By Gerald Ensley
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Americans may be the busiest people on earth. Recent statistics show the average American's time at work rose this year from 42.9 hours per week to 43.6 hours per week. There was a 6-percent rise in paid overtime hours for those who qualify. And work production nationwide in the third quarter of 2003 rose 9.4 percent (not that I've ever understood what "work production" means for any job but factory work or how they measure it).
In France and Germany, they take six to eight weeks of vacation a year. In this country, even our music stars complain they "haven't had a day off in over a year" (though thankfully "It's five o'clock somewhere").
Work, work, work. That's all we seem to do.
Except at this time of year. As busy as we are, we make time for the holidays.
For the past two weeks, every conversation between people has ended with the parties exchanging "Have a happy holiday" or "Merry Christmas" salutations - even those still arguing about which greeting is more politically correct.
The city is draped in lights and decorations. Folks scurry out at lunch and after work to buy presents. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa cards are flying through the mail. The month of December is filled with parties. Offices hold pot-luck lunches.
To be sure, we treat the holidays with much the same seriousness of purpose as we treat our jobs. We don't stop to savor the holidays so much as we add their observation to our list of chores.
We spend whole weekends tacking up lights, building bobbing reindeer and anchoring Santa Claus to the roof. We stay up all night writing letters and addressing 300 Christmas cards. We bake and plan for weeks to host a holiday party. We stalk the aisles of stores and click furiously through the Internet in search of presents.
The traffic is maddening, the details seem endless and the expenses pile up (oh, how the expenses pile up). At some point every year, we pause, sigh and utter those words "Christmas is more trouble than it's worth."
But, of course, it's not.
We complain about how commercial Christmas is - but we delight in giving and receiving that just-right gift. We joke about yards full of gaudy decorations - but we drive around and revel in the bath of lights. We mock the self-important Christmas letters from old friends - but read them to the end, chuckling and glad to have caught up with their lives.
We sneer at stories about how the holidays exacerbate the depression of the lonely - then take a plate of cookies to an aging neighbor. We claim we can't worry about those too poor to buy presents for their children - then donate a trunkload of food and clothing to social agencies.
We wouldn't keep doing Christmas if we didn't get something out of it. And what we get out of it is the connection with family and friends - and society.
We say "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas" because we all share the season. We put up lights, bake treats and throw parties to give something back to neighbors and friends. We buy gifts and send cards to express our love for those closest to us. We do the 1,001 extra chores of Christmas because we want to participate in a communal acknowledgment that peace on earth, goodwill toward men are the supreme virtues of life.
It's simplistic, it's hokey and it's a lot of work. The cynics say it's phony because we behave so nicely only once a year. But once a year is better than not at all.
Besides, we're too busy the rest of the time.
© 2003, Tallahassee Democrat (Tallahassee, Fla.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.