Last night I decided to teach my daughter Aretha a few Christmas carols, some of my favorites from when I was her age. I never noticed, until I sang the verses out loud to her, that I really have no idea what they're talking about. When we sing "Green Grow the Rushes-O," for example, I have no explanation for:
"Two, two lily white boys cloth-ed all in green-o
One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so."
The most Christmasy part of that song must be the final repeating refrain, the "all alone" part, because Christmas is certainly, and paradoxically, the loneliest time of the year. I was recently rung up by a journalist pal who's collecting anecdotes for a feature he's doing on the Christmas memories of local celebs. I e-mailed him back that my own childhood memories of the season are so sad and sometimes chilling that I could not imagine reducing them to a holiday quip.
It has taken me an awfully long time to appreciate the fun of Christmas -- in fact, I'd say I just started to get the hang of it in the last few years. I visited my first Christmas tree farm only last winter to chop down a tree, and it was thrilling. This very week my lover has promised to show me how to cut snowflakes out of construction paper.
In my teens and 20s, I loved rebelling against Christmas -- going to bathhouses and drag shows while other people were attending mass, making a big, ominous candy cane for the front yard that said "Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick" attached to an upside-down American flag. I once went to an anti-holiday party on Christmas Eve, where my friend Paul was packing up an overnight bag to go to "work," as he put it.
"What kind of work?" I asked.
"This is the biggest day of the year for the abused kids hot line," he said. Paul could be pedantic about this sort of thing, and so he began his little script about how this is the time of year when parents feel the most liable to start hitting and throwing things, and that the phones at the hot line centers for families on the edge of madness never stop ringing until Santa has left the building.
But I was barely listening to him. I drifted off into wondering what kind of parent could have a temper like that and still have the wherewithal to unclench their angry fists and dial a telephone. My memories of Christmas were that the tears and anger were unstoppable, without pause for reflection or redirection.
Why was Christmas so miserable at my house? You know, it wasn't awful all the time, but it was always awful some of the time. As much as I'd like to unpuzzle it, it always seems like the most dreadful reproach to the Christmas tradition to ask why holiday family gatherings can be such a train wreck when they're suppose to be sublime. I've been afraid to ask, and have always been rebuffed when I've hinted. I've noticed that everyone who is able to seems to opt for distance over confrontation.
The first lesson I learned about Christmas was: "When I grow up, I'm never going to do this again." Most of my adult life I've spent the winter solstice with people who don't want to be with their blood relatives, who consider it a threat to their mental if not physical well-being. My mom stopped celebrating Christmas with her remaining relatives when I was in second grade. I don't know why, and I don't ask her anymore because it just makes her weep. Sometimes I wonder, when family feuds are decades old, do you still remember vividly what they were all about in the first place? I think some Christmas wounds have been running for generations.
Lack of money at Christmastime is one of the most common working-class holiday obsessions. My mom's most frequent refrain during Christmas was, "We can't afford it." That's why we couldn't have a real Christmas tree, we couldn't go to the fake ice rink that the city of San Francisco always pours for the California snowless and we couldn't ride the cable cars all decked out in holly berries and red ribbons. Then, on some impulse that cost more than 10 cable car rides put together, we would go to Macy's and pick out the one perfect ornament -- in my case, the mop-haired shiny ball that resembled my favorite Beatle. I wonder if we charged it ...
When kids are very little every little piece of tinsel is a big thrill, and it's easy to not spend much money and still make a tremendous impression. One year my mom said we were going to wrap up my old dollies and books in wrapping paper and put them under the tree, which I thought was very exciting. I never would have known how upset she was about not being able to afford new toys if she hadn't had a giant fit on the Great Morning Of. My father -- they were many years divorced-- had also sent some presents, which I had glimpsed briefly in their hiding place on top of our bookshelf, but before Christmas morning, she threw them all out. I'll never know what provoked her, but when I was older I discovered this is a very common impulse on the part of holiday-maddened single parents. As it was, my mother did give me a present that year that I treasured -- a little cardboard box with polished stones in it: lavender, white and black -- and one large bloodstone marbled with rivers of bleeding red and green.
My mother was no Grinch, nor do I think she was acting any crazier than other neighbors up and down the block. Who doesn't know what it's like to hate at Christmas, to feel betrayed and humiliated and tempted to share your misery? I've been to other people's homes for the holidays, people with plenty of money, people who'd never filed for divorce, and their holidays were pretty scary, too. I spent one Christmas camped out in my best friend's bedroom because she announced very early on in the day, "They've started drinking," a phrase I barely understood at the time, but which apparently was the cue to lock her door and play 45s on her record player very, very loud so we couldn't hear any of them. I thought this was a blast, to have the Christmas madness a whole wall away from us, directed at somebody else.
In one of Christmas' strangest rituals, the church-bound family inevitably has a screaming, corrosive fight just before the services start (maybe en route in the car, for that extra touch of claustrophobia). Then, when you step through the giant doors of the church, your parents, who only moments ago were spewing bile and venom, purse their lips together and spit, "SHHH!"
Pew after pew of families will themselves into manic, silent tension. The perfect masochistic exercise, in my case, was to concentrate on how Jesus must have suffered far worse than I when he hung on the cross. I could show him how brave I was by stuffing everything I had seen and heard in the past 24 hours way down inside where it stuck to some numb lining like the blessed host stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I think I've spent more childhood Christmas services thinking about the crucifixion than the birth in the manger. Death becomes a holiday so well. How many times, especially in recent years, has the holiday been a time to remember loss? I sit down to write my holiday cards and see all those crossed-out names staring at me from my address book like the ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come.
I am going caroling this year up in the hills. I am making homemade eggnog and potato latkes and fruitcake with extra brandy. I am lighting a menorah, two Christmas trees and even the orange tree outside of my house. I've bought bags and boxes of chocolates and a whole slew of Barbie clothes and matchbox cars that I'm taking over to the Fire Department toy giveaway. I'm going to get ripped for the holidays, and although I'm not promising anything, I don't think anyone will be hiding from me.
I'm going to take a very, very hot bath with bubbles on the night before Santa arrives, and I'm going to put sweet oil in my hair and burn candles in my room. I'll hang up my stocking, and my family's stockings, with infinite care and even more of those chocolates. And late at night, I'll probably cry some, because it's so beautiful, and it's so sad when it's not beautiful, and I can't bear that, that fucked-up miracle of Christmas, where in memory and for too many Christmases-Yet-To-Come, one is one -- and so alone -- and evermore shall be so.