This Christmas, for the first time in my entire life, there were no relatives within miles of me, and I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. A Christmas without a family has been my dearest wish for many years; it was not a wish I was proud of, and one I was sure I'd regret since it certainly would come true after Grandmother died, but it was a dear and cherished wish all the same. Sometime in the last ten or fifteen years, I turned into a Christmas-hating Grinch. I went through the motions, manufactured some cheerfulness and gratitude when the occasion demanded, and even admittedly enjoyed myself sometimes; but I would have much preferred to simply not.
I haven't seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the oversaturated 2000 version, I mean—oversaturated colors, oversaturated Jim Carrey mugging, oversaturated Ron Howard-brand patented vomit-inducing schlock—of course I've seen the classic animated version illustrated by Chuck Jones and narrated by Boris Karloff, with song included), but I am aware that there are flashback scenes in which the viewer sees how the Grinch became so anti-Christmas in the first place. I don't know why Ron Howard decided the Grinch became a Grinch, but I am pretty sure I know why I became one.
My earliest memories of Christmas are vague, as all my early memories are, but the thing that sticks out as interesting from my current viewpoint is the different socioeconomic worlds I lived in simultaneously: there was the squalid poverty of everyday life with my budding-alcoholic and proto-bipolar mother, sometimes loving and warm but sometimes a terrifying harpy; there was the rigidly class-conscious country-club comforts of my mother's parents' home; and there was the cuddly and indulgent middle-class comfort of my father's parents home.
So I remember Christmas happening in these three different worlds. Christmas seemed to bring out the best in Mother, so my memories of when it was just her and me and Suzie are very happy. One Christmas, for example, Mother and Suzie and I made a fireplace out of paper and taped it to the wall in our apartment so that Santa would have a way to get in. Another time we sat up in the kitchen drinking herb tea surrounded by candles waiting to see if we could catch Santa on his rounds—we didn't, and in fact he skipped our house that year, but we had a wonderful time.
We knew, of course, that Santa was leaving us things at our grandparents' houses, so the lack of presents was never an issue. Mother had a way of making Christmas feel special without spending money, or even doing much in the way of preparation: it all came out of her imagination at the spur of the moment.
Then there was Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa Cole's house up in Twain Harte, a resort town in the Sierras. They encompassed the three of us, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Margaret and her husband Tom, and their two sons David and Chubby (Billy, but he was always called Chubby) who were about the same age as Suzie and me.
These Christmases were visually wonderful because they were usually White Christmases, with snow and icicles and scarlet birds in the forests, sledding and ice-skating and snowmen, that corresponded to the cards and songs and TV shows of the season. There was also good food (I didn't realize it until many years later, but Grandma Cole was an excellent cook) and nice presents.
But there was always a certain tension involved, an undercurrent of disappointed expectations and resentments, that poisoned the happiness even for children. Though the adults never let these emotions surface, drowning it all in WASP decorum and subtle backbiting, there were always fights among the children in that house on Christmas, and tantrums, and other misbehaviors that didn't happen at any other time.
I remember twice pitching absolute fits in that house when I didn't get what I wanted for Christmas, which I am still ashamed of to this day. In fact, the only real fight my sister and I ever had in childhood was on Christmas at the Coles' and centered on a perceived inequality in our Christmas presents.
Contrasting that is Christmas with Grandmother and Grandpa Lew, which was a larger family: Grandmother and Grandpa, my father, Aunt Terry and Uncle Terry with their two children Michael and Jamie (also very close in age to my sister and me), and my uncle Junior (Ralph, but again, family names are inescapable) who was still so young he seemed more like one of us kids than one of those grownups.
People were genuinely happy, I think, and we kids always got themed presents that we could all play with together (one memory is very clear, largely because there's a photograph, of us getting identical cowboy/cowgirl outfits with hats and cap-guns and boots), as well as our own personalized handmade stockings containing the exact same things in them every time, and the four of us always sat at our very own table that was made to feel like a special treat rather than an exile.
That's the thing about Grandmother, the thing that sticks with me now, is that she had perfect instincts about children. She could make things feel special which in other households felt like a slight or even a punishment. She knew that children might squabble over presents, so always gave us the exact same things, or things so equal that even the finest quibbler would be unable to manufacture a difference of magnitude been them.
To be perfectly fair, Mother had those same instincts, or rather one half of her did, which I think is why I remember those Christmases with no Santa and no presents as warmly as I do. She always treated Suzie and me in such a way that we never thought one of us was favored over the other (there was a favorite, but the favor was so subtle that I didn't realize it consciously until adulthood), we always shared everything and were given things as a duo rather than individuals, we even shared our birthdays though they were six months apart.
Anyway, more on that later, since my birthday has a lot to do with this story.
So these were the three Christmases I had up to about the age of six. But my memory plays tricks on me here: first of all, I don't think that I can have had them all at the same time, as now I think of it there would have been some difficulty getting from Oakland to Twain Harte or vice versa to hit both sets of grandparents on the same day; and many of the Christmas memories listed above I am sure happened after both my parents remarried. But I can't quite remember the exact order in which these things happened.
There was a lot of movement in a very short time, which for a child seems ages and ages but which was only about three years. I know I was three when my parents divorced, and we lived in the Buena Vista apartments in Alameda during or immediately after that split; and we had to have lived there for two years, because I remember starting kindergarten at Woodstock Elementary, which was right next door, at age five and a half; but then we moved at least six times in between starting kindergarten and completing the second grade.
But that's not really germane to the story. The point is that there were three different worlds I lived in most of the time, and Christmas was a sterling example of those differences. And then at the end of that whirlwind period of movement, there was a custody suit which my father and stepmother eventually won. In the arrangement of visitation rights, Christmas became codified in law as having to happen a certain way; and the number of worlds I lived in at Christmas doubled up.
So, with minor exceptions, from about the age of seven until the age of fourteen, my Christmases were thus:
Christmas Eve was spent with my stepmother Patty's family in Pleasant Hill. This consisted of Grandma and Grandpa Megglin, oldest daughter Sandy with her husband John and their two children Tim and Ann, second daughter Pat and her husband (my father) with Pat's daughters Quinn and Heidi as well as Suzie and me, and two unmarried younger daughters BJ and Pam. There were other Megglin relatives who dropped in on occasion, Aunt Mary and her son Park being the most memorable, though how they were related to whom is a blur.
The Megglins were very middle-American, stolid working-class Lutheran German-Illinoisans who drank beer all day and served string-bean casserole with canned onion rings on top and a vile salad made from lime gelatin, pistachio pudding, mini marshmallows and walnuts (you know the stuff I'm talking about) along with other risible fare featured in mid-century, middle-class, middle-American cuisine. There was a lot of pressure on adults to give the "perfect" Christmas presents, and as a result presents tended to be really thoughtful and useful. There were frequently arguments, especially when the beer started to run low, but it seldom became really acrimonious.
Then Christmas morning was spent at home in Concord with Patty and Daddy and Quinn and Heidi and Suzie and me. This always started off great, there was so much buildup and then Pat and Daddy would stay up all night setting up the presents from "Santa" as well as from themselves. We'd have carols on the stereo and eggnog while this was happening, then a big pancake breakfast. Patty was always introducing improvements, and put more and more pressure on herself to produce the "perfect Christmas," but I don't think we kids felt that pressure, not in the early days. We always wondered why she seemed so depressed when all the presents were open, but we were kids and had no way of knowing how much disappointment she must have been feeling after all the expectations she'd built up for herself.
After that, we'd get dressed in the new clothes we invariably got for Christmas and got in the car to drive to Oakland for Christmas at Grandmother and Grandpa Lew's house. This is the same as described above, even with the shuffling of people: Patty and her daughters joined us at around the same time Junior married Judy, Aunt Terry shucked off Uncle Terry right after their daughter Kellie was born and then a few years later married Bob, but otherwise everything was always the same: the simple but plentiful menu, the contents of the stockings, the celebratory-rather-than-second-class kids' table, the same kind of tree in the same part of the room, the same ritual of stockings then dinner then presents then pie, everything the same every time. Nobody drank in this house, there were never arguments, there was no palpable tension that I can remember at all.
Then Mother came and picked us up and we'd go to Livermore for Christmas at Aunt Margaret's house: at around the same time that Suzie and I moved in with Daddy and Pat, Grandma and Grandpa Cole gave up their house in Twain Harte and moved to Palm Springs for Grandpa's health (he had leukemia), so the Cole family Christmas changed venue.
I don't remember many features of those Livermore Christmases, except for the tension between the personalities, my Aunt Margaret's not-very-good cooking (particularly her delicious-looking rum balls, cocoa-dusted spheres of chocolate cake served on a gorgeous tiered silver dish, which tasted so awful that the flavor lingered in your mouth for days—oh, and don't forget the time she decided to not just stud the ham with cloves but to actually coat it), the peculiarly thoughtless and lackluster gifts, and the subtle and not-so-subtle insults. I think I either blocked out a lot of those memories, or I learned early to tune it all out at the time.
The next day was Christmas Morning II, with Mother and Suzie and me, then soon afterward her husband BB (pronounced Beeb, I don't remember the origin of that nickname, but his real name was Robert Lee McDaniel, so it wasn't his initials), and later still the introduction of Becky, LeRoy, and Nathan to the mix. These were always different, spur-of-the-moment things rather than observing any tradition; but Mother was always at her best, and a good time was had by all.
After Mother married BB, we would go have dinner with his mother that afternoon. She was the worst cook of the lot, a complete stranger to seasonings, who usually served boiled ham, boiled potatoes, boiled squash, and an iceberg lettuce wedge for Christmas dinner; this would be followed by a mincemeat pie of an eye-watering richness, as if all the flavors she'd avoided all year had been concentrated and inserted into this one pie, that was even more vile and lingering than Aunt Margaret's rum balls.
BB's mother, Laura, was a sweet and elegant but incredibly vague woman, and all I can remember about her is her bland cooking and her beautiful house and clothes and hair. His father had been a Navy officer, retiring as a rear admiral, but he passed away not long after Mother and BB married; I think Laura stopped in time when Adm. McDaniel retired from the Navy, she was permanently frozen in about 1968. I found her fascinating, of course, but nevertheless I can't even remember now what she looked like.
The next day was my birthday, and sometimes I got a birthday party and sometimes I didn't. I don't really remember. One of the confusing bits is that, while Christmas Eve through Boxing Day always followed the same structure, my and Suzie's custody during the week before Christmas and the week after Christmas always alternated. Some years we spent the week before with Mother, some years it was the week after.
I can remember flashes of birthday parties, sometimes they were on the day and sometimes they were a week after New Year's, sometimes it was just me and Suzie and Mother and sometimes it was Daddy's and Pat's whole families, and I have a feeling that sometimes nothing happened at all—my birthday was never ignored, and though I frequently received combination Christmas/birthday gifts, they were always extra nice to make up for it; but I have no clear recollection of feeling that my birthday was particularly special. In fact, I do remember feeling on several occasions that it was an inconvenience to other people and wished my birthday was some other date, preferably during the school year so I could get cupcakes in class.
At any rate, during this part of my childhood, Christmas was a very concentrated and overwhelming thing, shuttling between six different kinds of families in three days. I know I loved Christmas the way all children love Christmas, but I also knew that my Christmas was unusual, and not as great as some people seemed to think; though I got more presents and more pies than anyone else I knew, I also got a lot more emotion, stimulation, dissonance, and rich food than any child is really capable of dealing with.
Also, as time went on, the families around me started to deteriorate. Mother's warm and cuddly side was increasingly overwhelmed by her drug use and encroaching mania, and though Christmas was always lovely, the time leading up to it or following it could be quite ghastly. The WASP backbiting of Mother's family became more and more openly horrible after Grandpa Cole died and took his soothing influence with him, slowly morphing into a more Jerry Springer model of a family. The Megglins became rather more Jerry Springer, as well, more drinking and more fighting, ugly dramas leaking into the family and making tensions that even a kid can feel. Then Pat and Daddy's marriage started really falling apart, and Christmas became half paradise and half battleground as Patty alternated between rage and euphoria and Daddy just stayed drunk the whole time.
When I was fourteen, they finally split up and Suzie and I came with Daddy to live here with Grandmother; by then, the complicated Christmases were no longer a pleasure of any kind, and I took the first opportunity to cut off each branch of family as it presented itself. First I stopped going to the Megglins, since Daddy and Pat weren't together, though I will say it was very kind of them to invite Suzie and me to come anyway; and of course my Christmas morning at home and the Lew family Christmas merged into one. Then I cut off my mother, and therefore her family, when I was sixteen and no longer had to abide by the custody agreement.
I don't mean to say I did this because of Christmas, that was merely a bonus—the fact is, I didn't like many of those people very much, and hadn't for quite some time. As a child, I had accepted the family that was presented to me; but as I entered my teens, I discovered that you can like or dislike people based on your own preferences rather than whether or not they're related to you. Looking through this new filter at the dozens of relations I'd been given, I realized that some of them weren't very nice people, and that the ones who were nice weren't interesting enough to make it worthwhile putting up with the not-nice ones.
So, after all those years, I was down to just one Christmas, the one I liked best. But the damage was already done: Christmas had no magic, no joy, no beauty anymore, at least none that was inherent. It was just a ritual, a pleasant ritual and much nicer than six different rituals at once, but essentially meaningless.
And without any magic or meaning, the preparation for the ritual became more apparent, and even burdensome. I had always been involved in preparations, decorating the tree and helping wrap presents and helping bake, in whichever household I happened to be in before Christmas. Pat was big on participation, and as the years passed she relied more and more on us kids to help out with things; putting together the fake Christmas tree and arranging the lights was my particular chore, and all of us took part in wrapping each-other's presents (after the Santa thing was let to die). But here at Grandmother's house, I became involved at what one might call a Parental Level.
The thing is, soon after Daddy brought Suzie and me to live here—and then sort of left us here—Grandpa's dementia set in. So as he became more and more like a child, I became more and more like a parent in some things, particularly in helping Grandmother put Christmas together. I'm the one who went Christmas shopping with Grandmother, and helped her wrap her presents, and decorated the tree and the house (all things they used to do together) while still technically being one of the children for whom all these things were being done.
Let me tell you, a stocking from Santa loses a lot of its charm when you were up until midnight putting it together yourself; and staying up to midnight to do something for the benefit of cousins your own age, instead of for your own children or grandchildren, has no meaning whatsoever—and work without meaning is just a chore.
Within a few years, everything about Christmas became a chore. I was actively responsible for traditions that I had no part in making, working my fingers to the nub for children who were no longer children and who were moreover my contemporaries rather than my offspring.
Because you see, that's what those six different Christmases were about, I now realize: allowing each parent and grandparent to perform their Christmas rituals for their children and grandchildren in their own way. The role of the children and grandchildren is to experience these traditions, then to grow up and create their own traditions, taking part in their parents' and grandparents' traditions in order to revisit their childhoods, but also having their own. That's why the Megglins spent Christmas Eve together and Christmas Day with their own spouses and children; it's why Aunt Terry and her three kids had Christmas morning together before coming here for Christmas dinner.
In order for Christmas to have meaning for an adult, one has to create one's own Christmas as well as participating in an established Christmas. The one informs the other. But to find yourself snatched out of the audience and made part of the stage crew in presenting your own childhood traditions to others robs it of much of its pleasure. And I'm not saying my fellow grandchildren were ungrateful, but there were many times I felt that my efforts in this exercise were painfully unrewarding.
I should have created an independent tradition for myself years and years ago; but after so many years of so many Christmases at once, I couldn't bear the idea of creating yet another separate tradition for myself. And since I did not have children, nor a partner, nor move out of the family home (even during the four years I lived nominally on my own, I always came back here to help Grandmother with Christmas), nor experience any of the other traditional rites of passage into independent adulthood, it was never required of me.
So, with no other spur to create my own tradition, Grandmother's Christmas was the only Christmas I got, or thought I needed. And so every year, that Christmas became more and more burdensome, and less and less meaningful. Other people eventually took over parts of the work, and chunks of tradition have been allowed to go by the wayside (my generation finally stopped getting stockings when Suzie's and Kellie's children became numerous enough that I could claim there wasn't sufficient room... I was twenty-five that year), but nothing brings back the magic.
And all that was before Depression kicked in. When the depression started coming to the table, the burden of my family's Christmas became more and more onerous, and dredging up the good cheer and convincing myself to present this Christmas as a gift to the people I love became harder and harder to do.
Grandmother was getting older, too, so more work was farmed out and more traditions modified for ease and comfort (moving to a white-elephant gift model a few years back, instead of every adult buying a present for every other adult and any children, was genius), but even then there was so much work to do, and so little energy to do it with, and absolutely no delight or joy in the work.
It's just gotten worse and worse. For the last seven years, I have been terribly sick on Christmas, but I never knew if it was coincidental to winter or if it was Christmas itself making me sick. For the last five years, Grandmother and I have gotten into at least one fight a year, usually to do with Christmas preparations, in which one or both of us ended up crying.
The family itself has changed, too. Aunt Terry passed away two years ago, her children have moved around quite a bit so that Michael and Kellie and all Kellie's children now live in Arizona, and some ugly dramas and interpersonal strifes have bled into the scene here. I don't want to go into detail, so suffice it to say there are a number of us who are not on cordial terms with others of us, and the tensions of who can't be in the same room with whom have made our old form of traditional gathering something of a minefield.
This change has been a blessing in one way: it gave me the opportunity to finally spend Christmas alone. Grandmother has gone to Arizona with Junior and Judy to spend Christmas with the Little Ones, and without Grandmother there is absolutely no reason for me to go through even the tiniest of the motions. Everyone else made other plans, and I was free for the first time ever.
On Christmas Eve, I put on my new footie pajamas and went to bed at midnight; Christmas Day I got up and had coffee and whatnot; Caroline came over and we watched movies, ate gingerbread, had Chinese takeout for dinner, and then she went home and I went back to bed. On Boxing Day, I got up and on the spur of the moment decided to go for a perfectly pointless but immensely enjoyable drive all by myself, playing Florence + The Machine at top volume for seven hours, then came home and watched another movie with Caroline. And today, I got up and wrote all this, and later on will be getting dressed up to go see a magic-show/cabaret at the Fairmont with Caroline.
Look: I'm not sick on Christmas for the first time in seven years, I'm not even depressed. I'm quite perfectly happy. I don't know what next year is going to be like, I'm sure it will be different from this one. I know that some day I will look back on all these previous Christmases with a pang of nostalgia, that someday I'll be alone on Christmas and not want to be; but I've come to understand that you can't use that as an excuse to torture yourself into performing traditions that you no longer enjoy.
This is how I think Christmas should be: spur of the moment, no expectations, no burden, everything one does being done for the sheer joy of the thing instead of because someone else wants it or to reach for some ephemeral idea of a Perfect Christmas that never existed and never will.
I hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas, or at least one without ugliness and anger creeping into your hearts. And Happy Birthday to me!