I admit that I hate Christmas. In fact, I really loathe most holidays. I don’t get it. I just don’t understand the excitement and the style amnesia that overcomes so many this time of year.
Down come the lovely arrangements and decor in carefully chosen palettes and up come the tacky bright red and green balls and creepy little elves.
I don’t have time for this. Everyone wants to exchange gifts and have special little get togethers before Christmas. I don’t have time to shop and thoughtfully choose presents, spending money I don’t have. In past years I made an assortment of hand dipped candies, and the recipients of those hint they’d appreciate them again. But, I don’t have days to spend in the kitchen hunched over wax paper and cookie trays of miniature little flavored balls, chocolate melting all over my gloved hands.
I have too much to do already. Christmas is an inconvenience in the hectic life of a single mother.
Besides, it’s a pagan holiday anyway. Why do Christians celebrate it? Jesus wasn’t born in December. The ancients celebrated Saturnalia and the birth of Mithra at this time of year. The Catholic church just tweaked it all for the sake of those half hearted new converts who were unwilling to give up their old ways for their new life in Christ.
Kind, tender, generous people want to make sure that these poor children and their struggling mother have a good holiday. They want to make up for the year long poverty and the decades of abuse, and Christmas is the perfect excuse to pour out all of that sweetness. I appreciate it. I really do. I just wish it didn’t have to come with Christmas lights.
A local realtor called to let me know that he had a certificate for us for a live tree. The children squealed. Seriously. I think my daughter called in dogs from five miles away! They were delighted at the idea of a real tree.
They’ve never had one.
Two years ago a loving boy gave us his little artificial tree after my youngest son stood in awe before his family’s big tree. That little tree had graced the boy’s bedroom every Christmas he’d been in America. Having spent the first few years of his life in an orphanage, he deeply grasps the pain of others and the desire for something more. He wanted my children to have a tree, too, so he gave us all he had.
I hate Christmas, but I love that little tree.
My children love the little tree, too. But, the big, live (dead) trees and the bright, gaudy lights hypnotize my children.
What is it about that crap that does that to people?
My teenage sons had an elderly friend from their woodcarving class whom they adored. He shared stories of a time they can’t even imagine.
Their friend was in his 90’s when he passed away. Not long before he died I think he tried to teach my ex a moral lesson. Hank shared with R and the boys that he and his little sister were orphaned during the early years of the depression and forced to live on the streets, alone. He did his best to take care of his little sister and find food for the two of them, but it was hard. As a very young man he hopped a train, taking a cold, snowy ride to nowhere. It was Christmas Eve. As he rode those rails in the open box car he stared into the homes he passed, admiring the Christmas trees and the lights and the warmth they seemed to represent. He realized that Christmas Eve, in that cold box car, that if he ever wanted a home, a Christmas, and a family like that, he would have to work for it. No one was going to give it all to him, and it wasn’t going to just happen. He would have to make it happen.
His moral lesson fell on deaf big ears.
But, the little ears were listening and caught the message.
Still, what is it about Christmas that stirs those longings in people? In Hank? In my children?
I only long to drink my way through the wretched few weeks of ho, ho, ho and then get on with work and completing my to do lists.
The night we found out we are getting a real tree this year, my 13 year old and I stayed up late chatting as teenagers seem to love to do.
I don’t know how late it was, but it was very late and I was feeling loopy when he asked, “Mom, why don’t you like Christmas?”
Whether it was the glass of wine I’d just finished or the extreme exhaustion I’m not sure. But, something acted as a truth serum. Out it spewed. And, some of it even surprised me.
My Christmas memories as a child are of my mother making holiday decorations out of styrofoam and old Reader’s Digest magazines. She’d then take them out in the garage and spray the whole ugly thing with gold spray paint. Other years she made candles. One was a big hunk of cheese with a little mouse climbing up the side. That thing was about the size of a toaster! She gave her creations away as gifts to the extended family, and everyone oohed and aahed over her craftiness.
She’d buy a few cheap presents for us and some expensive, elaborate outfits. Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, she’d scrub us and Dippity-do our hair and dress us in those expensive, over the top clothes. And, we’d sit and wait. And, wait. And, wait.
Around 6 my dad would finally show up, drunk from his office party. He would stumble to the couch and pass out. One year he’d bought us a cassette recorder, so my brother and I had great fun taping my dad’s drunken snores.
We’d then load into the car, my parents fighting over my dad’s afternoon indiscretions, and head to my paternal grandma’s house. She had countless nativity scenes displayed around the house, an elaborate tree, and more presents than an eye could behold. She loved Christmas. Being half German, this was her high holy day, and she knew how to do it up right.
Her adult children all drew one name of another adult to buy a gift for, and everyone was to buy a gift for each child and, of course, the matriarch herself. I don’t remember ever receiving a gift from my uncles and their wives, only my aunts.
My grandmother spent the evening giggling, sitting in the middle of the living room, opening all of her gifts. Occasionally she would take a verbal jab at her oldest daughter or one of her granddaughters she didn’t care for.
My youngest aunt’s husband played with us and we all adored him, but the rest of the adults were too busy trying to impress each other to notice my cousin holding his hand in a candle flame or my older cousin telling the small children filthy jokes.
My grandma had favorites, and she made no bones about it. The majority of that mountain of presents was for a select few. I’d sit next to my favored cousin and watch her unwrap one gift after another, items I drooled over, in addition to gifts of money, while feigned gratitude for my Avon soap trio.
I hated going there, and I couldn’t wait to leave. Of course, we got there late, so we left late. It would be 8:30 before we left for my mom’s parents’ house in the small town–um, congestion–where I still live.
My grandpa went to bed at 9 no matter who was there, so we wouldn’t get to see him much. But, the scene was a stark contrast to the beautiful home and decor we’d just left. The back porch where you entered was always ice cold, unheated and uninsulated. There were towels on the deep freeze lined with trays of cookies and fudge, chilled from the cold air.
The tiny kitchen was nearly the size of my other grandmother’s bathroom. There was hardly room to scoot around the kitchen table to get in to the living room where the oil heater created more warmth than the little house could bare. The fudge on the kitchen table was soft and gooey from the heat and melted on your tongue.
Their trees were always small, cut down from their mining claim property. They were every bit the Charlie Brown tree, spindly with a few antique decorations and too much tinsel. Beneath their tree would be just a few small gifts, typically socks. They were poor and their Christmases were slight, but I’d have rather spent the entire day and evening there where I was loved and could delight myself in Nana’s soft chocolate or peanut butter fudge.
Because of Grandpa’s bedtime, our time there was short. My sugar high always wore off on the way home, and I’d typically wake up Christmas morning, still in my clothes, on the cold living room floor near the door, right where my mother had dropped me the night before. If we were lucky, my dad carried us in to the house; he would deposit us on our beds and pull a blanket over us.
My dad would make sure that we had more gifts. He often chewed out my mom for not getting us enough and for skimping on us when “Christmas is for the kids,” and he’d run in to McLean’s Drug Store or Dirty Bird on Christmas Eve, before his party, and fill his truck.
There wasn’t time to bask in the gifts though because we had to get all dolled up to go back to my paternal grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. The children were to sit quietly at a card table in another room, far from the adults, and eat up all of the waxy, vinegary three bean salad and strange concoction of cottage cheese, Jell-O, canned fruit, and Dream Whip that had been dumped on our paper plates. After the adults were done feasting on the nasty fare, they all promptly sprawled out around the living room and let the tryptophan do its thing. Hours of silent boredom watching them sleep ensued.
As a born again Christian I could embrace the fact that Christmas is a pagan holiday filled with pagan rituals, and I could justify its abolishment in my household. My children would not have to get dressed up to sit in miserable silence, nor would they ever be forced to eat three bean salad with people who didn’t like them.
I did the minimal amount of Christmasey type things I possibly could just to be socially acceptable. Besides, it was easy being married to R. He wouldn’t hold a job long enough for things to stabilize. When he did, he spent all of the money on his addictions. We never had enough money for clothes, food, or medical needs, let alone holidays.
One year, pregnant with my fifth child and very hungry, I sold the last of my premarital valuables to keep the power from being turned off. We had one old truck that barely ran, no money, no food, and little clothes. We were cold all the time. It was scary. Out of the blue, a guy R worked with gave us a card with $200 in it, along with a bowl of apples and oranges. I’ve never tasted fruit so sweet. R, the four kids, and 8 1/2 month pregnant me crammed into the cab of that old Dodge and ate oranges as we looked at Christmas lights. We convinced ourselves it was a grand evening and a wonderful Christmas.
Unfortunately, my dad missed the Christmases he’d known years before, so I tried to make the holidays special for him his last few years. It was always just R, the kids, my dad, my brother and his daughter. However, my brother would sit and mock me the entire time I was taking care of the last minute preparations. One year he smacked his daughter on the ear so hard it bled.
She was no jewel. She unscrewed the salt shaker cap and dumped salt all over all the food at one gathering. Another year she dumped dish soap in the turkey drippings I was preparing to use for gravy. She was thirteen!
I tried to keep her occupied, so she wouldn’t ruin everything. I set up a craft table for the kids. She promptly took the scissors and glue from the other kids and refused to let them work on their projects. She would do everyone’s for them.
My brother later let me know that my dad had called the holiday I “put on,” a “cluster fuck.” I was a one woman show, and all of my effort was not good enough to please any of them.
My 13 year old son sat quietly and listened to me ramble about the dark side of Christmas. And, then, he validated me.
“Wow. No wonder you hate Christmas.”
Then, he shared his own memories of the horrible birthdays and holidays where his father raged and we fled barefoot and broke. He remembered when I left him and his siblings in a grocery store to hide while I ran to pick up my oldest daughter. There wasn’t room in the little Mazda for all five children, and it wasn’t safe to go back home to the presents and cake he’d been anticipating for weeks.
For some strange reason, in spite of that, to my kids, Christmas from afar looks like it did to Hank that night on the railroad car. It is lights and warmth and joy. In listening to my son, I realized that my children have dreamed of a day when the abusers would all be gone and we could celebrate a “normal” Christmas, just as I dreamed I would never have to celebrate it at all.
Again, I’m not sure if it was the wine or the exhaustion, but in those wee early hours with him the Christmas lights I forced myself to put around the mantel began to shine brighter. They flickered out a Morse code to me, “Make it different for everybody.”
It was like being on my own box car. I realized that if I wanted my children to grow up with better memories of the holidays and their birthdays I would have to make it happen. I would have to muster a joyful spirit and create a different reality for my children than what I knew and what they experienced with their father in the home. I have to put down the Bah Humbug spirit I cling to and give myself and my children the freedom to enjoy the beauty and the kind spirit of this season.