“Let’s shed a little light on the Christmas spirit!”
-talking candle in my mom’s house
In my first Christmas memory, I am holding a child-sized pink broom. I am only two, so it was still too early to guess what kind of adult I would grow up to be: someone known to leave glitter all over the kitchen floor at 3AM, hoping the dog won’t roll around in it before I can get to it in the morning. But in this memory, I am excited about a broom because it means I get to clean the floor with my mom, one of the most exciting things that can be asked of you when you are a little girl who is mildly obsessive compulsive. Other acceptable gifts would have included a bottle of Windex or a toilet brush.
I shake the broom in one tight fist and open a second present with the other. This next gift is big, and I am secretly hoping for a Power Wheels, something I would later realize Santa only brought to lucky rich kids, along with stock in Apple and dental insurance.
“What is it?” my dad says. I tear open the paper.
It is a bear. A large brown bear exactly my size.
“It’s a new bear!” says my mom.
“New Bear,” I say, giving him the most creative name I can muster. “New Bear!”
That is the happiest I have ever been on Christmas morning: a new brand new person getting a brand new bear, brain smoking with optimism and possibility. I became the kid who counted down the days until Christmas, making a carefully itemized list of presents that was both easy for Santa to read and didn’t seem too greedy, along with a separate list of good deeds I had done, which I kept in my room, in the event that proof should be required of me that I had, in fact, been good. When Christmas Day finally came, I was the kid who was up at six in the morning, running down the stairs to survey the presents under the tree, jumping around like a guy on acid at a Butthole Surfers concert until my sister woke up, usually six or seven hours later. And when the gifts were all opened and my family laid around the television like a group of sealions, I would be the one to laugh at Ralphie’s plight for a Red Rider BB gun every time as though it were the first.
I can trace it all back to that moment with my parents and New Bear and the pink broom. That’s when I fell in love with Christmas: the lights, the hope, the mysteriously eaten cookies. This love gave forth an unwavering loyalty to Santa that was almost unbearable. I never questioned that our chimney lead straight into an oil burner in the basement. I turned a blind ear when my fifth grade teacher sarcastically blurted out, “That’s like believing in Santa!”
“She’s joking, and none of this is even happening,” I remember thinking, pushing it into the shadowly corners of my mind reserved for adult truths I didn’t need to know, like when I told Carly she was adopted and she started to cry, so my mom said that she remembered the day she was conceived.
“I knew if I didn’t roll over, I was just gonna get pregnant again,” she had said, ashing out the window of our 1986 Buick Regal. Carly stopped crying and we both stared at her in stunned silence. “And here you are!”
I became the Eva Braun of the holiday spirit, willing to follow Santa into a dark bunker of perpetually suspended disbelief for as long as it took to stay a child forever. And somehow, in my tireless pursuit of make-believe, nobody ever actually broke the news to me. I had to learn for myself on the Christmas morning where the only gift I received from my beloved Santa Claus was a package of high-waisted mauve underwear which I had been present for the purchase of. Every other gift- the puppy sweater, the sled, the toy ponies- were labeled, “Love Mom & Artie.” I looked at the chaotic sea of wrapping paper, then at my family, alone in their narcissistic pleasure-domes of materialism. I felt cold, empty, abandoned and I ran upstairs to my room. My mother eventually noticed my absence and followed the trail of chocolate marshmallow Santa wrappers to where I was.
When the door slowly opened, my mother found me in a hysterical fit, crouched between a poster of a unicorn and one of wild horses running at a speed so fast, they blurred slightly, adding drama and intrigue to the photograph. I looked up, snotting onto the sleeve of my pajamas.
“Just because Carly doesn’t believe in Santa Claus doesn’t mean that I don’t!” I sobbed, clutching New Bear.
My mother, bless her stony heart, was unprepared to deal with a child who had based her entire life around one magical fat man’s yearly journey to deliver gifts to every child in the world in a single action-packed night. So, she did the only thing a mother really can do. She sighed and walked out.
I was fourteen.
I was jaded for a long time. Bitter, some might say. I felt the way I imagine someone might have felt when DLR left Van Halen. Angry, deceived, alone. My family reacted the way most families do when one suffers a deep, inconsolable personal tragedy: by ignoring it completely, never bringing it up again, and pretending it never happened. I hoped I would one day have the courage to heal, so I put New Bear in the attic. I just couldn’t bear to look him in his innocent plastic eyes and tell him we’d been had.
My parents began to cope in other ways, mostly by combing the clearance section of our local Walmart and slowly filling the house with robots.
“Look!” said my mother, after returning home with a cart of economically-priced Christmas promise. “His name is Yule Burner! Isn’t that funny?” She placed the talking log in the cardboard fireplace that we only bring out on special occasions. There are several back-up cardboard fireplaces, in case they are discontinued, or in the event that a flash flood takes out Fireplaces One though Five. Life is uncertain, and we are prepared.
It’s a longstanding tradition in my family that everything possible is artificial, with added bonus points if it can be taken apart and stored in the attic. Every year, a week before Christmas, my stepfather assembles the big fake tree we have had since the early 80s. This tree has been through five presidential administrations without so much as shedding a single needle. Usually, several arguments break out during the assembly process, mostly due to decreased levels of dopamine, which is leached out merely by touching the aluminum branches. These branches are labeled with color-coded stickers in varying shades of green and brown, and Artie, my stepdad, though slightly colorblind, is nothing if not a trooper. It takes several hours to put together, but it eventually gets done.
My mother is delegated the responsibility of untangling the strings of lights, which mate in the offs-season and become knotted together in a web of electrical fornication. My parents used to chainsmoke to keep from killing each other during this process, and the house would start to resemble a fire department training site. Carly and I looked for each other in the haze, banding together in the inferno to hang ornaments.
We used to try to hide the embarrassing ones we made in Girl Scouts towards the back of the tree. Mine, made of beads pinned onto a Styrofoam star, is slightly less pathetic than Carly’s, which is a circle of looseleaf paper with strings of orange and brown yarn fastened to it with a substance that was either paste or her own boogers. The calculating steps we made to preserve our dignity were thwarted when my parents bought a Tree Spinner, which ensures that all ornaments are displayed equally. When I left home, my mother started decorating the tree alone, glad nobody is in her way when she’s unraveling the lights or complaining that we have to watch Law and Order. When nobody is around, she fingers our small, retarded ornaments, wondering what will become of us.
For as long as I can remember, the big Christmas Eve party has been at our house. My mom has it catered by Ground Round, a restaurant that had its heyday in 1975 and has been in a steady decline since then. There is only one left on Long Island when I am sure there used to be hundreds. This Ground Round that provides my family with a 6-foot hero, chicken fingers, and ziti is the last holdout of its kind, the only surviving buffalo, the lone Piping Plover nesting on the beach. And my extended family, all of my cousins and their screaming children, my weird bachelor uncles we only see once a year and the rest of the time fear they are dead, my 78-year old Aunt Dolores who has given the gift of a giant Hersey Kiss to every member of our family for the last thirty-five years, they all gather at our house one day a year, because we are a family, and because there is an unlimited free meal. It’s like going to the Sizzler and finding out that everyone there is your cousin.
My mother goes to great pains to clean the house for this event, lest our relatives know what slobs we are the other 364 days of the year. She puts fresh batteries in Dancing Santa, Singing Skiing Santa, Dancing Reindeer Who Also Sings, Elmo Dressed like Santa Who Does the Electric Slide, Singing Wreath Whose Eyes Flutter Open Like Jason Voorhees Just When You Think He’s Dead, Yule Burner the Talking Fireplace Log, Small Singing Tree That Will Eventually Give My Stepfather Another Heart Attack, and all their caroling, soft-shoe-ing, hip-swaying pals. She is awake for days, manically scrubbing, vacuuming, and plugging in animatronic animals. And just when I thought it couldn’t become more of a powder keg of Christmas cheer, my mom found a Santa suit on clearance.
When I was a child, I never would have imagined Artie donning a red fur suit and synthetic white beard. This seemed to me like something that only happened in wholesome TV families or on episodes of America’s Most Wanted where John Walsh is begging America to catch the bastard. Not in my family, I thought. No, sir. I would never have imagined Artie agreeing to this, much less straight-up owning it. On Christmas Eve, when all of my extended family is conveniently gathered in the dining room, the doorbell rings. My mother answers, playing the role of bewildered homeowner with the same drama and poise as I imagine Joan Crawford would have in her later years. Artie stands in the doorway, always manages to say something gross about my mom being a “good little girl” and enters our house. He gasps. He wasn’t expecting so many children, but Artie is prepared. He has a pillowcase of weird crap my mom bought at the Dollar Tree and stayed up all night wrapping. He hands out gifts to every relative and warns the children they should get to bed soon or he might accidentally fly over their house. He holds a few babies, takes a couple pictures, and he’s gone into the darkness, around the house and into the basement to transform back into plain old Artie, the fifty year-old union man we all know and love.
There have been several years where I have missed Christmas at my mom’s house, missed the oversized Hershey Kisses, the frantic scramble of a generation of kids I barely know knocking over battery-operated snowmen to get to the next present, my mom redressing naked reindeer and cursing just low enough not to hear. In my own house, there is not a single animatronic Santa, but I will always live with the fear that there will be a set of eyes lighting up and screaming Auld Lang Syne at me through the darkness when I get up to pee on any given night in December. I will never have children, but if I did, I would raise them to love Santa, to trust in him, to put their holiday wishes in his white-gloved hand. And if they don’t stop believing by high school, it’s tradition to be scarred on Christmas.
Title from the Waitresses’ song, “Christmas Wrapping.”
Illustrations by the author.