I’ve never really been a fan of Christmas. The religious-themed music, car-clogged parking lots, the screeching children strapped in faux velvet and dangerously tight hair ribbons waiting to see Santa; all of it makes me incredibly uneasy. I suppose that growing up in a working-class home with nearly a dozen people plagued with varying degrees of psychosocial challenges—and receiving mid-December birthday gifts packaged in Santa-slathered wrapping paper—might lead the best of us into developing an aversion to Baby Jesus’ birthday. Through the years my own aversion grew quite strong, eventually settling into something like resentment.
For me, Christmas was never delivered in the shiny, neatly wrapped box with a snow-dusted Rudolf frolicking around outside, or familial holiday cheer like CBS holiday specials and the infamous Peter Comes Home for Christmas Folger’s commercial falsely implied. No relatives visited. Our family never attended holiday church services. And although I have faint memories of stacking my plate with chewy slabs of ham and watching the box wine squeeze out its last drops of sour medicine for my parents, there were no formal dinners. I don’t blame my parents. They were poor with too many kids, and too tired to erupt into holiday cheer when Christmas was likely looked at as a much needed day home from work. I blame the marketing industry.
Still, the holidays were quite simply a disappointment, with the worst factor playing out after the return to school a week or so later. Classmates flocked to an icy playground to take inventory of who wore sweet new puffy moon boots or who spent the two-week break sipping hot chocolate in between runs down snow-packed mountain slopes at various Sierra ski resorts. The schoolyard also played host to a holiday candy trade of sorts featuring hot list items, like Lifesavers Christmas Storybooks or giant Hershey’s Kisses encased in masses of dazzling red foil, neither of which I’d received. I would lie, explaining to my peers that I had already devoured my heaps of fanciful treats. In reality, my stocking brimmed with bitter, hard-shelled mixed nuts and oranges too sour for my prepubescent taste buds.
Christmas, in short, was a letdown of phenomenal proportions. I felt strongly that “The First Noel” could suck it.
Years later, at the onset of adulthood, I found myself delivering my first born on Christmas Eve. Given my unconventional leanings, I had hoped she’d emerge closer to her due date on winter solstice, shortly after the doctors had induced me with an intravenous drip of Pitocin. Several days and undisclosed amounts of Demerol and morphine later, she was forced out of the womb and into the second verse of “O Holy Night” sung by carolers and hospital staff roaming the hallways of the maternity ward. Suddenly, something changed. I’m sure there is a possibility that the post-childbirth hormones rushing through my bloodstream clouded my judgment, but in those first few moments of holding my wrinkly little elf of a daughter, my resentment toward poinsettias and holly jolly Jesus lovers softened a bit. My inner cynic was silenced for at least forty-five minutes.
The arrival of new motherhood brought with it pressure to provide my kids with every unfulfilled holiday fantasy I watched slip by during my own childhood. At first, I pushed forward, determined to recreate my very own Northern California version of the Family Ties’ Christmas specials. I overcompensated by piling gifts of handmade wooden block sets, fair trade crayons and politically correct coloring books under our live solstice-slash-Christmas-slash-birthday tree. Eventually, a dwindling income and anticlimactic post holiday letdown called for simplifying and managing resources with sporadic “life lesson” elements mixed in. I figured, fuck it; if I am growing humans in the science lab of my womb with the expectation that they’ll eventually blossom into walking, talking members of society, I better create something unique and memorable for them. The last thing the world needs are more kids flippantly plowing through heaps of child-labor produced, phthalate-soaked plastic crap that will just crumble in a month’s time anyway.
I set out with an agenda. And this agenda was not strictly limited to winter holiday madness.
In the springtime, May Day was often spent dancing around flowery trees or marching through our neighborhood in support of labor and immigrants’ rights. Throughout the summer, family camping trips were often planned in conjunction with tree sits in groves of old-growth redwood trees. October was usually saturated with lessons of the religious crusades, reminding my girls of the origins of Halloween and how completely insulting it is for the general public to demonize witches when, historically, witches were just trying to make shit right. That was followed closely by Dia de Los Muertos events, our growing altar bursting with photos of loved ones. Thanksgiving was observed as Indigenous People’s Day beginning with a sunrise ceremony commemorating the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, followed with a homemade wine guzzling potluck with friends where I could sometimes be found reading passages of Lies My Teacher Told Me to any and every young and impressionable child who would listen.
Regardless of our (i.e., my) political holiday agenda, the kids have been indoctrinated into remembering that regardless of how bad things might be for us at times, everyone else has it much much worse, the lingering sound of my voice surely the source of many late night anxiety attacks: Never forget the suffering of others. Never. Forget.
But somewhere in between righteous activism and the rancid taste of defeat, I began backing away from confronting the iron fist of capitalism. I still correct disparaging language and certainly point out differences between the haves and the have-nots when the time calls. But in my darkest, most Christmas-is-oppressive-bah-humbug moments, I sometimes fear that all that is wrong with our society is so cemented into place that there is little chance of humanity’s survival, so I go ahead and look the other way. I’m not apathetic, really. Just like my own parents were during holidays past, I’m just incredibly tired. Plus my Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t much of a remedy for my inner Grinch.
So, when recently participating in the soft-pedaled political agenda I call “storytime,” my youngest daughter, filled with her larger than average eleven-year-old heart, looked up at me, each eye a dazzling, sparkling blue and each freckle a kiss straight from God’s own personal and devoted angel servants. Having just turned the page of Anne Frank’s diary entry of celebrating Christmas in the secret annex with gifts of bread and pencils, my daughter’s face brightened.
“Mama, I want to have an Anne Frank Christmas this year,” she proclaimed with hope for a better world—a world of magic and wonderment—clinging to each and every syllable.
I was dumbfounded.
After the initial horror of what could be easily seen as an inappropriate statement from a privileged little white girl passed, I realized that my awkward attempts at reclaiming the holidays had an effect—an awkward one, but an effect, nonetheless.
She wasn’t suggesting that we burrow into the walls and attic of our little home to nosh on a diet of dried peas and fear. She knows I just don’t have the energy or resources to embark on a complete remodel of our rental. Nor was she glamorizing human tragedy, in which the victims of war and violence are too often young children. I’ve applied guilt—disguised as humility—in such thick coats that it has become a permanent, many layered shell of reality for my kids; she would never participate in an abominable World War II reenactment.
I think she recognized, in that moment, that simplicity is where it’s at.
Like my own longing, which led me to dig deep through holidays and traditions choked to the gills with consumer-driven emptiness, this sweet kid just wants to find meaning in a world that has allowed the holidays to be turned into a Jerry Springeresque spectacle. Pepper spray and stampede incidents through discount stores all in the name of obtaining some flimsy, sweatshop produced, overly packaged nonsense have replaced generosity and tenderly shared moments that this god damn holiday season is supposed to offer. Even for those of us who would rather avoid Celine Dion Christmas music or have birthdays painfully close to the holidays, deep down we all just want our lives trimmed with magic and sweetness.
In the end, there is nothing that any of us can do to avoid the build-up to Santa time, whether our belief systems call us to celebrate or not. Red and green window paintings flocked with toxic faux snow are shellacked across businesses as early as Columbus Day, the calluses and flip-flops of summer barely behind us. Sale ads jam our mailboxes, reminding us to start buying shit that no one really even wants or needs, because that’s what Christmas now represents for far too many people. The best that any of us can do is to is recreate the holidays and reclaim them for our own, even if that means dressing in moth-nibbled wool and scribbling lists of our hopes and dreams in our diaries by beeswax candlelight.
For my daughters and me, our two-foot tall faux redwood stands perched beside our paper snowflake lined window, white lights—very likely manufactured by tiny hands in an asbestos clouded factory warehouse, but whatever—flicker from its branches. As per tradition we’ll eat cookies and eggs for breakfast and play John Prine’s Christmas in Prison on repeat for at least an hour before feasting and laughing with our most cherished friends. And adding to the tradition this year, we’ll read a little Anne Frank and bake bread with the sourdough starter my wee one put on her modest holiday wish list.
And deep inside, under layers of sweatshirts and bathrobes and maybe a mild hangover from the previous night’s soynog and brandy, I’ll be secretly hoping that all of the weird shit I force onto my innocent children won’t make them grow up to hate me. Instead, I hope they look back and think that maybe Christmas isn’t so bad. And that maybe, Mom and her recovering bleeding heart necrosis finally got what it’s all about.