My father designed our family home in Texas with a 12-foot cathedral ceiling in the living room, for the sole purpose of accommodating extra-large Christmas trees. This may sound terribly jolly of him but in fact, the ritual of putting up the Christmas tree at our house did not involve a lot of merriment. It was more a demonstration of faith, consisting of 10% piety and 90% brute force—rather like building Stonehenge or re-taking the Holy Land. No one ever actually died in the process, but it was a harrowing experience for everyone involved. What I learned from my family at Christmastime was that there’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do things, and neither one is supposed to be any fun at all.
Everything revolved around the family rules. My dad made the rules, and his five children followed them. This arrangement was more enjoyable for us if we called the rules “traditions.”
One iron-clad Christmas tradition was that the tree had to be a real tree. This was not open to debate—the very idea of an artificial Christmas tree was an outrage to our family’s most cherished values, especially the one about making everything as difficult as possible. Our second tradition was that the tree had to go all the way to the ceiling, or you were cheating. That wouldn’t present a problem in a home with normal ceilings, but ours was abnormal, on purpose. And a 12-foot Douglas Fir—for those of you who’ve never handled one—is bulky, and heavy, and a real bitch to wrestle home. Thus, procuring our family’s Christmas tree was essentially like loading a giant squid, with needles instead of suckers, on top of a Chevy Suburban (admittedly, the tree smelled nicer, and didn’t spray ink or devour people). After we’d gaffed and landed the beast, we had to drive it home over miles of rural Texas roads, which were not so much roads as they were contiguous chains of potholes. Currier and Ives it was not.
Twelve-foot Christmas trees being comparatively hard to come by (at least in rural Texas in the 1970s and 80s) our father, throughout my childhood, waged a pitched battle against our town’s major banks, all of which wanted tall trees for their lobbies. Each year, toward the end of November, the armies would converge on the battlefield of Hardy Gardens, the local nursery, checkbooks drawn, ready to fight it out to the last fragrant pine needle. One year, Dad staged a daring raid on the morning after Thanksgiving to snatch the best tree away from First National Bank. He would normally have considered such an early purchase absurd, but all is fair in love and war, and Christmas was a pretty even mix of those two things for my father.
Once our trophy was ensconced in a bucket out on the patio, we had to prepare the house for it. My family had specific rituals here too, about where to move the furniture, when to bring the ornaments down from the attic, and how to set up the elaborate shield of plastic and old sheets on the living room floor. When these rites had been fulfilled, the tree was reverently carried into the house—if your idea of reverence includes a lot of swearing, and panicking cats, and threats of violence—placed in its specially-ordered, heavy-duty stand, and carefully tipped upright. Then Dad would decide it wasn’t straight, and a team of us children would begin tilting it in various directions, a sixteenth of an inch at a time, until he was satisfied, and we could begin twisting the four bolts around the collar of the stand into the tree’s trunk.
More traditions: To avoid knocking the tree out of plumb, the stand’s bolts had to be screwed into the trunk according to a strict protocol. The two bolts on opposites sides of the trunk got exactly one turn each, then one turn on the other two bolts, and so on. And on. We did this in shifts, like coal miners or deep-water welders, because the tree trunk was thick and sappy and the bolts were dull, and it was too grueling a job for one person, even using pliers. Looking back on the process, it seems completely insane, because it was. Even though we never had a tree tip over, or even wobble, everyone acted as if disaster were imminent. The unstated assumption was that an improperly balanced and secured tree could fall over and—somehow—kill us all in our beds. You would have thought, from the way we behaved, that we were lumberjacks risking our necks in the Great North Woods.
While many of our Christmas traditions had no discernable purpose (e.g., the light on the very top of the tree had to be blue), a lot of them, like the elaborate tree-stabilizing procedure, ostensibly concerned safety. But our caution was inconsistent. We handled the tree itself like a live grenade, yet once it was up we covered it with hundreds of the old C7 light bulbs (remember those?), which got hot enough to blister flesh. Instead of buying a set of the modern, cool-burning, safe Christmas tree lights, we strung up the ancient C7s and then dutifully double-checked every light on the tree, making sure none of them were touching any needles, before we turned them on. Even so, once those lights had been plugged in for about twenty minutes, a distinct smell of scorched glass, pine resin and ozone would fill the house. It was festive and faintly explosive and lent a pleasing undertone of danger to the holiday.
Somehow, in spite of all the yelling and the second-degree burns and the sense of looming catastrophe, we loved Christmas. The gaiety may have been forced in some ways at our house, but it was gaiety all the same, just as a forced march is no picnic but does move people along down the road.
You may have guessed by now that my family has a slight tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior. Thus our eagerness to hedge in our holiday celebration with so many rules. Obsessives love rules. For us, rules are fun—or at least, the closest thing to fun we allow ourselves to have. They keep us busy and help drown out the terrifying ambiguity of life. Rules were important to my family because they gave us control over ourselves, which, if you squint your eyes hard enough, can seem like control over the universe you live in.
Obsessive people derive this weird satisfaction from following any and all rules, no matter how absurd. In fact, the more random a rule is, the more arbitrary the boundary that it draws, the better we like it. Because anyone can follow a rule if there’s some obvious benefit to it; but obeying a rule that doesn’t make any sense is a sign of faith. It makes you almost holy.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that we were a community of monks. My family may have been repressed, but we weren’t quiet about it. We were (and are) intelligent people, over-educated, keenly observant and quick to criticize, and we converse the way New Zealanders play rugby—fast, brutally, and with an absurd sense of the outcome’s importance. Finishing a sentence is hard to do when we get together, and not really worth the trouble. We’ve all learned to say what’s important in the first few words, before we get drowned out.
But for all our flash and volume, there were large gaps in our language. Our Catholic upbringing grounded us in a tradition of debate, the passionate defense of one’s beliefs, and methods of argument that were always highly logical if not exactly rational. On the other hand, we got little guidance on why one might say certain very important things, such as Help, or Please stop that, or For heaven’s sake, a nine-foot tree will be fine, calm down. Catholics aren’t taught to state how we feel, or ask for help; we’re taught to say what we think and then ask for forgiveness. Which are also good things to be able to do but not terribly useful in emergencies.
All of this really screwed me up, obviously. I entered adulthood loud and obnoxious, burdened with a set of rules based more on superstition than on any tangible benefits that accrued from following them. I was a great talker but a terrible communicator. I spent about a decade like that, and boy, it wasn’t pretty. However, my upbringing did mean that when I stumbled upon my karate school some 15 years ago, I was uniquely able to appreciate its approach to self defense.
For one thing, I knew how to be loud. Granted, for many years I didn’t always understand when it was a good idea to be loud, and I still have occasional problems with volume control. But ever since I started training, I’ve been deeply grateful for my ability to yell. For a lot of women, it can be agonizing to speak loudly and decisively, or to yell—not scream—and attract attention. Girls are more often expected to avoid making noise, and I’ve seen women struggle for years to overcome that expectation. My family home was like the Shaolin monastery of verbal self defense training. I was a master of loudness from an early age.
So it was a relief and a delight, as an adult, to finally learn to use that skill in a productive way. In karate, my loudness was once again a virtue. And what’s more, my instructor Sensei Suzanne taught me to speak with the language of assertiveness—which was a revelatory concept to me, this idea that I didn’t have to argue, or justify, or overwhelm someone with precise and well-honed language. That I could say “No,” and nothing else. Or that I could ask for things I needed. Or tell people how I was feeling. And that doing so was good for me and for the people around me.
The other advantage my childhood gave me when I joined a feminist karate school was that I knew how to follow rules, which our teacher expected us to do. But—and this is critical—I also understood something she was even more concerned with teaching us, which was to question the rules. Sensei spent a lot of time, in karate and self defense classes, helping us see how so many of the rules we habitually followed didn’t benefit us, whether because of our gender or our economic status, our sexual orientation, our age. For some of the women she taught, it was a radical idea that we shouldn’t follow the rules simply for their own sake. I had already learned firsthand that you can take rule-following too far, a valuable insight that almost makes all that tree-straightening worthwhile.
I had seen the how the desire to be a good girl or boy can lead us into some unhealthy and frankly, pretty absurd behavior. So every time Sensei pushed us to push back against the rules, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Every time she had us do something awkward or uncomfortable or transgressive—whether it was yelling “No!” at a pretend attacker, or kicking a mannequin squarely in the groin—a little part of me, the rule-loving part, whimpered and squirmed. But the rest of me felt completely at home. That part of me grasped intuitively what our instructor was saying—that respecting the rules isn’t enough. We have to make sure the rules respect us. And if they don’t, we have to make new ones.
Christmas is a time of new beginnings. Whatever your family has given you over the years, it’s yours now. Use it. Make yourself some new traditions.