For far too many years of my life, I’ve spent the holiday season alone. After a brutal breakup, I’ll be doing so again this year. As one of them will once again serve as my Christmas Day savior, I thought it only fitting to acknowledge the dive bars that are open on Christmas Day.
If you’re privileged enough to have always had a place to go, people to love you, and a psyche that always permitted you to be comfortable in the traditional holiday situations, you may have not even considered this magical, life-saving service.
You see, while most civilized businesses across the country are closed on major holidays like Christmas, there is sometimes the odd local dive bar that commits to remaining open 365 days a year. I know one bar owner who pours the daytime shift at his bar every single day himself. It’s a level of commitment that I know his patrons truly appreciate and respect.
While the longevity and endurance are impressive, it is actually the humanitarian element of it that humbles me. Not only do these disregarded places offer some company during the loneliest times of year for the lost, displaced, and forgotten, but they often also try to make it special.
Some provide turkey dinners free of charge on Thanksgiving. Those same ones might also ensure there’s spiral-cut ham on hand on Christmas Day. The smells of these dishes and those eager to try them signal it’s not just another day at the bar.
As someone who volunteers at a homeless shelter, I can appreciate the impact of satisfying basic needs like food and shelter for those who don’t have an adequate supply. At certain times of year, though, those basic elements are not the only outreach some folks require. Sometimes it’s more about interaction and contact on one’s own terms.
The bar that I’ll be visiting on Christmas this year is steeped in reality and tragedy. The son of the owners (who had been a fixture at the bar) was killed in a car crash. He is pictured on a mural on the wall, surrounded by friends. One of those friends is a bartender who lost her leg when a drunk driver struck her while she was having a cigarette in the bar’s parking lot.
Holidays are bittersweet there. There is no celebration without remembrance. No one shows up there on Christmas Day because they are having a warm holiday season. It’s Green Bay, Wisconsin, and we’re all just wandering in from the too dark and too lonely cold. The Christmas bells of St. Francis Xavier toll for us all.
And yet there will be a chorus of Merry Christmas tidings at least twice for each and every soul that visits that bar — once on the way in and once on the way out. There will be drinks gifted and familial hugs that wouldn’t be shared on most days of the year. It’s not that the interpersonal feelings necessarily change. It’s more that this time of year demands a bit more huddling together.
Out in the cold world, the lighted wreaths and strings of lights that decorate the town are pretty, but also brittle and out of reach. At the end of the night we’ll walk past them on the way back to our lonely houses and apartments in which we couldn’t find a way to justify decoration. In the bar, though, those Christmas lights warm the stale dimness; they mix with the neon and push through tinted panes to glow against the swirling snow.
Not everyone who’ll show up at the local dive bar on a holiday is a loner. Some will be young adults from out of town who need an escape from the families and childhood friends about whom they’ve been overly nostalgic and from whom they’ve grown apart. Others will be reluctant hosts who need a break from the company they’ve invited in for the holidays.
They’ll each make up excuses for why they need to step out. On their ways to and from the store or while out walking to “get some air”, they’ll pop in for “a quick one”. That’ll lead to two, plus a bit of venting, but they’ll leave feeling better. And we’ll feel a little better about retreating to our silent homes where we don’t share their frustrations.
Were I a stranger to the scene, I’d have more compassion for the bar staff who work these shifts. In most small dive bars, though, there’s usually only one person working each shift on holidays like Christmas Day. In my experience, these folks are usually grateful for somewhere to go as well. The nearly unloveable drunks they see regularly have become their family, and those same drunks sometimes cherish them more than their families ever have.
I have a penchant for over-romanticising the tragic, I’m told. So, maybe I’m wrong in my appreciation of this. Maybe it’s just as sad and pathetic and pitiful as it seems on the surface. I know that it always feels less sad to me than sitting in an empty apartment alone watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and feeling one of the failed life alternatives in a Christmas movie.