Like pretty much everyone else lately, I’ve been thinking about Christmas and holiday spirit and gifts and so on.
Growing up in a Christian family, I was always tought that Christmas is about celebrating Jesus; “Jesus is the reason for the season” and all that. I don’t exactly dispute that, it’s just that, growing up in a Christian family, I always felt like Jesus should be celebrated all the time and “Jesus is the reason for every season”. I don’t need a special day to remember Jesus. I remember Jesus every day.
Christmas was usually a bad holiday for my family. My parents split up when I was two yeas old and when I was a really little kid, everybody thought I was lucky – and I kind of did too – because I got to have two Christmases. I remember huge holiday events at my dad’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio where I lived until just before my 9th birthday (in Cincinnati, not my dad’s house.) My brother and sister and I would go to my father’s house for the week leading up to Christmas. My father’s wife’s oldest son worked for a local establishment called Swallen’s. Swallen’s was a “department store” of sorts though it was more along the lines of a Walmart Superstore. Their tag line was “Anything you want, everything you need, you’ll find it at Swallen’s” and it was pretty much true. The location where this pseudo relative worked had everything I could think of (except automobiles) right down to a boat dealership and a lumber yard across the street from the main store that had housewares, electronics, clothes, groceries, you name it. The store offered employees and their “families” a 20% discount so we did all our Christmas shopping there.
On Christmas Eve, we would have a big gifting extravaganza. I remember one year specifically. My father was renting this enormous house on hundreds of acres of land. The living room was on the back corner of the house, with a screened in porch off the back. On the inside wall of the room was an enormous fireplace and on the outside wall was a gigantic bay window-type floor to ceiling protrusion where the Christmas Tree was set up. Santa had been very generous that year and there were so many presents under and around and behind and for several feet in front of that tree, I, at about six years old, was beside myself with anticipation.
The Swallen’s employed pseudo sibling was fond of trick gift wrapping and I remember that year he gave two gifts that completely stumped the crowd. He gave my sister a small stuffed bear, but to wrap it, he bought a large flat box of Puff’s tissues and carefully opened the end, removed most of the tissues, and stuffed the bear in underneath the top layer before sealing the end with glue so it looked unopened. My sister later admitted that she was almost in tears at the idea that this person had given her a box of tissues for Christmas until he told her to open it and she discovered the real gift inside.
He had also given my father an axe for Christmas, but the way it was wrapped it seemed certain he had gifted my father with a guitar. It was only after the outer layer of paper was removed and my father discovered a layer of cardboard and another layer of paper that we realized he was up to his tricks again.
Ironically, I do not remember a single gift that I received that year at my father’s house. I suspect it was a lot of clothes, mostly second-hand and garage sale purchases, I’m sure, and all to be kept at my father’s house (my mother wouldn’t let us bring clothes to my dad’s house because they always came back dirty, she said.)
There were seven of us in this party and by the time we finished unwrapping all the gifts, we were swimming in a waist-high sea of wrapping paper. I have vivid memories, which I’m certain in my older and wiser years are not real, of us shuffling that sea of paper, with our feet, into the now roaring fireplace. Surely that would have resulted in burning the house down, but that’s how I remember it nonetheless.
With all the paper burned and all our gifts put away it was off to bed and up early for the long, cold drive back to my mother’s house on the other side of town.
My father, at that time, drove a beat up old Ford Maverick he didn’t even own, comprised of spare parts from two different Maverick’s left on the property he rented. It was an ugly amalgamation of baby blue and lime green side panels with rusted out floor boards and it ran on scavenged parts held together with chewing gum and desperation. There were holes in the floor we had to actively keep our feet out of as we watched the roadway fly by beneath us.
That Christmas morning was bitterly cold, the temperatures having dropped to below zero, and an ice storm had passed through overnight. After 14 years in California, I can’t even conceive of sub-zero temperatures and ice storms anymore. I remember sitting in the back seat of that beat up old Maverick with my sister, huddled together and teeth chattering like… Well, like this:
My oder brother sat in the front passenger seat next to my dad, and at some point I remember my father becoming concerned about my sister’s and my feet becoming frost-bitten and so he told my brother to wrap his scarf around our feet and rub them to keep them warm… Well warm enough. I didn’t really feel like we were that bad off, but my brother, who I sort of hated and who resented if not hated me, was being forced to do something nice for me so I wasn’t about to speak up.
Eventually, we were back at my mother’s house and we walked in to another bright Christmas Tree, overflowing with gifts. It was the early 80’s and my mother worked for a tech company that still gave out Christmas bonuses. While we were at our dad’s house she had been out shopping up a storm making it a very exciting Christmas for us kids. I remember anxiously looking through all the gifts, wondering which ones had my name on them and my mother telling us we couldn’t open any presents until after we ate the big breakfast she had prepared for us.
I don’t particularly remember any of the presents she got for us either, interestingly.
A couple of years later, my mother and siblings and I moved from Cincinnati to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where we never had another good Christmas, ever. My parents unofficial custody agreement when we moved was different, depending on who did the telling. They began to fight over who we should spend the holidays with. My father felt that he should get us for Christmas, since we lived 900 miles away and he hardly ever got to see us (he had a point.) My mother felt like it wasn’t fair to her that he should get us for every holiday (she had a point.) At some point they decided that we should decide… We, their 9, 12 and 14-year-old children, should decide who we were going to spend our Christmases with, placing us in the unenviable position of having to disappoint and hurt one of our parents.
We always stayed with our mother, quite possibly for no reason other than the fact that if we chose our father we would be subjected to her pouting and guilt tripping for the weeks leading up to his arrival to whisk us away and if we chose our mother, we’d never see his pouting and feeling sorry for himself. This is just one of many examples of us being responsible for our mother’s feelings and behavior.
I don’t know when Christmas bonuses went out of style, but my mother never received one after we moved to Oklahoma (and I’ve never received one at all.) Christmas became harder as she had three teenage children to support and no extra money to spend on gifts. Before long, we had chosen to stay home with our mother who couldn’t afford to do anything for us and so, in spite of having chosen to stay with her so that she wouldn’t pout and guilt trip us for leaving, she pouted anyway, because she couldn’t afford to do anything special.
Come to think of it, it wasn’t until this time that my mother really started pushing the “celebrating Jesus’s birthday” angle. I think I always resented it because it felt more like a justification, or at least an excuse for why it was okay that we didn’t have gifts at Christmas. It felt disingenuous because it was new and contrived, just something to soothe the ache; whether it was her ache or our own, I do not know.
I grew to hate Christmas. All the holly jolly and the cheer, the incessant Christmas music everywhere you go, the pressure to be happy and “feel the holiday spirit”, all the togetherness and FUCKING HAPPY PEOPLE!!! And most of those fucking happy people? Aren’t!! They just act like they are because it’s what people expect of them. I hated the season, the build up, the antics and attitudes, and I just couldn’t wait for it to all be over! My mother took to calling me Scrooge, because she thought it was funny to make a literary reference and a dig at her most sensitive child, all at the same time.
So naturally, I worked for three years in retail, because where else should a Scrooge work during the holidays, than AT THE MALL!!!
I had enough. Not just of the holidays but of the family togetherness and the expectations and demands and general atmosphere of my life. I moved away… As far away as I could get, without crossing a body of water. I spent my first Christmas with another family, because that’s what you’re supposed to do… apparently. Because being alone on Christmas is somehow shameful and pathetic. I spent the afternoon with a family I didn’t really know, in an environment I didn’t really enjoy and watching as they all exchanged gifts and I had nothing to give and received nothing in return. They were perfectly lovely to me and I’m still friendly with that family today, but I came to realize that Christmas is a time for family togetherness.
The first two years after my first niece was born, I went back to Tulsa for Christmas. I stayed with my mother and visited with friends and spent time with my family… and experienced all the same old strife and resentment and pressure and bitterness and general sucky, sucky time. The second year, my mother was completely unreasonable, and when I stood up for myself, she acted as if she was going to hit me. I vowed then and there never to spend another Christmas with my current family again.
I realized, Christmas is a time for Family togetherness, as long as the family is your own family and you can stand to be around them. I spend Christmas alone now and I’m content to do it. Sure I’d like to spend it with people, but I’d like to spend it with the right people and at this point, I haven’t found the right people. I’d like to spend my Christmases with my Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica and Joey. (I left out Chandler, because several people have told me that I remind them of Chandler – or at least my sense of humor does. Could I be any more different?)
Deb asked me at our least session how I felt going into the holidays. Our next session won’t be until after Christmas and she just wanted to know how I was doing with the looming occasion. I told her I’m fine. And I meant it. I am. Yes, spending the holiday alone is a bummer, but I’m used to it, more importantly I’m fully aware of the fact that I choose it. If I was going to spend my holidays with other people, I would want it to be like the friends on Friends. A bunch of people who are like me either in that they don’t have family locally, or they do not want to spend this time with their family if they do. Until I find those people – Deb referred to them as my “chosen family” – I will spend it on my own and be perfectly content to do so.