My Ongoing Feud With The Yuletide Season
When I was a kid, Christmas was about greed.
My greed, my sister's greed. Our elation at getting what
we wanted and our stupid, idiot's anger when we didn't. The toys mom
sacrificed and lied and did God only knows what to get ended up under my
bed less than ten days later, an after thought. Already yesterday's
Christmas fed my childhood narcissism. I never once stopped to think about the sacrifice, in money and in time. Mom working double shifts and sometimes double shifts plus some ratty part-time job cleaning a bank just to ensure I had a “normal” childhood. Staying up all night meticulously wrapping presents we would rip asunder without a thought mere hours later.
It was so stupid. So asinine. Such an enormous waste of time. My mother vanishing, becoming The Invisible Mama, during this season; killing herself all for that one moment. I'd have rather had her. I'd have much rather she'd never taught us that stupidity about sleigh bells and flying deer. It was a lie. A well meaning lie, I suppose, but it was a lie, and, given the tough road ahead of me (being a field mouse), I'd have preferred the truth. Then we could have skipped all of that, and instead enjoyed each other as a family. But, see, mom didn't know any better. It was the 1960's and she was a young, unwed mother and this was what we did. What everyone did.
Later Christmas day, I'd have to face the gauntlet of neighborhood kids who gathered to brag about their spoils for the year. God help you if you didn't get A Good Something— something for the others to be envious of, or something of appreciable value that somehow measures up. These days, kids break out calculators and figure the rough total of their yearly haul, that becoming the benchmark of their parents' love.
I think I figured all of this out when I was about eleven. Shunned, first and foremost by my own sister, who was a hamster to my field mouse— the cool kid, more in step with the gang. My sister had no compassion for my mother at all. At least none that I was aware of. It was Gimme Season, and she was out to get everything she could. The very model of narcissism, my sister existed on a planet ruled by her where I was, at best, an annoyance. She was completely Lucy Van Pelt to my Charlie Brown, and my mother routinely left me alone with this maniac while dismissing my reports of her grade-school sadism as typical sibling rivalry. There was no rivalry. She was the bigger kid (by two years) and she made it her life's mission to torture me. And, where I grew to agonize over mom's yearly Yuletide struggle, sister seemed purposefully oblivious to it.
So, yeah, Christmas came, to me, to mean a time when my mother would vanish. Christmas, to me, meant Santa made my mother go away so I could have some flashing robot that I'd play with for exactly nine days and three hours. Christmas was my being intimidated by the local “cool” kids bragging about their spoils, and my own sister, my own blood, joining in the chorus of people who despised and rejected me because I was different.
The cumulative effect of this tradition, of a childhood like that, was to develop thick skin and an arsenal of weapons of mass intimidation. I suppose part of the reason I come off fairly acidic and sardonic is it's a learned reflex. Hurting my feelings is beyond the powers of most mortal men, as I have learned to just roll with the critical punches, and unleash the fury of a childhood spent in solitary confinement. The field mouse grown to become Mighty Field Rat, Slayer of Narcissists.
As an adult, Christmas came to mean spending nearly eight hours stuck in traffic on the Belt Parkway. You see, Karen and I lived in New Jersey, but mom lived (at the time) in New York. We had Her Mom and My Mom. Both were lunatics in their own way, but Her Mom was the cooler lunatic. An almost hip lunatic, who reminded me very much of Agnes Moorhead's Endora from the TV show Bewitched. Her Mom had this amused detachment from most of what was going on. She made fairly few demands of us, while consequently being of fairly little help to us.
Now, see, we needed to hit Her Mom, Her Friends, My Aunt, My Cousins, My Grandma, My Friends, and do all of that BEFORE we arrived at My Mom. My Mom, like the wonderfully colorful mom on Everybody Loves Raymond, existed on Planet Mom, where everything more or less revolved around her. All those years of sacrifice for the toys, now Mom was out to collect. There was no leaving My Mom's house once we arrived. There was no negotiation, no parole. So, we would do all of this rushing, all of this sitting in traffic (oh, the traffic), and arrive, stressed and exhausted, at My Mom's, from whence we could not leave.
As an adult, I found Christmas was about everybody else. Other than the giddily creative Karen (now Elaine to my Jerry), there was no one in my life, no one at all, making much effort to make my Christmas particularly merry. The gifts were inevitably thoughtless, chosen by well-meaning but nonetheless clueless individuals who'd neglected to look up my species [mouse, field] in the encyclopedia before charging that bottle of Brute on their Amex. Field Mice have no use for such banality. Field Mice want safety and warmth and comfort and quiet. Monogrammed handkerchiefs mean absolutely nothing to a man being slowly driven out of his mind by people who claim to love him but who've never taken the time to get to know him.
By the grace of God, My Mom moved to Florida in 1987, which made things both better and worse, as there was always some pressure for me to fly to Florida during either Thanksgiving or Christmas, the two worst times of the year to ever be on an airplane. There was actually some expectation that I'd move to Florida, which keeps me giggling to this day. Besides, by '89, there was a new love in my life, whose own familial obligations more than adequately filled the My Mom void. I married into a large family with bonds like iron tentacles that stretched across continents, and centuries-old family rituals that could not, under any circumstances, be broken.
Christmas became a time of running up my credit cards, running up the miles on the car, bargaining with the wife over where to go and in which order. It was this awful, hateful, stressful time. Driving endlessly and ending up at Her Mom's house, stressed, angry, irritable, and (for me) being banished to the basement with the other son-in-laws where we huddled around a 12-inch black and white TV set to watch some football game (I am not a sports fan) and pretend to enjoy each other's company. It was less of family room and more of a gulag, the prisoners shooting one another furtive glances while wondering who'd be the first one to make a run for the guard tower. None of us wanted to be there. We exchanged the kind of glances you see on the faces of moribund, humiliated husbands pushing bloated toddlers through the mall in those umbrella strollers (designed specifically and purposefully to emasculate The Husband Unit). Meanwhile, upstairs, the gals were tossing croutons and doing that familial bake-off thing, but ultimately reduced to a kind of fleeting, forced chat as they pulled into conversational dry dock.
I wasn't allowed to speak. Now, certainly, yes, I was allowed to talk, but speaking— any comment delivered in my own voice containing any of my own thought— was a cardinal sin. It was Christmas With The Eggshell Family, very kind and very sweet but nonetheless Old World types, a household dominated by women whom you'd swear had been brainwashed by Martha Stewart and Oprah. I was David Letterman having dinner at Nelson Mandela's house, completely uncomfortable in my own skin, out of place, and totally unable to be myself on any level. The wife was rigid and tense, on constant guard and braced for Chris's latest quip, which she would have to immediately parse, explain and/or apologize for.
My reflex, my Field Mouse self-defense mechanism,
was and still is withering sarcasm, which doesn't go over very well at Martha Stewart's house on Christmas Day (although the billionaire Stewart handles herself with ease on Letterman's Late Show, Oprah has, at this writing, ignored Letterman's month-long on-air baiting to be invited on Winfrey's show). The in-laws, by contrast, came across as humorless (which they were not, they just didn't like my humor), fragile (which they were not) and/or clueless (most had advanced college degrees). It was a gentle clash of cultures, only mine was the mongrel culture of Letterman. I was to adapt to them, while any effort on their part to even understand the Field Mouse was imperceptible to me. The rule was, more or less, speak when spoken to. Be polite, answer in complete sentences, remember to smile, go back to the basement as soon as possible. And I'm not really kidding, that was, essentially, the coaching I tended to receive as we nudged along the Belt Parkway in bumper-to-bumper traffic, on our way to the festive event; my stomach already in knots, my hands like blocks of ice, and my own voice in my head screaming for me to dive out of the car and hitch a ride back to Staten Island. My only refuge was the children, who at least pretended to enjoy my company, though I'm quite certain none of them would remember me now.
And, God help me if I wasn't there. See, the gals really didn't have all that much to talk about. So, my absence was fodder for conversation. They'd ask, “Where's Chris?” and my wife would be mortified by the disdainful looks, sort of, if your husband loved you he would be here. But, see, I was busy trying to placate all the nutty relatives on my side of the aisle, so we could wrap things up and make the long drive back across the Belt Parkway into the relative (pun intended) safety of New Jersey.
So the wife and I would get into stupid arguments because I'd find out she told her people I was, I dunno, piloting the space shuttle. She'd invent some dopey reason for my not being there instead of simply saying because his relatives are insane and he must appease them. 'Tis the season to appease folks. She could have said because he doesn't like sitting, bound and gagged, in the basement. She could have said because he's a field mouse and they see things differently than normal people. She could have said anything, but it hurt and humiliated her for me to not be there, so ch-CHING! ring up another round of stress on top of everything else as we struggled through the “joyous” season. To be fair, she spent the entirety of our married life struggling between the two worlds, between Mandela and Letterman. I'm not sure time has given either of us much perspective on how things could have been better, but perhaps some general acceptance of the strengths and weaknesses of our extended family (as opposed to a gilded hegemony attained, ostensibly, by denying or repressing everything that I am) might have helped things.
I had this beautiful, spiritual, wonderful wife. All I wanted for Christmas was her, in a quiet space where our mounting bills and our mounting differences didn't matter. Instead it was the law of familial obligation, a pressure cooker on a busted egg timer that tick-tick-tick-ticks down the weeks days hours and minutes until I, once again, had to answer the primal call of tribal sacrifice. We routinely put off having our Christmas for a day or two so we could run around meeting everyone else's expectations. It was insane. What I wouldn't give for just five minutes of that time back. A few breaths to look her in the eyes and say stop rushing. This is our Christmas, too.
I hated Christmas. I hated my family, her family, everybody's family. The black moods would begin right around October, and would swing right through the new year. We'd struggle to get the tree up, kill ourselves cleaning and decorating and cooking and all of that. And have to draw out a battle plan and strategy for me to spend eight hours fighting gridlock on the Belt Parkway so I could sit in Her Mom's basement so the sisters wouldn't make her cry by asking where I was, only to then have to fight sleep as I inched back along the treacherous Belt Parkway, wary of the snow and ice and drunks, on the crawl back to Jersey long after everyone, wife included, had succumbed to the Triptofan.
I was required, under threat of great penalty, to present myself at places where I was not welcome and to people who did not actually want me to show up, but wanted someone they wanted or expected me to become, or perhaps their vision of who they thought I should be. And it was all for the big entrance— the warm smile, hug, exchange of pleasantries— quickly dissolving into forced chatter and the gulag. Immersed in family and friends, I was completely and totally alone. Not even a human being, I was The Chris Unit (TM), obliged to go here and do this and fulfill some indentured servitude contract of uncertain origin and duration.
This was Christmas to me. And, if you think about it, some part of this is Christmas to you or to someone like you.
On July 5, 1993, after a really stupid fight over some store-bought chicken, my wife left me. And, what I've come to realize over these eight years is, she took Christmas with her. And God bless her for that. There's something truly liberating about having your entire world come to an end, yet, for some odd reason, you're not dead. It was a kind of out-of-body experience, losing this woman who was my entire world, and suddenly finding myself back at zero in all respects. I suddenly realized I could jettison Everything That Was Stupid. Birthdays Are Stupid. Thanksgiving Are Stupid. Christmas Are Stupid.
I was the field mouse divesting himself of the last vestiges of social custom, spending Thanksgiving in my BVD's watching reruns of Star Trek while eating chocolate cake with my bare hands. I've learned I no longer have to do anything I don't want to do. And now, other than bracing for the inevitable happy campers trying to de-Grinch me, I am so much happier in the Yule season.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase, to kids from one to ninety-two: although it's been said, many times and many ways, Merry Christmas. Just keep it to yourselves.