly, huh?).  We even get a tree, which fills our place with a nice smell—and when the thing turns brown, my boyfriend lets me pitch it off our 5th floor fire escape while he stands below to make sure no one gets impaled.   The tree makes a nice crash on the sidewalk below.

For the rest, well, I’ve learned to limit my exposure.  No Christmas music.  No holiday TV specials.  I do the bare minimum of holiday parties.  And I take a lot of daytime walks to forestall the gloom of those early nightfalls.  Mostly I try to manage my attitude, hold on the awareness that for others it’s an excuse to be deliriously happy.   If I keep my mouth shut, maybe some year I’ll finally get swept up in the bonhomie and some of that tinseled cheer will rub off.  Just don’t get any on my sweater, okay?