This time of year, at least one person asks me why I hate Christmas. It makes me so obviously unhappy that someone occasionally stops to ask me why I’m not (at least pretending to be) having a good time. A couple minutes into the conversation I think they regret it, though, I’m quite the buzz-kill. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t really had a concise answer. Until this year, when we have a place of our own and our living situation has calmed down at last, and I finally have my sanctuary away from the holiday craziness.
Our little guy is almost seven, and full of questions about why people do and say the things that they do. He, of course, is in love with the idea of Christmas. I’ve told him Santa is just a story, I don’t understand why people think it’s fun to lie to little kids and try to finagle this silly story beyond when the kids start asking questions. He started asking questions 3 years ago, the story doesn’t hold up to the barest scrutiny and, rather than try to explain it away I told him the truth. My mother isn’t too happy about this, but she still gets to play Santa for him. She puts on a big holiday just like she’s done most years, she loves it, and her insistence has only further served to dig in my heels. But I guess we should go back a bit.
This picture is from the year I was 5. My mother made me that dress, and that’s my dad, lounging casually in her parents’ living room. Six months later they broke up, and to me this is a haunting little image, something simple that would never happen again.
This is my extended family on Mom’s side, minus my sister who was an infant at the time. We were the out-of-towners and so I was at the bottom of the totem pole, but it was always quite a to-do. My great aunt put on a hell of a party.
The year after that I have no memory of. I remember 1988 and 1990, but 1989 is conspicuously absent. It must have been surreal. In years since, they have both tried to continue with holiday celebrations as if nothing happened. Christmas Eve was with Dad’s family, Christmas Day with Mom’s. The adults went about their merry business, my little sister was too young to really understand that anything had happened, I alone seemed to feel like something was amiss. Being a child, I had no framework in which to understand or express these feelings, and things were already so weird I didn’t want to add to it. Besides, it’s Christmas! Be happy!
Except we also grew up poor. Most of the year it was an inconvenience, but come Christmas time it was like a stigma. Now I know many of those kids’ parents probably bought their Christmases on credit, but back then all I knew was I was the one who got books and clothes while others got video games. If we wanted a particular complicated doll, there was always great suspense as to whether it would materialize, because sometimes it didn’t. One year I got a bike. Then a couple years later I woke up to my dad shouting at my sister for using the last of the toilet paper, how he couldn’t afford any more. But as soon as he saw me he went into Christmas mode and started handing out presents. Money was that tight, but he had a tree every year.
At some point, it started to become a farce for me. Over and over in film and song we’re reminded what the true meaning of this holiday is: Family. Home and family. This is the moral of every Christmas movie I have ever seen. And after 1989 I had neither.
“No,” Mom said recently, “You had two families!” Does this not strike anyone else as 1970s-era feel-good bullshit? To me at 5, my parents were like matched salt and pepper shakers: Two bespectacled redheads. It was completely bizarre to me that they not only split up, but did their best to make it look like a great idea.
By 1990 we had someone else sitting there with us on Christmas Day. My mother’s second husband was an old friend of hers. We’d known him forever, so this wasn’t so outrageous. Weird, but graspable. By 1993, he’d been replaced by a third, who actually looked quite a bit like Santa but that’s where the similarities ended. The two years with him were bizarre.
Christmas 1996 was probably the best for me. It was just us three girls, in a townhouse with too many kittens. The kittens kept climbing the tree, it was pandemonium. Mom had fits, and I think that’s part of the reason I remember this year so fondly; The kittens poked holes in her facade of normalcy. I had some hope of the three of us making a little family for ourselves, maybe starting some traditions. But I guess she isn’t happy when she’s single, because by the next year we were in Cleveland, she was dating someone here. He was only about a year from a divorce and seeing his sons, who were all around my age, trying to deal with the holiday was painful.
At some point in high school I slipped into abject hatred of this absurd pageant. Maybe it was the year she bought me three purple shirts, and I have not worn purple since I was in single digits. Maybe it was the year Dad moved to Vermont and didn’t call. Maybe it was the year my grandmother and great aunt had a falling out, and we stopped visiting. Those big family get-togethers are a distant memory, and all of those kids in the photo above total strangers. I’m not sure where the edge is, but I do know my suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far.
Every year Christmas is a reminder of how, through no fault of my own, I lost my family. A reminder that only I seem to mourn it. A reminder of how dysfunctional it all really was, and in many ways continues to be. I’m truly sorry a lot of the time that I just don’t get it, I can’t just snap my fingers and “get into the spirit.” It simply doesn’t mean to me what it apparently means to most people.
Wind back to this year. I have a kid who really wants to participate in some of the glittery pageantry, and I try not to rain on his parade, as much as I can help it. Only in the last few years has it dawned on me that, far from just having a distaste for eggnog, I have some serious healing to do. And now that I finally have a safe place to do it in, I’m thinking of taking him for a Christmas Eve service. We did that once when I wasn’t much older than he is, and it’s one of the few bright moments that sticks out. I’ve never been religious but there’s something soothing about candle light and hymns.
A lot of parenting is reaching back to your own childhood and pulling forward the things that worked. If it’s something that hasn’t seen light in a long time, it can actually be scary because of nearby things that get dredged up as well. I have long avoided this entire area and I’m still afraid. Nothing is so frightening as being in pain alone. No one has ever really wanted to hear about it, and I only write this now as an attempt, really, to spell it out for myself. I’d really like to be able to join in the fun.