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Not a creature should be stirring for quiet Christmas

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:27 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Rodney Bryant of Yukon stands for a portrait dressed as Santa and holding a parachute at his home on Wednesday, December 18, 2013. Bryant plans to resume the tradition of skydiving dressed as Santa that his father started years ago.
AFP/Getty Images
People play a nativity scene during the unveiling ceremony of the crib in St Peter's Square at the Vatican, on December 24, 2013. Pope Francis visited his predecessor Benedict XVI yesterday for an informal Christmas greeting, as the Argentine pontiff prepares to celebrate his first Christmas as leader of the world's Roman Catholics.AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese catholics attend a Christmas Eve Mass service at the official Catholic church South Cathedral in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. China and the Vatican have no diplomatic ties and the ruling Communist Party forced Chinese Catholics to sever their ties in the 1950s. China officially records about 6 million Catholics worshipping in 6,300 congregations across the country, although millions more are believed to worship outside the official church, with considerable crossover between the two in many areas. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

By many economic measures, Christmas is one of the quietest days of the year.

Airlines ramp down operations. Most businesses close. The New York Stock Exchange and even the ubiquitous Wal-Mart take the day off.

Experts say there's an upside to the down time Christmas provides most Americans, an overworked group that leaves an average of four vacation days untaken each year and routinely checks work emails and voicemails when they are off, an Expedia study released last month shows.

“It should have us exhaling and reflecting a little bit more, and that's a good thing,” said Paul Friday, chief of clinical psychology at UPMC Shadyside.

Said Dan Crawford, spokesman for Washington's Economic Policy Institute, “The fact of the matter is Americans are working more than ever … so it's safe to say that everyone deserves a few days off around the holidays.”

Crawford cited labor data showing the average American worker put in 1,815 hours in 2010, up almost 100 hours since 1967. He said the United States is the only developed nation that doesn't mandate paid vacation time or paid sick days.

Most employers and various forms of government try to build in down time.

The U.S. calendar contains 10 federal holidays, including at least one in every month but March, April, June and August. The average American also has 14 days of vacation, the Expedia study shows. The typical work week has us thanking God for Fridays and unwinding on Saturdays and Sundays before our Manic Mondays.

The typical French worker, by contrast, uses all 30 days of his vacation, according to the Expedia study.

“It seems like we still have a hard time finding time to relax,” said Anthony Mannarino, vice chair of psychiatry at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.

The doctors and others say the spiritual and family nature of Christmas, along with its occurrence near the end of the year, make it special. The holiday lends itself to greater reflection, they say.

“Christmas lets people get some perspective on the past year and look ahead to the year to come,” Friday said, adding that trips to the airport to pick up seldom-seen loved ones and homes filled with family members help “remind us what's really important.”

But with the economy screeching to a halt for the day and productivity declining as large swaths of the workforce take off just before and after the holiday, what about the all-important dollar?

“Holidays are always periods of slow economic activity. The economy will survive,” Carnegie Mellon University economics and public policy professor Robert P. Strauss said, noting that Christmas, unlike other holidays, has a two-month retail bonanza leading up to it that largely carries that sector of the economy.

The National Retail Federation said holiday sales represent up to 40 percent of all business that retailers do annually. The trade group predicts store and online sales will reach $602.1 billion this holiday season, up 3.9 percent from a year ago.

“The economic news gets made from late October through early January,” Strauss said.

The holiday isn't a respite for everyone, the doctors say. For those who struggle with mental illness or loneliness, the down time can be excruciating.

“The downs are really down and the highs are higher. There's such a contrast to what the media screams we're supposed to be feeling and the deep void that some people feel. It screams to them that they're depressed and alone,” Friday said, adding he's working four days this week and expects to get at least a couple of calls from patients on Christmas.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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