Something weird happened about a week ago: CR wanted to know about my Christmas childhood, and I didn’t want to tell him because it depressed me. I didn’t even know where to begin. Christmas as a kid could be best described as a declining series of events that led to the ultimate post-Christmas explosion when I was 18. I remember moments as a child when Christmas was pretty cool, about gifts and such. That ended around age 10 or 11, when the reality of the situation overcame the greed. To me, I think of Christmases as four levels: pre-Santa, post-Santa, Bruce and Cheryl, and married.
Pre-Santa started when I was born, and my first memories of Christmas were better when I didn’t know what was going on. Somewhere around age 8, I was convinced there was no Santa due to various school discussions, and when my mother tried REAL hard to convince me otherwise, I started to collect evidence that year.
First, there was in “flags” incident. In 1976, I had an American flag I really liked. It was a gift from my maternal grandfather, and was real cloth and had a wooden pole. Said, “Spirit of ‘76“ on it. My parents insisted on putting it out on the 4th of July that year, and long story short, it got stolen. I was REALLY upset, which confounded my parents. They were sympathetic, but up to a point, and I am sure I probably over-reacted. So I asked for a new one for Christmas. Santa gave me... a box of flags from all the nations of the world. Not nice ones, but the kind of plastic 1 inch flags one puts on top of cakes. Of course, I am embarrassed to say it’s petty now, but I was majorly bummed. My mother’s response was, ”Oh... um, Santa thought you said, ’flags...‘" Hmm, I thought, that’s the kind of mistake my mother made all the time when I asked for gifts. And come to think of it, I told HER I wanted flags, and didn’t even see Santa that year.
Also, the note left behind for me from Santa, thanking me for cookies and milk was in my mother’s incredibly neat style of handwriting that really could have won awards if she didn’t waste it on lying to small children! :-P Just kidding, but she really did have the most neat script I have ever seen, it was free-flowing calligraphy that was so perfect, you would almost believe she saw invisible straight lines on otherwise blank pages of paper. In this cars, it was on the unlined side of an index card. That is, very identifiable (on the other hand, my father’s was the exact opposite, but he had a Ph.D., so that’s understandable).
So the next year, I bypassed all the bullshit and never brought Santa up at all. My mother knew something was up, so she kept needling me, using the usual things like, “If you behave, Santa will bring you...” uh huh. We shall see. Late on Christmas Eve, I snuck downstairs, hid under the couch, and waited. Nothing happened. I fell asleep, and I was woken up at dawn by the sound of my mother, slightly drunk, putting in presents and giggling. Presents she had already wrapped and hidden in the closet she didn’t ever figure out I knew she hid things in. She ate the cookies, drank the milk, and went back to bed. And so did I.
I didn’t say a word all Christmas, and for a few months, I kept my tongue until my mother tried the, “If you get better grades, Santa may--” No. I explained I knew it was her. I think I could have been a little more thankful, but I was a stern and serious kid, who felt enough was enough and this had to end. She never let go. Even when I was 17, she made the comment about canceling Christmas meant no Santa. This woman was 48, and I was 17, and still... well, for me, it was just one of her many denials. To her, I was perpetually 8. I wouldn’t say I was traumatized by the experience at all. In fact, and this is embarrassing, I am still a little proud of my detective work and closed lip; a technique I still enjoy today.
Then there was “the Christmas the tree fell over.” I must have been about 7. My maternal grandparents were staying over, and my father did not like them AT ALL. The stress level was incredible, and even as clueless as I was at that age, I stayed by myself in my room most of the time. The tree falling was probably a combination of being slightly lopsided, too tall, and we had two cats. To be honest no one was there when it happened, and we’ll never know the actual reason it fell. We just heard a keee-RASH! And there was the tree lying in our living room. But to me, it was symbolic.
Christmas Eve, my grandparents were shocked that nobody opened any presents Christmas Eve. This erupted a HUGE fight between them and my father, where my father was doing most of the yelling, and the topic seemed to be all about how I should not be catered to like I was somehow special. My father always seemed to be in the way of whatever I wanted, simply for the purpose of being in the way. This realization would serve me well, later, when I wanted to avoid some of his cruelty. My grandparents said that I should be treated special, and my father dismissed them by saying he wasn’t taking advice from a hairdresser and a out-of-work carpenter. That’s when I first learned that when my mother was growing up, my grandfather was a carpenter and my grandmother owned a salon in Chicago. Finally, I was allowed to open one gift, and it was very, very tense. I don’t even remember what I got; I just wanted to hide, I was so scared.
My grandmother told me years later, “I knew Gladys was unhappy, but until I lived in your house for a week, I had no idea just how bad it was.” My grandfather also said that when my mother hugged them goodbye at the airport, she whispered into his ear, “Please help me. Everything’s gone terribly wrong.”
Post-Santa was the worst. Not really related to the Santa event at all, it was the time I realized just how miserable Christmas was at my house. The disillusionment that my mother was Santa (which wasn’t that bad, honestly) was nothing compared to the disillusionment that my family life was simply awful. From about age 10 until I was 17, this is how Christmas morning went.
9:00am - My parents have been awake for a while, and wake me up. I want to stay in bed, and I am often yelled at to get upstairs so we can unwrap presents. Later, I ask could I trade my presents for sleep? No.
9:15am - Despite my parent’s eagerness, they have not prepared. Coffee needed brewed. That was my mother’s job. She also prepared cookies and things. In her later years, often she was drunk. Usually between the weak, chatty, or emotional stages. I think once or twice she had trouble even standing. One year, she got too drunk to even participate. In any case, I would be sitting on the floor, and my father on the couch. Very quickly, we’d be fighting. Even to this day, I can’t be near the guy without a mixture of raw animosity and fear. Biting sarcasm followed by teasing and mockery left me in tears if presents didn’t interrupt the war between us.
9:30 - Around now presents would be opened. My father went first, my mother second, and I went third. Nothing was ever said, but it almost seemed like there was a “how much did this cost?” kind of thing going around. I experimented with this theory as a teenager, and found that items where I discretely left the price tag attached got more favorable reviews than those that didn’t. And when I attached a larger price tag... better response. I wonder if my mother really thought I spent $80 on a small statue of a whale?
10:30am - In the glow of gifts, we all parted. My mother would attempt to prepare for the “Christmas dinner,” one of our only 3-4 meals together through the year.
12:00 - 2:00pm: “Dinner.” My parents never usually ate with me except for the occasional restaurant, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes the Fourth of July. Oh, and sometimes the yacht, but that was because the conditions were usually so cramped. Usually I ate alone in the kitchen. This was just fine with me, because I really, really, really hated eating with my parents. My mother was fine. Not much pleasant conversation, really, and as the years went by, her conversation went from interesting and silly to disconnected and a little creepy. I know it was the alcohol, but there you go. My father was quiet with unpleasant comments from time to time. He’d have bursts of conversation followed by quietness when he was done, even if you weren’t. It was a strangely tense and stilted place to sit.
My father also teased me mercilessly. He knew who a control freak I was (and I mean, hey, he should know, I got it from him), and would just fuck with my head like a the classroom psycho would taunt a hamster in a cage by poking it with a pencil. He used many tactics schoolyard bullies did, but not with fists so much as words. When I inevitably burst into tears, my mother would tell him to stop, and my father would laugh with delight. I mean, he took great delight in torturing me.
When I got older, I would run to my friend Kate’s house, and hang out there. Her parents were a bit off in their own right, especially because they ate their special dinners with the TV set at the head of the table and ate in silence, but it was a LOT better than mine.
Then, finally, in 1986, after my 18th birthday, my mother announced that due to all the problems in the house, she was canceling Christmas. No tree, no decor, no presents. “Okay,” my father and I both said, and I felt, “Well, that’s cool.” Looking back on it, that was a SEVERE warning sign of what was to come, but I recall being so relieved that I didn’t have to deal with it all, that when my mother kept warning me Santa wouldn’t give me anything, I just laughed it off. “No,” I agreed. “No she won’t.”
Bruce and Cheryl
So, right after Christmas I flew to Texas to see my friend Neal, came back, was guest artist at Evecon 4, and then was told I have an irreversible heart condition and was going to die. January 10th, my mother committed suicide. I lived in a foster home for a bit, went to a mental hospital, got out of that, then moved back home, graduated high school, and needed a place to live because my dad was being dangerously insufferable and he was going to throw me out at any moment. Bruce and Cheryl were looking for a roommate.
I got laid off from work that September, and didn’t get hired until Dec 7th of that year. I then worked at Crown Books, at the busiest store in the chain at the time. I didn’t have time to think about Christmas, and worked a lot of overtime up through Christmas Eve. Christmas at Bruce and Cheryl’s house was a pause in the hectic planning for Evecon 5. It was both understated and cheerful. Kind of a collection of people with abusive families, or those who didn’t celebrate Christmas often (Jewish/military family).
In all this, given my background, I wanted to forget Christmas even existed. Bot one thing saved Christmas for me: In 6th grade, I got the lead part for a musical version of “A Christmas Carol.” Something about the transformation of Ebineezer Scrooge stuck with me all those years. Every year, I am reminded about this event. It may have happened when I was 12, but even at 38, when I watch the newer version with Patrick Stewart, I feel the same process all over again. Kind of like my own little cult film, a Rocky Horror where I play along the main part. Some of the lines haven’t even changed. It may seem silly to most of you, but this role was placed in my path like a diversion channel away from becoming a bitter and abusive alcoholic. I wasn’t a particularly decent actor, but I memorized my lines, belted them out like a typewriter, and got the job done, along with most of the other actors.
Bruce had a very laissez-faire attitude towards my childhood. “Yes, it was bad, mine, too. But we all need to move on now,” which many people considered callous, but it was just the thing I needed. And with some Dickens lessons behind my ears, I had decided that in order NOT to be a victim of my childhood, I would never hide it, never cover it like my father did, and expose the horrifying guts to the open air. Furthermore, I would grow from this wreckage like a Phoenix. I wish I could say I rose like a glorious bird from the ruins... but the scars have proven very deep.
I got married within two years of leaving McLean behind me. But it started out real rough, I won’t lie. We had one Christmas on Credit, which would be our best Christmas for a long time to come. Because the next year, money was tight due to takayla’s health problems having CR (unemployment, no insurance). Christmas at the old apartment in Alexandria was pretty stressful, too. Not just money, but we seemed to be haunted as well. The next year was even worse, because I had been unemployed for about 8 months. After that we were evicted, and have Christmas in the projects for the next 4 years, with a lot money worries. We got donations from friends and various church groups for a while.
Finally, we got out of that in 1996, and I was working at AOL. But then there were a lot of Christmases where I worked or was on call. Like this Christmas.
This Christmas we clenched our jaw and tossed out a LOT of old decorations. Like about 80% of the bulk in our attic. It felt good, let me tell you. So much stuff we had been meaning to do something with. And we started with a lot of new things.
One thing I have tried to escape is the creeping bitterness towards the holiday. Echoes of my mother screaming ”why can’t we just get along“ and the TV morality claiming that the holidays are so commercial (ironic). I have been fighting this illusion since I was 19. It’s so easy to take certain things so seriously, and feel like the world owes you something, but it doesn’t owe anybody anything. You have to make merry to get merry. One source of intense misery is how ”perfect“ something should be: a perfect gift, a perfect holiday party, a perfect family getting along. Perfection is a path, not a goal, and perfection is all in the eye of the beholder anyway.
I don’t want to get trapped in that falsehood of how unrealistic the Christmas spirit is, and how people are mean and bad and poor just keep being poor because they are ignorant fucks who can’t rub two cents together, and poverty is just how it is. Nor do I want to feel somehow foolish that I ”believe in the whole thing“ because... well, I choose to. And anyone else can choose to be miserable and feel above happiness and joy because they somehow feel this is superior, and it’s all really because they are too scared to get hurt. ”Oh no, I should have had a happy childhood, but I didn’t, and no one understood, so I won’t be made a fool of again, no sir!“ Some even say, ”Happiness is an illusion!“ Well, it is. But so is misery. Or anger. It’s all brain juice and synaptic connections that react with the perceived social environment. So why choose misery? Misery is so over-rated in the intellectual world. It’s always perceived as the trump card; being above it all, disillusioned, and jaded. Like the term ”IQ,“ it is essentially meaningless because making a ratio of ”what you should know“ is judged by no one but yourself.
But seasonal affective disorder is not. It’s brain juice gone bad, so to speak, brought on by my Swedish ancestry, childhood experiences, and the lack of light in the winter months. I am not sure what the evolutionary concept behind it is, but I bet there had to be something that would keep people inside and anti-social when your hut was covered by several feet of snow that would keep you from going mental staring at the same damn fireplace for 3-4 months. But in modern times, SAD clouds and darkens everything you see. It’s like a heavy and suffocating blanket, and yet you wrap it around you for comfort. I don’t drink, but I can imagine why alcoholism would be so prevalent with that thought process. There are a lot of depressed and drunken Swedes in the winter, let me tell you. This is part of the main reason I do not drink alcohol, because I can see the edge it would push me off of. And winter would be one of them, and just like my mom, I’d freak out over the holidays and get smashed so I wouldn’t have to feel it. But I chose, at age 8, never to drink alcohol, and it’s never done me wrong.
Just like believing in Christmas spirit.
Merry Christmas, everyone. :)