When I was a kid, Christmas had mixed memories. After weeks of nagging that started in November, my father would bring stuff down from the attic, and my mother would decorate the house. They used to travel all over the world, and my mother would buy small knick-knacks from gift shops, and write where she got them in a discreet place. "Corsica, 1969" or "Paris, 1965." So our tree, which was always big (usually 8-10 feet), was decorated with decades of odd things, which was very cool. I used to help decorate the tree. These are good memories.
I was an only child, my father hated me, mother was an alcoholic. Sure, I still got presents. I usually got close to what I wanted, too, and we weren't poor by any means. But there was a lot of fighting. My dad loved to tease and bully me until I cried. He didn't do it to "toughen me up," (or he never claimed this), he just thought I was pathetic.
My mother did the gift buying. My father and I often had no idea what we got one another until it was unwrapped. Sometimes I heard in his thick Chicago accent, "Aw... gees! You got him THAT? From ME? He doesn't need that, come ahn!"
My mother was either sober and did her best to keep everyone from fighting, or got smashed and the rest of the day would be a mix of my father's angst at a ruined Christmas dinner probably because of something I did. It was a random smattering; you didn't know what mom you got for any holiday: sober mom, chatty tipsy mom, crying drunk mom, or passed out mom.
By age 9, the rare family holidays we had tipped the scales of what I considered acceptable, and I got it in my disillusioned head that presents weren't worth it. I still made a list after much goading from my mother, who would make a sing-song appeal to my greed which I resented I caved into until I finally stopped with some clever phrases at age 15.
Mom: What do you want for ChrRRrrRRrristmaAAaaAAas...?
Me: [age 10] Nothing.
Mom: OooOOooOOoooh come on... You like Legos?
Me: Okay, Legos...
Me: [age 13] Nothing, please. Can I just sleep in?
Mom: How about some D&D modules?
Me: No, I have all the ones I need. [not really]
Mom: OooOOooOOoooh come on... how about Santa renews your subscription to Dragon magazine?
Me: Oh, all right.
Me: [age 16] I want you to stop drinking.
Mom: Um... I'll try. I mean, what kind of gifts do you want?
Me: No, I want you to get help.
Mom: I can't go to Alcoholics Anonymous, they smoke there! Your father won't let me have therapy.
Me: Then stop asking me what I want for Christmas. I want you to get help.
Of course, now I realize a few things. First, she wanted to give gifts. Just because I didn't want them, had my own job, and bought what I wanted throughout the year was beside the point. Two, you can't convince an alcoholic to stop drinking, no matter what pressure, no matter what you do. Three, she found out what I wanted anyway until I turned 18. Four, I was kind of a dick as a kid. I'd like to plead ignorance, but even by then, I had been told at Alateen that you can't stop people from drinking, it's a disease, and so on. So I was just moody and a dick.
I still got presents, but I was probably the only kid in the world who had to be forced to leave my basement bedroom on Christmas morning to "see what Santa brought." My mother did her best to make me enthusiastic, including forgetting I didn't believe in Santa until I was 16. I don't fault her for this. She was so desperate to have that white picket fence suburban American dream, and a surly depressed kid for a son and a cruel sociopath for a husband didn't fit that mold very well. I suspect it's why she drank.
I was so desperate to escape the hell. When social services got involved, and some court orders were made, my father became "disgusted" with me, and nobody cared where I was for Christmas after age 15. So after the morning ritual of the tree shaming, I spent the day at my best friend's house.
Kate was my geekish best friend. A military brat, she has grown up in Germany, Thailand, and Japan. Too cultured to be American, too American to appreciate where she came from (she never liked Japan, for instance, and didn't leave the military base unless forced to). Despite our gender differences, we found common ground on all variety of geeky, funny topics. Her family, which had problems of their own, paled in comparison to my family. I spent time with her, and her niece and nephew, who were about 5 and 8. We watched TV, ate dinner with her family, and I got the gossip on the family while they traded gossip with me. I was kind of their village idiot as far as "messed up families" went. I think no matter how bad they thought things were with divorces, decades old resentments, and who had more money that whom... "at least we don't have it as bad as the Larson boy" was a kind of bond for them. That and the TV.
Christmas and Thanksgiving at their house was at a large table where the TV set sat at one end. You ate in silence, and watched whatever was showing. I was told it was the best method to keep relatives from fighting. And still, it was better than being at my house. At least Kate and I could make faces at one another, get her nephew to laugh, and they he'd get in trouble. Sorry, TJ, we really did like you a BUNCH.
In 1986, I turned 18. At this point, our family was so separated emotionally, that my parents were more like roommates than a family. I had my own job, income, regulated my own grades. A lot happened that year: I got accepted to college, I became very sick, our family cat died, and we had and then lost a puppy. My mother, in a fit of exasperated angst, declared she was canceling Christmas. So there, you ungrateful buffoons. In retrospect, I suspected she did NOT anticipate the reaction she got from my father and I, who both said, "Oh, thank GOD," in relief. Probably for different reasons. As the date neared, my mother got more and more determined to express she was SERIOUS. We both said, "we know, and thank you for coming to your sense." I, personally, actually feared she'd change her mind.
At the very last minute, my mother got two huge stuffed teddy bears with Christmas hats and decor from Macy's, and a small tree she put on the coffee table. No gifts were exchanged for the family, because, well screw them. She still bought gifts for friends.
Then came the most rollercoaster week ever. Jan 1st, I was flirted with for the first time in Texas, then flew back home to a lukewarm greeting protesting having to pick me up at the airport when I could have taken the Metro home. Jan 3-5 was Evecon 4 where I was guest artist. Jan 8th I was told I had an irreversible heart condition, and would probably not live to see 20 without major surgery, and possibly a heart transplant. My mother's sacrifice of her life raising me would be for naught. My father was away on business when this happened, she she got drunk to deal with it. The night of Jan 9th we had a huge fight where, as I see it, we were both trying to get support from one another because we couldn't deal. Sometime in the morning of Jan 10th, possibly between 3am and 6am according to paramedics, my mother took her own life with two bottles of tranquilizers and a bottle of Smirnoff.
Within a week, my father had her cremated, had a service, and it was done. Due to CPS, I was not allowed to live with him, so I lived with Kate's family for a while. I was sent to a mental hospital, they sent me back. I graduated high school. I lived with my dad for a few months, but it became so unbearable, I moved in with my friends Bruce and Cheryl of FanTek. I had to abandon plans for college to pay for rent and food.
Christmas of 1987 was my first real Christmas. I was poor, alone with no family, and had started my first retail job in the busiest book store in the DC area. Bruce was Jewish, and didn't celebrate Christmas, but the rest of the house did, despite the fact we were scrambling like mad to plan for Evecon 5. Also, Bruce had a "Christmas birthday," and there was much to do about that. We did exchange gifts. We fondly called the event, "Brucemas."
I had every right to hate Christmas. My parents made it miserable, I was 19, alone and scared, lost my dreams of college, and living day to day with people who, while very nice and friendly, kind of didn't know what to make of me. Christmas in retail is also quite harsh. I had no connections. I was probably going to die within a year and nobody knew and I doubt they cared. But in my head, at some point, I made a decision. I don't recall everything leading up to it, but the end point was this: I refused to be a victim of my childhood when it came to Christmas. Maybe it was that emo-goth "screw you, establishment" sense of rebellion fostered deep within the new-wave punk brain I had. I felt the establishment wanted me to be miserable and oppressed, and dammit, I wasn't going to give it the satisfaction.
Christmas of 1987 was a revolution against my misery. I took everything I could to build some sort of tiny, scrawny Christmas tree in my brain. Even if I had to sit alone in front of that dying tree with one Christmas ball weighing down a fragile limb like the one in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, it was my tree. It didn't depend on anyone else. It didn't depend on anyone's opinion of what was missing or proper. "It's just you and me, tree," I'd think, "in this wasteland. We may die, but we'll die together."
It wasn't easy. Sensible pessimists would feel sorry for my attempt to piss in the ocean to raise the tide. They'd point out my struggles with depression or how SCREWED I was. There was a disconnected pity surrounding me along with my father's voice in my head about how everything I did was pathetic and even amusing in its complete waste of time. There as also the guilt of my mother's last Christmas canceling and the general acceptance that, yes, her husband and only child really did hate Christmas all this time. My father said, eventually, her death was my fault because I was always the one that ruined everything. My coworkers complained about the idiots that swarmed stores during Christmas making their lives hell. The TV and raido were filled with conflicting commentary that both encouraged you to buy and shamed you for being so materialistic in a time for giving and receving. Relatives made people miserable, but isn't family what it was all about? Kids don't respect their elders, but let's give them a shit ton of toys they won't even use after a few months. There was always a thin veneer of joy covering bumps and holes of angst and disappointment that reality was never what the fantasy was. Christmas was, "all face, no depth."
But I asked, "Why? Why can't it be the fantasy? Surely it doesn't cost anything to be nice and cheerful?"
I remembered something that happened to me in 6th grade. I became the lead in "A Christmas Carol." I played Ebeneezer Scrooge, a man so twisted by his own miserable past that it took four ghosts to snap him out of it. The ghost of his old partner said in response to Scrooge's complements on his business sense, replied, "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" Then I remembered the tale of Scrooge and how he, too, was tortured by a cruel father, spending solace in his school rather than at home. He had a love once that left him because of his greed, and how he let his past dominate him. he had friends he had all abandoned, even his wonderful sister's only child, Fred.
There are those who might say, "That's just a story by a fairly bad Victorian writer for a series of magazines." Maybe it's all schmaltz with no reality. Who cares: my life, my rules. It means a LOT to me, and I make an effort every year to see some version of it on TV.
I always felt my reward gift for my determination and hard work was my wife, who was born on Christmas Day a few years after I was born. I mean, the symbolism is rather thick, here. Her name is even "Christine Noelle," and is named after the day she was born. Sadly, like Bruce, she got shafted out of her birthday every year because of her birthday. Not just the "combo gifts" complaint but PEOPLE COMPLETELY FORGET IT. I mean, I don't, and we have a few friends who have made a STRONG point to call her on Christmas to wish her happy birthday. But her own mom forgot many years, and the rest of her family, well, don't even remember the date the rest of the year, either. "Oh, that's right. You were the one born on Christmas Day."
This year, we can't afford gifts. Christine has been sick with heart valve problems (long story short, under exertion, her blood backs up into her lungs and she starts to drown), our son has a degenerative knee condition where he cartilage is disappearing and it's hard for him to walk. I have my own list of medical issues, but at least I can walk and do the labor required to keep going. Our medical bills have been outrageous even though we are insured. Dozens of co-pays and meds add up. Plus my wife is making half her salary she was making before she was laid off in 2009, where she unemployed until May of this year. We are so behind on bills, it's not even funny. I work several jobs: my main job in Silver Spring, some contract work here and there, Katsucon, daily housework, and I am trying to be the next great author and get money that way, so I have been "investing in the foundation" of my writing efforts that will hopefully (fingers crossed) start paying off in 2011. Plus we got a roommate for at least a year which helps shore up some missing funds and let us keep bills paid.
This year, I could barely afford time to decorate for Halloween, and I almost didn't decorate for Christmas. And despite my best efforts, I almost canceled it altogether because I didn't have any time. I am the only one able to decorate. I really wanted to, but almost every weekend I have been busy and ready to collapse from exhaustion. I get about 6 hours of sleep a night, and I am tired most of the time as it is. Thank Goodness our friend Gay helped out this year.
I spent a good several hours in the attic alone dealing with the disaster that was whomever packed it away last year. They must have literally just put anything in a box and heaved it up here. Most of the boxes were overturned and their spilled contents were among the insulation over about half the house's length. This was a blessing in disguise, however, as it let me really go through a lot of the stuff up there. I have it re-sorted and I threw away about 2 trash bags of crap we don't need. I was also able to put stuff up there I didn't need down below, including a lot of stuff from our "appliance graveyard."
I also found a bat. How it is staying alive in that bitter cold, I'll never know, but he dive bombed me a few times before huddling in the rafters. I welcome bats, as they eat bugs. Well, I'll welcome a few bats before I worry about guano build-up.
But I have a tree, some ornaments, and some garland up. So even though there are no gifts to put under the tree, at least I have a small flame of good cheer to look at. md it's a hell of a lot better than Charlie Brown's tree, that's for sure.