PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- My stepfather worked for FedEx (FDX - Get Report) from the mid-'80s until the beginning of this year, when he accepted a buyout and an early retirement. This is the first Christmas Eve he'll spend without clocking in, thus ending a family tradition of working on the holidays.
Only when compared to the FedEx, UPS (UPS - Get Report) and other delivery service employees working on Christmas Day itself does my stepfather's Christmas Eve routine of the last 25 years look ideal. He'd leave at roughly 2:30 a.m. and either deliver packages or direct those who did until just before the family showed up at 7 p.m. He'd have a glass of egg nog, give the toast at Christmas Eve dinner, have a bit of shrimp, crawfish or pierogi and then head straight to bed. By Christmas morning, he was rested enough to put down a bowl of shrimp and half a jar of cocktail sauce by himself, but it still took a while for him to get up to speed.
While it was clear he'd rather be anywhere but the terminal on Christmas Eve, I get a better understanding of why he went in 1995 -- when I took my first job in journalism as a newspaper sports intern at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. The National Basketball Association results, horse racing picks and transaction listings don't get a day off, and my first Christmas dinner away from home was spent cobbling together the sports section's agate page and failing miserably in doing so. I had only worked as a reporting and filing intern the summer before and got my trial by fire as a means of giving some of the other folks a night off.
It was terrifying, but it was great in its own right. That night the head of our sports desk, former Star-Ledger editor Rich Guenther, introduced me to the Italian Cheeseburger -- a three-patty burger on a hoagie roll coated in provolone cheese and a bit of marinara sauce and stuffed with french fries. It was served in a round aluminum container that caught excess cheese and fries and was a glorious holiday meal. It wasn't my grandmother's manicotti or my grandfather's candied yams, but it remains one of my favorite holiday meals.
On and off for the next decade, I was a Christmas worker. I'd willingly take my spot on the copy or pagination desk at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City or Herald News in what's now called Woodland Park, N.J. -- formerly West Paterson, for fairly specious reasons -- and enjoy a relatively light night of pre-packaged stories, the occasional police brief and one of the grandest traditions in newsroom or office holiday culture, the Christmas potluck. I replicated my grandmother's manicotti as best I could and, in return, received a spread of samosas, barbecue ribs, pudding, paella and other treats that would stuff the kitchenette fridge with enough leftovers for the next night's shift.
You'd hear stories about people's families, hear some tough phone calls home and occasionally flip on a Turner channel for the last showing of A Christmas Story, but it actually wasn't half bad. Occasionally, something newsworthy would actually happen -- like the Mars lander disappearing in 2003. It was peaceful, but not lonely.
A survey by the Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. and Harris Interactive conducted last year suggested me, my stepfather and our workmates were decidedly not anomalies when it came to working on the holidays. In fact, just 38% of all full-time U.S. workers took off on Christmas Eve last year, with 28% taking Christmas Day off. Then again, a full 26% of full-time workers said their workplaces were closed for the entire span between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Hey, sometimes the money comes in handy. Holiday pay amounted to time and a half in some cases and double time and a half at more generous employers. Those Christmas presents don't pay for themselves and heating bills only get costlier as East Coast winters wear on. Besides, unless it snows -- as it did one year when I tried to brave a sudden storm on Christmas night and nearly wrapped my Ford Taurus around a tree on West Paterson's Garret Mountain -- the commute's a breeze. It also makes those who celebrate the holiday increasingly aware of those who don't and really thankful to have them around.
Eventually, though, it started to wear. When my new employers at the newspaper Metro in Lower Manhattan told me I had Christmas Eve and Day off in 2005, it occurred to me that I hadn't spent Christmas dinner with my family in 10 years. I'd missed my grandfather's last Christmas dinner in 2003 and felt that I probably shouldn't let something similar happen again.
After transferring to a Metro outpost in Boston in 2007 and learning that I'd have to find a way up from New Jersey on Christmas morning to produce a copy of the paper that a small fraction of the city would read on the day after Christmas, I fell out of love with newspapers and became fond of the idea of holidays off. I haven't worked a Christmas Day since.
While on assignment here in Portland recently, however, I found myself in a radio studio in the middle of that station's employee potluck dinner and felt just a bit nostalgic. Those nights and those shared experiences brought me closer to my coworkers than I could have imagined and made clear that, at least for that night, I had a surrogate family who was as willing to make the best out of the situation as I was.
The multiple, steaming slow cookers, the disposable plates and the conference room that smelled like a family dining room all brought back experiences that left a bigger mark on me than I'd thought at the time. They're what you miss when you part ways with coworkers for the holidays, but they're not something I miss enough to trade for my first Christmas Eve beer with my stepfather in ages.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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