Why are bad things so much worse at Christmas? For some reason there is this almost innate desire in us parent types to have that traditional, Norman Rockwell-esque picture perfect holiday with the cozy fire, nuclear family, big dog on the rug, carolers at the door, steaming cider in mugs. Anything short of that is somehow utterly depressing. So even if one were perfectly content with a sort of avant garde life style or thrilled to pieces 364 days a year with his or her independent and free-wheeling nomadic existence, Christmas day might be the one day that that may suddenly not seem like enough. So that means even a good life can seem bad at Christmas. You take a crummy aspect of your life: maybe a divorce, some drunk in your extended family, an ill mannered child—and suddenly that aspect of your life becomes just glaringly awful—way worse than it was all year.
My mother tells the story of her first Christmas with my dad. She had graduated college in June, married my dad in July and then came down to West Los Angeles to spend her first married Christmas with her brand new in-laws. She came from a provincial family in central California—just her dad, an olive farmer, his long suffering wife (if you will)—one brother and one bathroom in a tiny house in a tiny town. Granted, they had their own dysfunctions as all families do, but my father’s family turned out to be something to behold.
So there they were, barely legal, my mother in her new suit—her hair all puffed up, her lipstick pink and hopeful. The house must have seemed grand. It’s not really. I mean, it’s a decent sized house—old Los Angeles architecture—but lots of crystal chandeliers and spindly antique furniture. And my father’s mother, gracious enough but not overly so, dripping in diamonds, smoking cigarette after cigarette and—as ever—not afraid to voice her opinions. But, as far as the Norman Rockwell picture goes—not a bad replica—kind-of an upscale, California coast version—big tree with fancy, glittery ornaments, lots of lights—maybe some Bing Crosby on the hi-fi, silent Guatamalan women bearing trays of stuffed mushrooms and refills of champagne.
One character in our peaceful tableau is not drinking champagne—he’s drinking Dewar’s—as ever. This is my father’s stepfather. My dad’s parents were divorced some time before, and his mother has been remarried to this man for some time. He’s a nice man, truly, but a big drinker which is of course, not news to anyone there for Christmas, but as I said earlier, somehow the drinking seems a little coarser, a little less acceptable on Christmas—especially to my mother who was used to a more closeted version of the family alcoholic.
So I guess the night was more or less normal—a Christmas goose was served at some point and then there was the adjourning back to the parlor to enjoy the tree and have a little cognac or whatever—or more Dewar’s in my grandfather’s case, and something about the tinsel and the way it was hanging or shimmering or God only knows—just GOT to him. For whatever reason it was unacceptable, and as we all know, it’s a hell of a lot harder to remove tinsel from a tree branch than it is to put it on.
No one remembers whether he actually tried to get the tinsel off, but within a few moments of even initially voicing his frustration with the tinsel, he up and tore down the entire 12 foot tree—like, pulled it over, crashing down to the peach carpeting—ornaments shattering, relatives shouting. God, I wish I’d been there.
Of course, my mother was mortified. The rest of the crew were somewhat nonplussed. A drunk’s a drunk. But on Christmas!!!
Flash forward 20 some odd years. My mother is now around the age I am now—early 40’s—only she has 4 daughters—not just 2—and no medication. I am retroactively feeling her pain. The family meets in the mountains—2 young “adults” semi-attending college, 2 high schoolers—no Santa, no matching jammies, no carols—just the snow, a lot of booze and some pretty crappy attitudes. What a hideous time—your own kids are not children anymore, and there aren’t yet any grandkids to shift the focus. At some point my mother went to use the powder room, found an empty toilet paper roll on the dispenser and had a complete nervous breakdown. Tears, screaming, the whole nine yards. Was it just the toilet paper roll? No—it was the empty toilet paper roll ON CHRISTMAS.
Flash forward with me 1 more time—almost 20 more years. Last Christmas—my husband and I and our two lovely daughters are reading “Twas the Night before Christmas” together on the sofa. The big old Labrador is snoring peacefully by the fire. It’s not too bad. The husband is behaving even though he’s not a fan of Christmas, or any holiday. I’m semi-relaxed for once—happy that I have older kids now and no babies though sometimes I miss the babies and sometimes I wonder how I wound up in the middle of the Norman Rockwell tableau when I was supposed to be a wildly successful artist, footloose and fancy free and gadding about Europe. But that is neither here NOR there. Anyway, it’s lovely, truly, and then, and only then, our 10 year old pukes all over herself, the book, her sister, the couch, the dog. Are you kidding me? I don’t mind puking in general, but on Christmas?? C’mon!
A Literay Christmas offers the antidote to Dickens and Clement C. Moore. These are gritty and realistic tales from brilliant writers: Raymond Carver, Patricia Highsmith, and Jane Smiley to name a few. These are multi-cultural, post-modern stories of loneliness and disaffection—more common feelings around the holidays I’d imagine than we’d all like to admit. And don’t be put off by the “short story” concept if you aren’t used to reading them. Think of each one as a little dramatic and moving novella crafted especially for you to fit in between baking frenzies and shopping sprees, between joyous family gatherings, caroling sessions, crushing hangovers and the mind numbing bliss of constantly cleaning up after everyone. And if it’s any consolation: it’s happening everywhere; the dysfunction we successfully ignore all year will furiously glow an ugly motel orange under the glare of the Christmas lights.
It’s not an easy book to get a hold of—now she tells us! But try to check it out from the local library if you can—absolutely worth it.
Merry Merry Merry!