Why am I writing about Christmas…in May!?! I dunno. Maybe it’s because I forgot last year. Maybe it was the note I received from my cousin that made me grow nostalgic for Christmases of yore. But when inspiration strikes, don’t look it in the mouth. Just go with it!
Even as a child, Christmas was not unsullied. There was always the Grinch of narcissism skulking round corners, stealing yuletide cheer.
These days, I’m not big into Christmas and neither is Michael. In fact, it’s the only day in the year when he’s decidedly cranky. For him, Christmas conjures childhood memories of receiving socks and underwear and of his own children tearing through the few presents he scrimped and saved and worked and starved to buy for them, only to have them cast aside with the disgusted words, “Is that it!?”
So for us, Christmas is a day to be white-knuckled through and bid goodbye as soon as possible with a huge sigh of relief. Sometimes we get it over with on Christmas Eve.
But it wasn’t always that way. At my very first Christmas in 1980, my Mom and Dad had a tree and presents and everything. Of course, I don’t remember it and we never did that again. Dad got religion and from then on, Christmas was to be solely about Christ. I was never told about Santa Claus or Rudolf or the Grinch or anything.
I know a lot of people do that and I respect it. Personally, I’m torn. Jesus wasn’t really born in December and the early church didn’t celebrate His birth, as far as I know. No, on this topic, I am in agreement with my favorite atheist: Sheldon Cooper on the I-can’t-stop-crying-because-it-ended Big Bang Theory. He didn’t celebrate what he called “the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia” and neither do we.
But that’s just us.
What I remember is how every childhood Christmas was weird. While my cousins arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s house to excitedly open their Christmas presents, my family arrived ostentatiously one or two hours later so we wouldn’t be involved in the materialism of gift giving.
There was an awkwardness when we arrived like when you’re very late to a party that’s already in full swing and you don’t quite know what’s going on.
My father, very stiff and righteous in his disapproval of Christmas gifts. Mom, smiling and ingratiating. Me, always a bit puzzled and somehow stuck in the middle. I wasn’t in the least bit jealous of my cousins’ toys. They let me play with them! 🙂
Grandma’s house was lovely. The tree fascinated me. There was the light-up Christmas village. Oh, it was magical. And smelled so good!
But of course, there was always a fly-in-the-ointment. Grandma would be silently weeping, dabbing her eyes with her Christmas apron, as she handed me “just a little love gift.” You could see my parents disapproval in their fixed, fake smiles. Everyone had compromised; Grandma wasn’t allowed to call it a “Christmas Gift.” My parents weren’t happy that she gave me something, despite their no-Christmas-Presents policy. So no one was happy and I couldn’t quite figure out why my present was a source of conflict. It was uncomfortable. I’d rather have gotten nothing and had everyone be happy.
Sometimes my funny uncle would be singing those secular Christmas songs my family censured. Dad looked pained as Uncle warbled, “Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, had a booger in his nose.” But we cousins laughed our heads off.
Finally, after much fuss and agonizingly delicious smells torturing us from the kitchen, Christmas dinner was ready. But first there was the prayer.
Dad usually offered it up solemnly. He was seen as the most religious one in the family and so the most appropriate one to approach the Throne of Grace. He prepped for it beforehand. At home, his prayers were fully of joking around with God so the solemnity of his Christmas prayer seemed very theatrical and hypocritical and uncomfortable to me. If that’s religion, then somebody goofed.
As I grew older, sometimes I’d be forced to pray aloud. I’d rather have been boiled in hot oil, cast into a dungeon with thumbscrews applied and then kept on bread and water for thirty days but what choice had I? At home, as in so many cults, I was considered the resident heathen, hell-bound. But at Grandma’s house, forced by Mom into hypocritically wearing that damned diamond cross Grandma bought me, strong-armed into playing the prayerful hypocrite but threatened with “we won’t lie if someone asks about your spiritual condition,” well, it was torturous.
But the food was delicious! As a comfort eater from way back, it salved the wounds of my “little love gift” and having to pray aloud!
Later, after the women had cleared away, washed every single dish and Grandma had even anointed the bottoms of her copper-bottom pans with ketchup, we would all sing hymns round the piano.
Was there ever a more forced pseudo-mutuality situation!? You could see some family members were just humoring Grandma because this Norman Rockwellesque gathering of her family, voices raised in song, thrilled her to the marrow.
It was almost as uncomfortable as the forced small talk over the caramel corn. One or more person would get on a role and start monologueing about their favorite pet peeve or passion…when they weren’t making their children perform. Why were we cousins always the pawns of our fathers’ genteel competitiveness!?
Grandpa always snuck away to check the score on the TV. You could see it was a sacrifice for him to upset his daily coffee-with-crossword-puzzle-and-TV schedule to put up with all of us. Ah, I can’t really blame him. He was an introvert. Of course, I was forbidden from even peeking at the television screen, always told to avert my eyes away from the Television Room door as I ran past to-and-from the bathroom.
Then came the desserts. Pies! Apple, pecan, pumpkin plus cookies – at least five different kinds. And maybe, a cheeseball. I make them still. Heaven on a plate. I may die young with a heart full of cheeseball…but what a way to go!
Full to the gills, an hour after pie we would announce it was time to go. And the tears began again, Grandma complaining she’d hardly had any time with anyone. Well, if she hadn’t hid in the kitchen all day…!
We talked it all over on the drive home, my father especially criticizing the relatives. The façade of pseudomutality fell away and we could just be our critical, cultish selves again. Mom explained that Grandma cried about my “little love gift” because she was protesting against my parents’ rule that I not receive Christmas gifts. They had compromised with her, she had compromised with them and no one was happy. Not even me.
If Dad had too much sugar, within an hour he’d be very angry. Sugar hit him that way. It was really strange and we didn’t connect the dots for years. All we knew was that sugar made him a “mean drunk.”
The buffer of childhood still makes the memories golden, but I kinda’ prefer Michael and my non-Christmases now.
On the other hand, New Years Eve was always special in my family home. That’s when we celebrated. Dad would make up a story about persecuted Christians in other lands and I’d listen spellbound. Mom made tacos, still one of my favorite meals. And we’d open presents on New Years Eve instead of Christmas. (I always got lotsa books!!!)
There’s a verse in Proverbs that says, “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” (Proverbs 17:1)
That’s true. I would have gladly have foregone the “little love gift” and the huge feast just to have Grandma smiling instead of playing the weepy victim. Or maybe we could’ve actually participated in Christmas presents if we’d been less cult-like and in-your-face spiritually superior. What was the point!?! It would hardly have corrupted me!
Like so many of you, Christmas has become too complicated and the memories too sullied so now Michael and I do nothing and we like it. The family is in tatters anyway. It all rings hollow.
Maybe the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas at all. Maybe narcissism did.