Christmas past

My parents divorced and we moved across the country. My sister told me Santa was a fake, and a plague of mice destroyed our tree. No wonder I longed to return to sunny California.

By Ann Patchett
Published December 25, 2005 12:51PM (EST)

Happy Christmases are all alike; every unhappy Christmas is unhappy in its own way. Or so it was in my family. There is a picture of a pretty, chubby toddler who was me, aged two, wearing a blue smocked dress in front of a blue flocked Christmas tree with dark blue glass balls (California circa 1965). My sister Heather, aged five and a half, is standing next to me in a red jumper. We look like girls who have plenty of presents and feel good about it. I don't remember this day, but it is documented. A few years later our parents were divorced. My mother moved us from Los Angeles to Tennessee where she married my step-father and we started a new life. Lying in bed late at night with my sister that first Christmas Eve in Nashville, a few weeks after I turned six, I told her I heard sleigh bells on the roof. She in turn dispelled me of what was nothing more than idle Santa gossip. In retrospect, I think that Christmas and Santa should be inextricably bound together by a thick rope so that when you throw one off the roof the other would have no choice but to go crashing over the gutters as well. If I had to give up California and flocking and smocking and my father and Santa Claus, it would have been infinitely easier to just give up Christmas.

But this is not a sad story about divorce or childhood. There were, after all, plenty of happy days. Flip through the photo album of memory and there we are: skating a little Sunfish across the lake in the silvery light of noon, or riding our horses, Sundance and Midnight, bareback through the woods. On balance we were as happy or unhappy as any other family that we knew. It was only our Christmases that were worse. For almost every other moment we had mastered that level of normalcy that reconfigured families aspire to, but the season of peace and good will towards men unfailingly sent us straight to the pits. The lion's share of the blame for this must rest on the shoulders of my step-father, a good man who probably could not help but ruin the holidays for the rest of us because he had himself endured Christmases so biblically dreadful that he knew no other way. The linchpin of this entire story lies in the fact that my step-father shared a birthday with the baby Jesus, and so spent his entire childhood without a birthday present or a birthday party or even a nice birthday wish from his mother. Every Christmas wreath and stocking and reindeer covered wrapping paper dredged the whole horrible memory up for him again so that by Christmas morning he was nothing but a blur of grief. There was always a good bit of weeping beneath the tree in Tennessee.

There was weeping in California as well, as Christmas was the day that brought my otherwise stoically divorced father to his stoic knees. As soon as we heard the phone ring on Christmas morning, my sister and I would begin to sob like Pavlov's depressed dogs. We didn't like being so far away from him, but most of the year we lived with it. On Christmas morning we couldn't live with it another minute. My father would cry and we would cry in turns, first my sister, as she was older, then me, then we would hand the receiver back and forth a few times to cry harder and louder just because we couldn't help ourselves. We stayed on until the whole phone was so thoroughly soaked that I asked my sister if we might be electrocuted. She said I was an idiot.

My mother did her fair share of crying too, in part out of sheer sympathy for the rest of us and in part because my step-father's four children from his first marriage arrived every year on Christmas day. Coincidentally, they lived in California not far from my father, although they didn't know him, a fact which all of the children found puzzling. Every year my step-siblings (a boy and a girl slightly older than me, a girl and a boy slightly younger) spent Christmas on a plane so as to split the day between their parents. When they got to the house they always seemed happy at first, diving into their presents with real energy and interest, but then one by one they'd all start to realize it was Christmas and their mother was on the other side of the country alone. That was the point at which they put their new baseball mitts and board games aside and began their own weeping. I would move into my sister's room where I would sleep with my step-sisters, Tina and Angie, while my step-brothers, Mikey and Billy moved into my room. My sister Heather moved into the walk-in linen closet where she slept on a pile of towels until everyone went home again.

As bad as this situation was, there was one year very early on when we tried it another way and the other way was worse. My step-father surprised us all by taking us to California. My mother and sister and I thought we were taking him to the airport to fly out to visit his children, but when we unloaded the luggage from the trunk I noticed the corner of my favorite quilted bathrobe, the white one with the little rosebuds embroidered on it, was hanging out of one of his suitcases. Why, I wanted to know, a tremor of hysteria creeping into my voice, why was my step-father was taking my bathrobe to California? To give it to one of his daughters for Christmas? It was then that he confessed we were all going together, as a family.

Except of course there had to be a drop off. The children had to change hands, and that was tricky because the step-father didn't want to see the father, who most certainly didn't want to see the step-father with the mother. It was finally decided that my sister and I would be left with my step-father's parents, the originators of Bad Christmas, while my mother and step-father went safely away. We spent a stupendously miserable afternoon with these people who were packing for their own Christmas Caribbean holiday. They were noticeably less than pleased to have temporarily inherited the two little girls from the second marriage of their son for whom they never bought a birthday present. After our father got off of work, he came to the bottom of their steep driveway and we were sent down the hill to him, lugging our suitcases. That night we discovered that along with our bathrobes, our step-father had packed the entire contents of our sock and underwear drawers. Nothing else.

After that, we stayed in Tennessee and did things the old-fashioned way. We had moved to a shockingly modern house built in the side of a hill far away in the country. It was so poorly assembled that often large patches of mushrooms sprang up unexpectedly in the shag carpet of my sister's bedroom in the summer, forcing her to move back into the linen closet. In the winter, all the little mice in the fields walked in beneath the uneven wallboard and settled into sofa cushions for their long winter's nap. Our first Christmas in the country, my mother and step-father thought we should turn our backs on commercialism and make all of our Christmas presents. While my mother sewed comforters and my sister and I knit slippers and pot holders, my step-father was more ambitious. He got himself some wax and using a set of surgical tools (he was a surgeon so they were easy to come by) he made a group of tiny initials for the girls' earrings: an H and a P for my sister Heather, a T and a G for Tina, A and a G for Angie. For each of the boys he shaped wax rings and for me, who never did pierce my ears, he made a single large A that could hang from a chain. After he had the wax cast into molds, he sifted out all the bits and pieces of gold he could find in the Box of Important Things he kept on his dresser: some old fillings that had been pulled from his teeth, the wedding ring from his first marriage, class rings from high school and college, and had them all melted together. Afterwards, we wore these amalgamations of my step-father's personal history from necks and fingers and ears.

In the spirit of keeping things homemade, and because my mother hadn't had room in the car for Christmas ornaments when we drove away from California, the tree was decorated in strands of popcorn and cranberries which took us a week to string. We baked hooks into sugar cookies cut into the shape of stars and then frosted them yellow. We chose candy canes over foil tinsel and when it was done we stepped back and breathed in our Little House on the Prairie triumph. As did the mice. By the next morning the lower branches were stripped of snacks, and the day after that the tree was clean up to knee level. I dreamed of star-shaped cookies scampering across the living room as if propelled along on their own tiny feet. They rounded the corner into the laundry room and disappeared under the drier. Mouse H.Q. Mice shinnied up the trunk and took away the popcorn and the cranberries piece by piece, and though they could not lift the candy canes from their branches, they could stand on their back legs and nibble the lower ones until their collective mouse breath was pepperminty fresh. In the end, we stripped off what they left behind, the candy canes and bare strings and gnawed wire hooks, and had a naked tree that Christmas. We all thought it looked very natural.

The next year we employed our learning curve: scratch the homemade gifts (we were out of gold anyway), build a better mousetrap. This year there were boxes of rat poison nestled among the shiny presents, enabling us to keep our Little Prairie Christmas tree. We hung our cookies with impunity and everything was pretty again. What nobody counted on was that the mice, who had come in for the winter to get warm, didn't much feel like going back outside to die in the snow. Instead, they crawled into the walls of the loamy house and breathed in their last breath of Christmas. The stench of death was so overpowering that we had to wrap up in blankets and leave the doors open for air. It was then that the aunts and uncles and cousins of the dead mice came in and ate the cookies.

Though the verses were different, the chorus of the song never changed: our father was far away, our step-father had always lost out to the Christ child for birthday recognition, the unhappy step-siblings appeared like clockwork and forced my sister into the closet. My mother, ever-hopeful that what was bad could be made better, decided to strike Christmas from the month of December once and for all. She had tried moving my step-father's birthday to June 25th the year before, throwing a summertime barbecue where friends sang the happy birthday song and brought presents, but he didn't fall for it. It wasn't his birthday and therefore the charade was a hollow one. Christmas, then, should be the holiday to get the boot. For one year, December 25th would be my step-father's day alone. There would not be the slightest mention of Santa or Jesus. There would be no sweet potatoes, no baked ham studded with pineapple and cloves. It was going to be one whole round-the-clock birthday with birthday hats and birthday wrapping paper only and homemade chocolate birthday cake. An entire lifetime of wrongs would finally be set to right! Actually, I remember this as one of the better Christmases of my childhood because for once we simply didn't try. My mother said it was really much more logical to celebrate the feast of the Magi, a holiday that was tailor made for gift exchange and conveniently located on January 6th. Among the many unforeseen benefits to the celebration of the Epiphany was the fact that a Christmas tree (known that year as the Magi tree) could be picked up for free at any grocery store or boy scout tree selling kiosk after the 26th and that all presents could be purchased with after-Christmas discounts. When my father called tearfully to wish us a Merry Christmas that year, we explained to him the deal was off. We were celebrating the step-father's birthday.

"What about the Christmas presents I sent?" my father asked.

"We're saving them for the Feast of the Magi," my sister said.

My father explained to us that what he had sent were Christmas presents, not Magi presents, and that we were to go upstairs to our rooms and open them immediately.

But was that the right thing to do, seeing as how this year was only and completely the step-father's birthday? "Now," my father said.

The Magi angle didn't seem to stick, and by the next year we were back to business as usual. Even though I was only eleven at the time, I had long since reached the point where Christmas made me insanely nervous. One night I woke up in such a sweaty state of panic I could not go back to sleep. By the soft glow of the plug-in nightlight in its baseboard socket, I decided it might make me feel better if I could unwrap a single present that my father had sent to me and then wrap it back up again. The gift was in my bedroom and so it wasn't much of a problem. If a package is disassembled slowly and reassembled precisely, who ever knows the difference? I took my time. I carefully slid off the ribbon and peeled back the tape. I was surprised to find that this small act of deviance made me feel calmer immediately. Now there was something I didn't have to wonder about, to worry about: my father had gotten me a sweater and a matching skirt. I didn't like them, but I found it comforting to know in advance that I didn't like them. The next night I opened the other two presents he sent: a stuffed siamese cat and the game of Life, both of which were much better choices. I didn't care what I was getting for Christmas, but somehow knowing in advance made me feel I had a secret life, one in which I could watch the pageant of Christmas with a critical detachment. I slipped back into bed and felt happy.

But the peace never seemed to last. The next night I was up again. I felt the encroaching holiday circle my throat like a cord of tiny blinking lights pulled tight. I had to go downstairs. I had to get under the tree.

This was no small task. While mice could roam the house freely (we never used poison again), the human beings were more or less electronically confined to their rooms. We had a complex security system that included weight sensitive pads secreted in different locations underneath the wall to wall carpet. The only off switch was hidden behind my step-father's night table. To get downstairs, I had to cling to the banister that looked into the sunken living room. As long as I could feel the bite of the carpet tacks on the balls of my feet I knew I was off the alarm pad. Inching along step by step, it took me about thirty minutes to make it down the hall and then down the stairs. By then my nerves were in such bad shape that I had to unwrap and re-wrap several presents, presents that weren't even mine, before I felt calm enough to try and make it back to my room again. The second night, when I was halfway down the hall, I remembered a thoroughly rotten little boy, the son of my step-father's friends, who had taught all six of the children how to squeeze between to banister rails and jump down on the sofa twenty feet below. His family had been to see us the summer before when my step-siblings were visiting, and at one unfortunate point all of the children were left alone together in the house. One by one he shoved us through the railings, except for my oldest step-brother Mikey who was too big and so had to go over the top.

On that night before Christmas there was plenty of moonlight with which to locate the couch, and saying a prayer for the souls of any mice who might have been sleeping in the cushions, I flung myself into the darkness to speed up the process of maniac unwrapping. If I had missed by a foot or so and hit the coffee table instead, leaving my family to find my broken body on the living room floor in the morning, they would have just assumed I'd had enough of Christmas. Instead, I survived the jump year after year and everyone always wondered why I was so hard to surprise. I'd hold up a box on Christmas morning, close my eyes, and give the thing a shake. "Hat and gloves," I'd say, and everyone would marvel at the way I always seemed to know exactly what was coming up next, even though technically such knowledge should have been impossible.

From the book "The Worst Noel" published by HarperCollins Publishers. "Birthdays," Copyright (c) 2005 by Ann Patchett.

Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is the author of four novels, including the award-winning "Bel Canto." Her most recent book "Truth and Beauty: A Friendship" is a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Nashville.

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