Essential holiday humbuggery

Three very avoidable faux-pas that suck some of the merriment out of the season.

grumpy santa

I’ve always loved Christmas. So don’t take this column the wrong way. I’m not, as Fox News loves to describe it, “Declaring War on Christmas.” I’d just like to engage in a little strategic bombing as we approach the sainted holiday.

1. Think before you wish anyone a “happy Hanukkah.” The Festival of Lights celebration isn’t a Jewish synonym for Christmas that you can call out in the hopes it will sound inclusive to people who don’t celebrate all the Santa crap. Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian (also known as the “Western” or “Christian”) calendar introduced in 1582 (or 5342–5343, if you use the Hebrew calendar).

Say what? Okay, sorry for the geek (or is it Greek?) talk. My point is that Hanukkah is celebrated on a completely different timetable. So different that, as you are reading this, it’s already over — and has been since Monday. But next year, the eight-day Hanukkah celebration will perfectly overlap the traditional Christmas holiday period, going from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1.

Same goes for the week-long African-American celebration known as Kwanzaa, which always runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. It’s not a substitute for Christmas that you can toss out at anyone who doesn’t look like the people you usually see at midnight mass. Even among African-Americans, less than five per cent of the population celebrate it, so the chances of directing the greeting at the right people is pretty slim.

I suppose you could go with “Season’s Greetings,” the bland all-spice of the Hallmark world. But if you want to sound inclusive, try the old-fashioned “happy holidays” — because pretty much anyone who has a holiday is happy about it.

And those who don’t have one are probably swearing at you through clenched teeth anyway as you cheerily grab your soy latte-to-go and drop a quarter in the tip bowl.

2. Gift cards are stupid. Canadian provincial laws have generally made it illegal for merchants to have expiry dates on most gift cards, so they aren’t as stupid as they used to be. (Imagine someone handing you a $20 and telling you that if you don’t use it by New Year’s 2018 it will disappear.) Still, speaking as someone who has about 27 Tim Hortons cards in my wallet, I can testify to the fact that they are not as “convenient as cash.” First of all, my cash is good at Starbucks, too, and, with cash I don’t have to hand the cashier my $20 and ask her how much change I have left on it.

So although merchants no longer rake in a fortune on cards that expire, they are still collecting a windfall on cards that are never used, or on the unspent portion of cards that are used once or twice then tossed in a drawer.

Still not convinced? Okay, imagine it this way: I’m running a small business and I ask you if you want to give me your money now for something you might buy later. “What’s in it for me?” Um, nothing. “What if I don’t ever buy anything?” I keep the money. “Why would I do that?”

Because you’re stupid.

You’re buying gift cards because you think giving cash makes you look cheap or gives people the impression you hadn’t made an effort to think about the cadeau. Well, we know that the only thought you put into it was when you were standing in front of the gift-card rack at Pharmaprix, so the jig is up, honey. You’d impress me more if you handed me a $20 and told me you think I should spend it on breath mints.

The worst of these scams are the credit-card gift cards. Not only are MasterCard or Visa essentially borrowing the cash value of the cards from you interest-free, they are charging you a service fee to take your money that starts at a minimum of $3.95. So that’s at least $103.95 on a $100 card. That’s a profit margin that many businesses would kill for and is one of the many reasons why Canada’s major banks continue year after year to make the biggest profits in the country.

There are exceptions to the stupid rule, but not many. Gift cards for iTunes, for example, are a good way for people who don’t have credit cards to top up their account. The entire card balance is credited to your Apple account and they don’t charge service fees. Still, it may be a lousy gift idea for your dear old tone-deaf grandpa who uses his tablet to chop onions. Maybe get him a nice sweater instead.

Better yet, buy your loved ones donations to their favourite charities. Syrian refugee groups, the SPCA, Montreal food banks … there are a wealth of organizations that deserve your charity much more than the Bank of Montreal.

3. Holiday columns. There’s nothing worse than the annual rush by media pundits, pontificators and prognosticators to weigh in, wax and wallow in shallow seasonal salutations and tortured alliteration. I don’t want to see any more listicles of the best movies, books or albums I missed this year. Nope, not even a sardonic look at select excesses of the holiday season will lift my spirits as much as a nice blanket of snow and the fellowship of family and friends.

Happy holidays! See you in two weeks. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.