Every year as Christmas draws near, you can find me making my list and checking it twice. The newsroom potluck list, that is. Can the sports department be convinced to bring something other than bags of Ruffles? Will the moochers who don't contribute be reined in this year? How does one tell the world's worst chef to bring something pre-packaged or inedible, like forks, considering I acutely remember last year's gift of food poisoning from him?
Once again, the newsroom is decked out in bits of tinsel, the menorah is ready to go, and the Christmas tree is lit — and leaning slightly to the left. As people rip into presents on Christmas morning, editors tearing into stories still pepper newsrooms. Reporters are still poking around town — and earning time-and-a-half, mind you — and designers are still wrapping up the paper. People exclaim "You work on Christmas?" in shock, without pausing to think that a newspaper does arrive on their doorstep early on Dec. 26. But the journalist's Christmas is far from a dreary day of humbug — in fact, holidays spent with this dysfunctional family can be more memorable than the issue produced that day.
Journalists — who by nature hold more places on the "naughty" list than the "nice" one — can't wait for Christmas to come after several weeks of story saturation on tree trimmings, "Santa sightings" (your typical cynical journalist stopped believing in the jolly guy at about age 2), caroling at senior centers, and celebrities taking an hour to scoop peas onto a homeless person's plate for the clicking cameras. The editor's holiday season dawns with the first rewriting of "'Tis the season" and other cliché headlines. The reporter's holiday season is typically ushered in by the local fire department's educational burning-bush-in-the-living-room demonstration. Taking an adequately dry Christmas tree and adding fake presents around the base, the firefighters light it to show how quickly the tree could turn into a yuletide inferno. At this point, journalists whose offices lack central heating move in closer, palms outstretched to soak up the warmth.
Your main stories on Christmas — and other holidays — usually have to do with weather, parties, travel, police, and fire. As time ticked down to the year 2000, I spent the evening riding with one town's fire marshal, writing a story on how they were seizing illegal fireworks that people had bought in Mexico and were using to usher in the new year. After we'd seized some mortars from one family setting the fireworks off in their driveway, the fire marshal asked if I wanted to go set them off. We went to a field where he lit one; we watched as it soared into the air and exploded in a hail of hot-pink sparks. This, of course, caught the attention of the police. "I just wanted to show her how these worked, how dangerous they are," the fire marshal authoritatively told the officer who came to investigate.
The first Christmas that I was at a daily newspaper, living in an apartment smaller than my publisher's office, I rang in the holiday pursuing an assignment to find and write about people who worked on Christmas. (Looking in the mirror and taking notes didn't count.) So I headed over to the fire station, where story coverage turned to playtime (letting me drive the fire truck — a few feet). The paramedics were coming over soon to join in their enchilada Christmas dinner, and they invited me to stay. But I had already accepted an invitation to come to dinner at the house of the police chief's secretary — a motherly woman who made sure that all of the reporters in town were taken care of.
Journalists are generally keen on holidays, usually because they offer opportunities to eat. And journalists are conditioned over the years to appreciate food, because of both abject poverty and working long days on the run with few chances for meals. One Memorial Day working at a daily newspaper, an editor bought a small charcoal barbecue and we cooked hot dogs on the roof. The Fourth of July often brings freezers full of Otter Pops and watching fireworks from the rooftop. Birthday celebrations are frequent yet sometimes dangerous — I recall one attempt at trick candles that nearly took down a conference room, but not before a clueless editor kept blowing and blowing, effectively spraying someone else's cake with spittle.
This past Thanksgiving was one of the finest newsroom spreads I've seen, even if the attempt at carving the turkey looked more like the Unabomber blew it up. But out of all the food-friendly holidays, Christmas is always special. The staff level is a bit lower than on other holidays, which will have to do if a big story breaks because everybody else is out of town. Someone either cooks the ham or turkey at home, or pre-cooked meat is bought in advance. Everyone brings steaming side dishes, fluffy pies, or bottles of sparkling cider — yet one year I recall a bottle of something stiffer being discovered in a staffer's desk. The "dinner table" is prepared with the "tablecloth" — newspapers spread over the conference room table. Dishes are lined up in progressive order, with paper plates at the beginning and desserts at the end of the table. Sports guys randomly throw bags of Ruffles into the mix.
And, for a profession that relies heavily on takeout and vending machines for sustenance, the holiday dishes are surprisingly tasty. But not always.
One year, at one of the many papers at which I've worked and spent holidays, I stood at a microwave in the break room, heating up the bad-for-you-but-taste-so-good mashed potatoes that I'd packed in GladWare, when an editor from the sports department pulled open the door on the neighboring microwave to check on his sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. He'd just come from the newsroom with an announcement: Someone was making gravy on their desk.
I paused mid-stir to digest the indigestible news. The editor reached over and swiped a finger-full of potatoes off my spoon.
I went back into the newsroom. Sure enough, one journalist had a pot of gravy on a heating plate next to the dictionary and AP stylebook, adding ingredients and stirring, then turning back to the computer to read a few lines and type a few words, then reaching back to give the bubbling pot another stir.
And though editorial bloodlust correctly indicates that most journalists are carnivores, newsroom holidays are sometimes marred by an ornery vegan. I remember a reporter marching up to the holiday table one Christmas, her face writhing in disgust at the sight of colleagues ripping into the turkey carcass.
"Where's the Tofurky?" she squealed. She was ignored. "Is there any broth in these?" she hollered, pointing at the mashed potatoes. "Is there any broth here?" she continued, wildly gesturing at the stuffing. "Can't I eat anything?!?" Usually, the biggest drawback of the newsroom Christmas potluck is that a journalist can't lie on the couch and bloat after dinner; this particular Christmas, though we were just disappointed we couldn't force-feed giblets to our vegan colleague.
The journalist's Christmas is about more than free food or getting comprehensive holiday light tours on police ride-alongs. It's about knowing there are others just as insane as you who can find happiness in an industry that never pauses for the holidays. In an industry with such high turnover, your dysfunctional news family gets scattered far and wide. But the unforgettable memories of Christmases shared together never fade — especially if they're enshrined in print.