The holidays as seen in Hollywood movies don’t do much for me. I’m all for peace on earth, goodwill towards men (and creatures), and family. But my history with the holidays is checkered and filled with melancholy memories.
And it’s in the melancholy mood that I like to be on the holidays. It’s different from being sad or depressed. Introspective, thoughtful, and contemplative assessment of the holiday is good for me. If there’s any tradition I keep, it’s taking a trip through memory and seeing the holiday bloom all around me without my participation. It’s always interesting to discover what insights these will reveal to me.
As a kid, I looked forward to getting up on Christmas morning and seeing what was under the tree. It didn’t matter who brought the stuff and I don’t remember the transition from believing in Santa Claus to knowing that parents were responsible for the holiday cheer. That morning, the tree always looked different. The family sitting around in their robes and pajamas made the day special.
The one Christmas I remember from early in my childhood took place in a house we rented near 85th and Mercier. It was a small house whose light was always dim. The square two-bedroom let in light only from the east. The bedrooms were on the north side of the house and the garage was on the south. Huge, mature trees overhung the place, so, in the summer it was covered with shade. In the winter, it was always just dark.
That’s what made the lighted Christmas tree so special. It stood in a corner of the living room, which was attached to a small dining room that led to the kitchen. We kids, there were three of us in one bedroom at the time, jumped out of bed that morning. We waited anxiously until we thought we heard stirrings in the other bedroom, and then we burst out, running for the tree. Santa Claus brought all the presents at the time and we just couldn’t wait until we found out what goodies we’d received.
When the whole family was gathered around the tree, parents firmly ensconced in the couch, my sister began to pull presents one at a time from beneath the tree. I don’t remember what everyone got, except for one thing. Right in front of the tree and the first present my sister pulled was a bunch of switches with a piece of Christmas wrapping around their middle. It was addressed to me from Santa.
That was it. That’s all that was under the tree for me. Where kids in the long past received a lump of coal for being on the naughty list, I got a bunch of switches. My dad was big into corporal punishment. Looking back, I must have misbehaved in the days leading up until Christmas. Each of those little pieces of tree were the exact same length as the others. They were as painful to look at as I remember them being when swiped across my naked ass.
I probably cried. There were no other presents underneath the tree for me. I had to watch my brother and sister open their presents and see their faces light up. I sat there with a bunch of switches in my lap. At some point, my parents brought out some presents that Santa delivered me but they admonished me. I was on the naughty list and would be there until I sat up straight and acted right. I was four years old. It’s one of my earliest memories.
We moved out of the rental when my second sister was born in 1967, probably the year after the Christmas switches. We settled into a modern three-bedroom ranch in an undistinguished suburban subdivision on a street imaginatively named “State Line.”
Chistmases in that house blend together in memory but patterns emerge. My father went every year and bought a real Christmas tree—we never had an artificial tree until I arced into my late teens. He drove from lot to lot looking for a deal, and went over every tree in each of the lots we visited. When he found a tree he liked—and almost always when we kids got restless of the dickering and driving—he roped it to the roof of the ’66 Dodge Polara wagon and drove us home. He wrestled the tree through the front door and set it up in the living room in a rickety stand that almost always insured that the tree would fall over once a season.
Meanwhile, mom supervised kids who fetched Christmas ornaments and lights from the basement. We had to wait while dad untangled and strung out the lights, testing them to make sure they all lit, and replacing dead bulbs with others from packets he picked up at the hardware store earlier in the day. How odd and beautiful a string of Christmas lights looked snaking around the orange shag carpet! How impatient and restless we kids, now four, were while we waited for dad to get the lights on the tree so we could hang ornaments.
In a chaotic and often violent, always tense household, Christmas provided a break from the anxieties of everyday life. For one evening, we were happy to have mom dig out an ornament at a time and hand it to one of us to hang on the tree. We took turns handing ornaments to dad, who hung them from the highest limbs of the tree. When the tree was decorated to within where we could reach, the tree was all ours. Meanwhile, his job completed, dad reclined on the couch with a beer or whiskey and put on his daily buzz.
Christmas mornings, then, were always different from the other days of all the other weeks of the year. Mom and dad were calm. No one argued. We opened presents one at a time while mom and dad enjoyed some grog they cooked up—every occasion called for a drink, if not a full-on drunk in my house. Once the presents were open and the paper folded and stacked for use the following Christmas, we kids were free to play with our booty. Dad went back to bed. Mom went to work in the kitchen. I often wound up on the naughty list but I never did get another bundle of switches.
Since I moved out of my childhood home, Christmases have all been different from one another. I’ve celebrated Christmases with families of girlfriends and with groups of friends who didn’t go home for the holidays. Some, I’ve spent alone—here and in other countries—and there’s nothing more sweetly melancholy than being alone on the one day a year when everyone is supposed to be together.
Tonight, Christmas Eve, Virginia has to work. Nick is engaged in his phone watching videos of people playing video games (a phenomenon I’m still wondering at). I will take the dogs for a long walk downtown. I hope that everyone is home with family. There’s nothing more beautiful than spending a few minutes alone before the crush of family excitement tomorrow.
While on my walk, I will remember more about Christmas than I have for this essay. There’s something about being in an empty downtown that’s quiet, lonely, and peaceful without traffic or holiday cheer. I look forward to that.