I don’t own many neckties with pictures or characters on them partly because I’m finicky, partly because I’m not great at accessorizing, and mostly because ties are ridiculously expensive to a guy who hates more than $25 for a pair of shoes. Thanks to the benevolence of family and friends, though, I’m the proud owner of six Christmas ties that I wear to work every year as a personal countdown on the last six business days before Christmas. Guys like me may not have a lot of options for dressing all Christmassy in an office setting, but I enjoy making the most of what I’m given, and the Six Ties of Christmas are it.
I like all of them to varying degrees, but one of these means more to me than the others.
They each have their strengths. The ornaments-and-snowflakes pattern tie is the least engaging on its own, but stands out in a setting where fire-engine red is kind of a fashion rarity. Despite Garfield’s internet reputation as an over-the-hill has-been who jumped the shark in the 1980s, he’s a Hoosier-born icon and the closest I have to a comics-related tie, though I realize some fans snap if you remind them Garfield is Of Comics. Corporate Santa may be shilling for the Coca-Cola Company, but he’s Santa nonetheless and that’s what matters. The singing Christmas tree tie has a certain whimsical charm and thankfully doesn’t come with a motion-sensor sound chip. And the Jesus’-birth triptych is naturally my annual grand finale, spending the day on me at work and at Christmas Eve evening service.
Then there’s the goofy reindeer tie. Not something I’d normally pick out for myself.
I spent most of the 1990s as a fast-food manager who had to work with a wide variety of personalities — solid-A students, kids in sports or marching band, college hopefuls, oddballs, stoners, dropouts, churchgoers, housewives, retirees, professionals needing a second job for debt-clearing, losers who’d been fired from all the other restaurants around us and had nowhere else to go, and so on. Firings were rare because at any given moment we were some combination of forgiving and understaffed. I was used to a lot of temperaments. But not all of them were equal.
One time there was this girl. Let’s call her Cathy because for some reason all that’s popping into my head right now are uncool comic strips. Cathy got the job through a relative on staff. She was 16 when she started, foul-mouthed, stubborn, prone to temper flare-ups, constantly fiending for cigarette breaks, given up on school and possibly vice versa. On the plus side, she learned quickly, had sharp reflexes, and was willing to work late-night shifts — three of my favorite qualities in an employee at the time. If you could convince her to do her job, you could coach her to an acceptable performance level as long as you checked on her every twenty seconds to ensure she hadn’t already gone off the rails. She required three times as much supervision as most other employees, sapped a lot of my energy whenever it was my turn to micromanage her, and set my blood to boiling I-don’t-even-know-how-many times. After a couple months of this circus, her name became one of those I’d dread seeing on the schedules because I knew those shifts would take a lot more out of me to handle.
In a stricter setting, she would’ve been fired before the end of orientation. Most days she stopped just shy of flat-out insubordination by our too-generous standards. Having a relative in her corner complicated matters in both directions — canning her would’ve caused a row, but by the same token she didn’t want to let them down, either. As with other similar situations, my survival plan was to endure in the meantime until she would presumably get tired of us and quit without notice, the leading cause of termination among 98% of all fast-food workers. Y’know that scene in Office Space when a gung-ho John C. McGinley is beaming because they’ve figured out how to stop Milton’s paychecks and assume his unwanted presence “will just work itself out naturally”? A lot of walking headaches used to solve themselves like that in the fast-food biz.
So Christmastime rolls around, the only one Cathy ever spent employed there. After months of this ongoing state of workplace tension, this notorious instigator who knows she’s not Employee of the Month material shows up for work one December day and gives me a Christmas present. “Surprise” is an understatement. That’s not something I’d expect from fellow managers, let alone from employees making quarters above minimum wage.
I open the small box and it’s a goofy reindeer tie. He looks like a Far Side dog with fake antlers.
My split-second first thought is it’s a gag gift. Something she found at an Everything’s $1.00 store, or in her dad’s laundry. Or was forced to bring in on orders from a parent. Or shoplifted on a lark, for all I knew.
None of that’s what the look in her eyes said. No guilt, no mischief, no sarcasm, no eye-rolling obedience. Instead there was this weird, sheepish sincerity. A nervous look that said, No, really.
It took a few more split-seconds to stifle my reaction and my next questions. I was confused and I was all “Wow” inside at the same time. I smiled in equal sheepishness, thanked her in what hopefully sounded like sincerity, and tried to be nice to her for the rest of the day, and not just because gifts are cool. Far be it from me to discourage her moment of positivity.
I had no idea how the rest of that shift would go, or if this meant any kind of turning point in her career. Ultimately it wasn’t, but for the space of that day and that one exchange, it was like a special truce between factions. A sustained moment of peace and hope. Because Christmas.
That’s why the goofy reindeer wins.