How many times can you learn the true meaning of Christmas before you slip the bonds of sanity? How many times do you hear Tiny Tim pipe out “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” before you’re overcome with the thirst for blood?

One hundred and twenty-three times. That’s the answer, that’s how many times. One hundred and twenty-three times.

I’m clocking 142 as I write this.

Now, with that intro, you’re expecting a Santaland Diaries-esque narration of the yuletide hellride that is working a holiday show. And I’ve written it. I’ve written it twice, in fact. This is the third go at this article – the other two ended up being staggering works of what was essentially a longwinded whine consisting of numerous clever ways to say that I’m tired and my feet hurt.

Working a big Christmas show is hard, but most of the challenges are no surprise. What is a surprise, considering how much we all complain about doing them, is that we do them. Repeatedly. Instead of airing my grievances at Playlist’s Festivus pole, I’d rather write about why healthy, educated people continue to sign up for these miserable marathon runs.

First, we all know why these schedules are so relentless – people see these shows. Lots of people. This is a good thing. These shows are how a lot of theaters make their yearly budgets. Seriously, people paying to see live theater is a wonderful, magical thing whether or not the guy making the gravy for the Cratchits has slept more than eight hours over the last two days.

It’s very easy to gloss over when you’re 42 shows into a 54 show run, and can’t hear the word “Wenceslas” without suppressing the urge to gag, but these shows are a Christmas tradition with people. There are people in the audience who saw this show (or a version of it) when they were children and now bring their own children to see it. This glitter that we’ll be sweeping up for the next eight months is part of a ritual that spans generations. We’re carrying on the family traditions of literally thousands of people. Grumble as we may, this is a sacred thing we do.

Some advice to the youngsters: if you have the opportunity to be part of making art that is, without exaggeration, a sacred thing, take that opportunity. Take the hell out of that opportunity. Every time.

So that’s a nice thing. Being sacred. It appeals greatly to that region of the brain that likes Tom Waits and Irony, when I think that my making powdered gravy for Cratchit dinner plays on the same mix tape as, like, taking communion. (Can I say that? Will I get Christian-Jihaded for that?)

So that’s one reason to do the Christmas show. But, loftiness aside, the reason most of us take the gig is for the very reason that the run is long. It means security. It means rent. This is why, whenever you hear some thespian (especially this thespian) whinge about how hard the Christmas show is, it doesn’t mean “don’t go to the Christmas show.” It means you should see more of them. See all of them, with friends. Twice.

That’s all great for the first week or so. But these are long runs. And they’re often physically demanding. I brought a pedometer a few times. The average distance I cover is 4.25 miles per show. And I don’t even have to dance in the Fezziwig party. I’m tired and my feet hurt.

Which is all to be expected, but in live theater, when you’re an actor, or a stage manager, or any of those hard-working, ruggedly handsome technicians who show up and run each and every performance, you are effectively signing away your nights and weekends. In return for having Mondays and mornings and never having to wait in line or commute in rush hour, you give up seeing anyone who works 9-5. You give up taking any classes or taking part of any group that meets “after work.” You give up parent/teacher conferences, recitals. You give up Saturdays, going to the cabin, to barbecues, to weddings.

If you’re lucky enough to work often, that is. If you’re lucky.

And if you’re working the Christmas show, there’s usually something in there about how the holidays are to be spent with family. And how only the grinchiest of curmudgeons would make someone work during Christmas. Explicit or implied, this is a hard message to sell when your job is keeping you away from your family during Christmas.

And again, I want to stress here that I love my job. I’m grateful for my job. I have my job because I worked hard to get my job because I love what I do. It’s just a hard time of year to be bound to this bargain. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, the various breaks from school all come and go while you sit in the dark, nine hours into a 12-hour day, listening to Mrs. Cratchit complain about Martha being made to work too much.

The first year I did this was also the year my son was born. I was so incredibly, insanely grateful for the gig, for the security, so grateful for this job that, come December 31st would leave me a whimpering mess fighting the shakes and trying most days not to cry.

And nothing stops while you’re sprinkling glitter on Christmas Past. The rest of the world still demands its cards, the presents still need to be bought and wrapped. If it weren’t for the incredible woman I had a child with we, as a family, would have let America down. So, knowing that it gets this bad, at the point when it gets this bad, why do sane, reasonable, otherwise intelligent people keep doing this?

Let’s hold that thought for a few paragraphs, while I digress about Santa Claus.

As a father who’s not Christian, I wonder what to teach my son about Santa Claus. I grew up a child of paradox: I believed there was a fat dude coming down the chimney we didn’t have in our house, and yet I’d scour the house those weeks leading up searching for presents. As far as I was concerned, The Polar Express could have been published by National Geographic (He got a bell at the end! That’s freakin scientific evidence!), such was my academic certainty. And yet, I’d seen our Santa presents under my parents’ bed. My birthday’s on December 24th, and thus cynicism and resentment of all that manger mumbo jumbo are not only my birthright but my solemn obligation. And still I totally bought into the lights and the carols and all the goodwill towards men propaganda. I even inherited my sainted mother’s affinity for the brogue-soaked blarney tour that is the Chieftains’ Christmas album. I can’t help it. I love the shit. (I won’t, however, cop to anything involving Manheim Steamroller. Not in print.)

But so the kid. And Santa. His mama’s all about coming clean straight away; saying it’s a game people like to play. Her reasoning being that to do otherwise would be lying to him, which is true. And I’m with her on this, but I can’t shake the teensy d9oubt that we’re robbing what is already a lugubriously depressing world of a little bit of magic for the little man.

Last year, though, I came across a little piece about just this dilemma (A piece I can’t seem to find again), in which a woman told her child that Santa is based on Saint Nicholas, who is in turn based on an old Turkish lady who used to give gifts to children anonymously around the end of the year (back before the Catholic Church moved Jesus’ birthday to the 25th in the first recorded case of Eminence Domain). This lady was known and loved and, as all old ladies do sooner or later, she died. And that year, mysteriously, gifts were still delivered to the children in town. And the next year. And it came out eventually that almost everyone in the town, pretty much independently, had been delivering gifts as a way to honor the old woman, to keep her story alive.

So when the question of “who is this Santa guy?” comes up, I’ll answer, “We all are. We’re all Santa for each other.” Even though we all assume those arcane tropes of anonymity and special wrapping and this idea that gifts will spontaneously appear as a result of yearlong virtue, in fact we give each other stuff because we love each other. Just because we love each other, and all the rest of it is just bacon on the donut.

But this idea of “we’re all Santa for each other” really strikes a chord when you hit that point during the run, right after halfway when even the mistakes and accidents are boring. When the admin office folk are all taking time off, and your family’s going skating at Rice Park and you’re sitting in the dark waiting to change a street urchin into a Fezziwig partygoer. Again.

When you hit that point where the booze doesn’t work, and cookies don’t taste as good, and even watching justice delivered ice cold by Jean Claude Van Damme only leaves you feeling empty. When you hit that point, what keeps you going?

I’ll tell you what: Tracey Maloney. Tracey and Amber, and Dave, and Brandon, and Jason and Coco, and Carrie and Molly and Anna, and even little Barney, and all the grimy, grumpy people I’ve been catching colds from these last two months.

Soldiers in combat form bonds stronger than those of family. And even though being glitter bombed by a 12-year-old in his turn-of-the-century best hardly counts as combat, I think any group of people who go through an extremely stressful experience under isolated circumstances can get very close.

If you can’t be with the ones you love then love the ones you’re with, as Stringer Bell said in that crappy new Aliens movie. And I love each and every one of these goofy bastards more than is comfortable in the Midwest. In fact, I need to say that again: I love them. Every bad joke about the gravy, every glittery bun made of foam I hide in their shoe, every ninja in the pickle jar, that’s me saying “I love you” in my awkward, sleep deprived way.

We are all we have. On this yuletide gulag march of misery, everything that gives me any comfort or delight outside of tea parties with my toddler comes directly from these misfits I stumble among.

And can’t you extend that theme to the true meaning of Christmas? Finding joy in your fellow man, and loving them as family? You could if you want to. I don’t, though. That kinda shit gives me the stabbies these days.

Seriously, ten months out of the year I’m cool with all this stuff, but right now? A week to the day? A thousand apologies to my mother if she reads this, but fuck Christmas. Fuck the tree, fuck the pudding, fuck the presents and the pressure, fuck Love Actually and fuck It’s a Wonderful Life and if the Grinch wants to put it all in a sack, then I’ll bring along a dolly and help that furry green bastard get it back to his cave. Fuck all that and give me these 60-some weirdoes dressed in black and frock coats and hoop skirts – after one hundred and fifty-something shows I can honestly say they are what keeps me coming back.

Them and the paychecks. Paychecks on holiday shows are awesome.