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.

So much pink!
So much pink!

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.

Look at the little Millennials!
Look at the little Millennials!

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.

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5 Comments

  1. For what it’s worth, you’re not the only one of us who mourns the lost family. I’m not sure which is worse–that you remember it, and miss that thing that you remember, or that I don’t remember it, but still have an aching void where it should be but isn’t.

    Anyone who says you can’t miss something you never had is wildly incorrect.

    I am at least fortunate in that my in-laws are pretty nifty. They all like each other and get along, and when they get together, they’re genuinely happy to see and visit with each other. There are no politics, there’s no sniping, there are no underhanded in-jokes and sniggering. There’s love and mutual respect. And yes, a bit of craziness, but nothing like what we grew up knowing. I never thought “normalcy”, whatever that is, could be so endearing.

    But it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve started to actively look forward to Christmas again. I used to get so excited about the presents that it was easy to ignore the feeling that something felt hollow and tainted–there was always some sense of “off” or “not quite right” at our family gatherings, like some kind of hidden infection lurking just below the surface of my awareness. It sounds like you know what I mean.

    Now I can actually get excited about seeing people and participating in the traditions that those people have made.

    I hope as your family–and by that I mean you and your boys–continues to grow and stabilize that you can start healing and getting that sense of positive anticipation for stuff like Christmas.

    And I’m sorry for the novel O_o I hadn’t meant to write so much.

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    1. Yeah, I think that saying should be, you can’t miss something you never know about. We didn’t exactly do a good job of bonding over that over the years. Doesn’t really matter which is worse, I hate the insecurity that keeps people looking for validation and unable to commiserate.
      My in-laws are Jewish so, whatever nuttiness they may contribute, that at least is refreshing. We two together are trying to forge our way into this strange, foreign land of normalcy and stability on our own, and it’s hard!
      And I know how that is – this topic is like a giant pit :/

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      1. Apologies if my “I don’t know which is worse” comment sounded at all like I was trying to turn the situation into a competition–that wasn’t my intent : )

        This “normalcy” thing is indeed pretty weird ;P

        What’s even weirder is all of those strange dreams I keep having that are set in the old neighborhood (or Heights High, or the Oak Road house, or – or – or…)

        The dream last night somehow involved spies and sorcery. And mail-order jewelry.

        …yeah, it was weird.

        Apparently my brain has a bizarre way of processing things. Who’da thunk, right? ;P

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      2. If I sound defensive it’s because it can sometimes feel like I get it from all sides around here. :/
        Thank goodness my dreams don’t do that to me much! I just get random flashbacks when I’m awake lol I’m sorry you’re still dealing with these things too, I never meant to speak for you, or to imply that I was the only one who had a bad time. I’m still new to this exhibitionism stuff, and I definitely worry about upsetting people. That’s not my goal here. Have a good time with your new family, even if things are extra-heavy for you guys this year.

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  2. I’m certainly not upset : ) I hope my reading and commenting isn’t infringing on your feeling of being able to freely post what you need and want to post. It’s just nice to do that sister thing and relate to you about stuff because, well, I was there for some of it. And like you said, still dealing with it. (As I know you know, anxiety disorders suuuuuuuuuck.)

    So again, absolutely not upset. Actually it’s been pretty interesting thus far to see your take on things since I don’t even remember mom and dad ever being married.

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