I told this story a few years ago. It’s a long one. But hemigirrrrl asked me to post it again so here it is. Hope you enjoy.
We always intended our forays into Christmas caroling to be idyllic, in an innocent, 1950’s kind of way. We had good intentions. We had the parkas and the rubber boots and the off key voices. We just didn’t have the right amount of Wally and the Beaver in us to pull it off correctly.
Our trudging through the neighborhood was not quiet at all. We were like a pack of rabid dogs who turned on each other. Lori wanted to stand in front all the time because she thought - mistakenly - that she had a beautiful singing voice. She was the only one who couldn’t hear that her whispery vocal stylings sounded more like helium escaping from a balloon than Roberta Flack (Lori’s rendition of Killing Me Softly was to die for. Literally). So Lori would run up ahead of us, trying to gain the coveted spot of bell-ringer and first soprano. The boys would pelt her with snowballs as she ran ahead and more often than not, Lori would end up face down in a foot of snow, crying that we were just jealous of her.
Our intentions were to hit at least five houses a night. We knew our neighbors weren’t that keen on carolers and instead of making us hot chocolate, they would just hand each of us a quarter - usually mid song - and give us a faint smile as they closed the door on our efforts. Which was all we wanted. A few quarters a night, pooled together, meant a trip to Murray’s and candy for everyone.
Murray was an old man who ran a small candy/cigarette/expired milk store on the corner. We would have much preferred to go to 7-11, but none of us were allowed to cross the big, bad street to get there. So we settled for Murray’s, where the Bazooka gum often had teeth marks courtesy of Murray’s snarling, vicious, child hating dog.
We once hit upon the idea of singing Christmas carols to Murray. We thought it would soften his heart, as if life were nothing but a sappy tv movie and we were writing the script. When we burst into his store singing Silent Night, Murray shrank back in horror. I had a vision of Murray as the wicked witch, melting under Dorothy’s thrown water.
“I’m a Jew, you idiots! A Jew!” Gloria stepped forward, staring down Murray. “Yea, well, Ricki and Larry and Jews and they’re singing!” She pointed to the siblings who were now staring at the floor. “Well, they should be ashamed of themselves. Get out of my store, now!” Gloria stared at Murray defiantly. She was the oldest of all of us and moved to the suburbs straight from some crime-ridden pocket in Queens. Leader of the Pack, complete with black leather jacket. She sneered at Murray. “Face it, Murray. You just don’t like us singing because we’re happy and you’re not.” The old man stared silently at us. I immediately began forming this scenario in mind in which Murray would say that Gloria was right, he was lonely and unhappy and maybe the beautiful children of the neighborhood who had voices like golden angels and hearts filled with love and charity would look kindly upon this old man and forgive him all his transgressions, including rancid milk and dog-chewed gum. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, everyone! And we’d all hug and do a rousing rendition of Dreidel, Dreidel for Murray while the neighbors poured out of their houses to join us.
[It’s a Christmas Story! A breakup story! A story about why I hate Toto and Christmas anywhere but here! Sorry if you read this already! I’m like the crazy uncle that keeps telling the same stories over and over!]
The year was 1978. It was a tumultuous year; the death of Keith Moon, the Jonestown Massacre, the debut of Garlfield, Saturday Night Fever. For a 16 year old, I had an acute awareness of the world outside of my own little high school/town. I knew everything that was going on in the world in regards to culture, politics and news. Too bad I had no inkling what was going on right in front of me, in my own home. I would have put a stop to their evil plans sooner.
I do believe the plan was sprung on me at the last possible minute so as to avoid a protracted, dramatic reaction.
“We’re going to Florida for Christmas!” Dad says this in a tone that is trying to be both firm and jolly. As in: We are going to Florida and I know you think you’ll hate every minute of it but the decision is final and you better make the best of it for the sake of your sisters and your mother or I will kill you.
“But…but….,” I manage to stammer.
I flee to my room, throw myself on the bed and cry in the way that only a 16 year old who thinks the world is supposed to revolve around her can cry. How dare they not consult me? I have a life, too. I have Christmas parties to go to. I have friends to exchange presents with. I have a boyfriend!
If I had an advent calendar, there would simply be a Xanax under each day. My personal hell of the 24 days of Christmas:
Day 24. Today is the day! Make that list of loved ones you need to buy presents for.
Day 23. How many of those people do you really like enough to spend money on? Whittle that list!
Day 22. Big day! your mom will call and guilt you into hosting Christmas dinner. She asks if you have enough Christmas china. You just bought a package of 100 green plastic plates, so you say yes.
Day 21. Drag out last year’s decorations from the attic. Examine the teeth marks in baby Jesus and call an exterminator.
Day 20. Cross Aunt Betty off your shopping list. Who knew exterminators were so expensive?
Day 19. Get wish list from kids. Explain to them that Santa’s elves don’t make digital cameras or iPads.
Day 18. Accept the fact that your kids stopped believing in Santa years ago and they know you are to blame for all the crappy presents.
Day 17. Give kids a three hour lecture about the shitty economy. Use phrases like “In these economic times” and “Obama says…” Tell them to choose between food and shelter or an iPad.
Day 16. Receive heartfelt, manipulative note from kids about how much they love you and cherish you, complete with photo of them smiling like cherubic little angels. The letter is served with a mug of hot chocolate, chocolate covered pretzels and a heaping dose of Catholic guilt. They serenade you with your favorite Christmas carols.
Day 15. Go to the Apple store and purchase two iPads. Stock up on mac and cheese.
Day 14. Cross two more aunts and a friend off your list. Man, those iPads cost a lot of money.
Day 13. Go to the mall to get the accessories for the iPads that you forgot to get the first time. Get in a fight with a rude salesperson. Kick a small child who has wiped their snotty nose on your pant leg. Walk around for three hours in the cold because you can’t remember where you parked your car.
Day 12. Take the family out to buy a tree. Listen to your kids fight over who gets the final say. Listen to the other families fighting and wonder if that’s what yours really sounds like. Lock kids in car and pick out the damn tree yourself.
Day 11. Discover that the box of fragile Christmas ornaments was stored under a box of books. Run to the dollar store and purchase cheesy, faded ornaments. While you are there, pick up some lights that were made in some third world country that doesn’t believe in electric codes. Plug in lights. Blow ten fuses.
Day 10. Consider selling a kidney so you can finish off the rest of your Christmas shopping. Your partner suggests that standing on a corner in a green bikini and red fishnet stockings while holding out a cup might work better.
Day 9. Make attempt at baking for the holidays. After six hours of intensive labor that has left your kitchen in shambles, drive to Dunkin’ Donuts and purchase two dozen of their festive donuts. Eat them all yourself.
Day 8. Explain to children that they will not get anything for Christmas if they continue to behave like wild animals. Watch as they roll their eyes at you because you have never, in all their lives, followed through on that threat. Cry as the ungrateful little bastards walk out the door to spend time with their friends instead of decorating the tree with you.
Day 7. Return iPads. Buy two used Sony Walkmans at a garage sale for 50 cents each. Include cassette that plays nothing but Mr. Roboto.
Day 6. Panic. Even though your kids have been rotten to the core and even though you have sworn not to buy presents for the seven generations of cousins, aunts and uncles this year, you find yourself at the mall again, frantically trying to finish off your list.
Day 5. The first credit card bills come in. The Christmas tree caught fire. Your mother informs you that seven more people will be joining you for Christmas dinner. Your son has invited all of his musician friends over for a rock and roll Christmas jam. Your daughter says she is going to protest Christmas dinner if any animals were harmed in the making of. Renew Xanax prescription.
Day 4. Do a reverse Christmas shopping. Go to Target and start buying whatever is on sale. You’ll figure out later who to give the items to. You’re sure Uncle Fred will adore the stop-motion animation version of It’s A Wonderful Life, even though he’s deaf and blind and consumed with hatred.
Day 3. Stand on the street corner wearing nothing but a green bikini, red fish net stockings and a “Will work for Christmas cash” sign. Your sister uses her Christmas bonus to bail you out of jail. You swear to fight the sexual solicitation charges.
Day 2. Make a last dash to the mall. Return all the presents you bought for your 27 distant relatives you only see once a year. Go to Best Buy and purchase two iPads because it will be a cold day in hell before you let your kids be disappointed on Christmas, because that will pave the way for them to blame you for every single failure for the rest of their therapy-filled lives and your daughter will write a book from jail titled “The Christmas That Ruined My Life” and your son will hit the Billboard charts with an angst-filled punk rock song which contains the refrain “all I wanted was an iPad. Just one iPad. And she wouldn’t give it to me.”
Day 1. Christmas morning. Your kids find you curled up in a ball under the Christmas tree, humming Fear’s “Fuck Christmas” and stinking like cheap rum. You’re still wearing the bikini.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
When the cookies were a bit cooled, I sprinkled the colored sugar on them. The sugar rolled off. There was a rainbow of Christmas all over the cookie tray, but not on the cookies. So I put more sugar on and pressed the sugar down on the cookie to get it to stay. The cookie broke.
I poured myself a glass of gin. No, not a martini. Just the gin. Not even an olive. This called for clearheadedness and olives just get in the way of that.
I put a fresh batch in the oven and a light bulb – a teeny tiny light bulb just like the one in an EZ Bake Oven – went off in my head. I’ll sprinkle the sugar on before they bake! That must be how Martha does it!
I was raised Catholic. We weren’t devout Catholics by any means, but we went to church and received our sacraments and said grace before dinner. My parents were mostly CAPE Catholics - they only went to church on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter. Then they stopped going at all. Then I went through an atheist phase which ended at the point where I realized I’m agnostic, but that’s another long winded story.
Even after I abandoned religion for the most part, I still celebrated all the appropriate religious holidays families. Granted, mostly it was for the food. But Christmas, that was something different.
Christmas was never about Jesus’s birthday to me. It’s about so many other things. Sure, I’m not celebrating the “true meaning” of the holiday but then again, no other holiday really gets its true meaning celebrated. Easter has become about bunnies and colored eggs. Halloween is about scary witches and ghosts and candy. Even holidays meant to celebrate births of great figures in American history are nothing more than days off from work and school. Americans love a holiday, that’s for sure.
You know what? You can still celebrate the Christmas season if you’re not religious. I know, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. But hasn’t it become so much more than that? Forget the crass commercialism and admonitions that if you don’t buy a Lexus or diamond ring for your loved one, you have failed as a human being. There is so much more to love about the holidays.
This is why I love Christmas: I love way the neighborhood is lit up in color and light at night. I love the excitement in the air, the way people give so freely of themselves in the spirit of the season, the way the kids bounce when they walk through the mall, thrilled at the thought of picking out presents for those they love. I love the spirit.
You may think Christmas has become nothing more than a celebration of consumerism. If that’s what you see, then that’s all you want to see. Me, I see pretty lights and smiling kids and relatives all gathered in one place for a change instead of scurrying to appointments and ball games and work.
If the War on Christmas actually exists, I’ve been sitting it out. Please, feel free to wish me a Merry Christmas even though I’m not religious. I don’t expect you to replace it with a generic Happy Holidays. I don’t care if there’s a nativity in front of your store. I don’t mind if children sing Silent Night. I know there are anti-Christmas grinches around. Just because I’m not a participant in your religion doesn’t mean I expect you to stop celebrating it in front of me. I want to embrace your joy and your season.
To quote Bill Murray in Scrooged:
“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”
When my son was about seven years old, we had the following conversation:
“Mom. Stop telling me Santa is real.”
“What? Of course he’s real.”
“You want me to believe that reindeer can fly and this guy can get all around the world in one night dropping presents off in ever house? WHILE CLIMBING UP AND DOWN CHIMNEYS EVEN THOUGH HE’S FAT?”
“The physics of the whole thing is impossible.”
“It’s impossible for reindeer to fly. It’s impossible for someone to get around the world that fast. HELLO. IT’S CALLED SCIENCE, MOM.”
“No. It’s called MAGIC, DJ.”
*eyeroll” “Seriously? Magic?”
And that’s how I knew my son didn’t believe in Santa. I don’t know when Natalie stopped believing (or if she even did OH GOD I AM SORRY NATALIE BUT THERE’S NO SANTA, OK?)
I stopped believing because I had an older cousin who was so bitter and angry after finding out there was no such thing as Santa Claus she had to relieve herself of her outrage by spitefully telling me about her discovery. I refused to believe her for about half an hour but then my brain - which worked pretty much the same way as my son’s did at that age - started really thinking about the possibility that an old man, with the help of flying deer and elves, went around the world giving kids presents that were supposedly made by the elves but looked suspiciously like they were bought off the shelves of Play World.
I was sad for about five seconds until I realized that my parents would no longer be able to hang that “We’ll see what Santa says” banner over every conversation about the record player or typewriter I wanted. There was this huge freedom that came with not believing in the magic power of St. Nick. I could ask for anything. And I could parlay my knowledge of who really came up with the presents into a record-setting Christmas. “Yea, mom, dad? I know. I know there’s no Santa. I know you buy the presents and wrap them and put them under the tree under the pretense of some little guys at the North Pole making them for me. So if I don’t get the record player and typewriter for Christmas I’ll pretty much know you don’t really love me.”
“No,” my mom explained. “What it means i that your father and I get to decided if you were naughty or nice. And we live with you. So we know.”
I was fucked.
Even when I stopped believing in Santa and all the nonsense that goes along with that story, there was still a part of me that wanted to believe and still, for a minute or two each year suspends all disbelief and makes me want to take out a pen and paper and start making a list for Santa. The list always starts with “World peace” of course.
While I was a little amazed that my son at that age figured it all out for himself on the basis of science, I was also a little disappointed that he didn’t have any of the sense of wonder that comes with Christmas. And that I couldn’t blame his lack of awesome gifts on some old, fat man from the North Pole.
I only wish we could all believe in magic, just a little bit. That we could keep the small child in us alive enough to believe that anything could happen. Flying reindeer. Singing elves. World peace.