I’m standing outside of work smoking a cigarette, watching cars pull in and out, filling their tanks up, destined for anywhere but this place, a rest stop, a non-location. Another employee paces the lot, writes down license plate numbers in case they don’t pay for their gas. He says to me, without the aid of context, “I’ve got this buddy whose girlfriend is staying with him because her parents kicked her out. Thing is, the parents, they keep saying shit about him behind his back and this girlfriend of his, she believes it. I told him he might as well leave.”
On December tenth my closest friends came to my house, ran around a large aluminum pole, aired their grievances, got drunk, and wrestled me to the ground. The only thing we celebrate now are sitcoms, Seinfeld reruns, the only reason we have left to call off work or put off schoolwork and drink a few beers with each other. When it comes time for the airing of the grievances most of us don’t know what to say. Last year we always had something welling up to complain about, it was the only thing consistent. I had to assume that since we don’t get to see each other anymore, we actually have to enjoy our time together.
I take a drag off my cigarette and wonder what to say, why I’m being told this, but then remember that I’m getting comfortable in my cliche here in this remote part of the world, where something is always said in someone else’s words. I nod and pull my arms close to my chest and say, “Yeah, it’s tough when the family doesn’t like you. It always turns into a fight.”
— H. William Davis
I don’t miss the holidays when I sat in synagogue, waiting for my father to walk through the double doors and join me because he said he would. I was even saving a seat for him but he still never showed up.
“Where’s your father?” A neighbor would ask.
“Can this family ever be a family?” I thought.
I grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. I am one of eight children. My family presented the exterior of a good Jewish family, but we were interior design flops. If someone were to look objectively at my family without knowing that we were raised religious, or know our history, I swear they’d diagnose us with family autism. The evidence was most present during holidays, when a family is supposed to join together in celebration, and yet, for mine, it was cause for more estrangement — particularly for my father.
“I can’t believe I had eight children,” I imagine he thought.
It is now years later, my parents are divorced, and I have since left the religious fold. I live in New York City. My father lives 15 blocks from me. When holidays approach, I anticipate the phone calls and emails, inviting me to join him to a gathering of some kind. I’m sure he’s even saving a seat for me, and yet, now it’s me who doesn’t show up.
“Where’s your son?” I’m sure a friend asks.
“Can this family ever be a family?” I imagine my father thinking.
The anger and bitterness, gone. My father has apologized, I’ve forgiven him. And yet, any emotional bond that links father and son together is still missing, like it was never there to begin with.
Then I remember: I’m a child, wearing black pants, a white shirt, and clip on tie, sitting on the front lawn before another holiday begins. Before the air-raid-like siren will wail throughout the town, warning the community that it’s time to begin observing. A car speeds down the street, trying to make it home before it’s time to light the holiday candles. I watch as other neighborhood boys, dressed in suits, walk past me, leaving early for synagogue with fathers at their side. And all I can wonder is: where’s my father?
I don’t miss those holidays.
“I can’t believe I had eight children,” I imagine my father thinking.
Can this family ever be a family?
— Moshe Schulman
Every year around this time I think of the afternoon I watched Santa Claus die.
My family did not attend public events at Christmas or any other time, so it’s a mystery how we ended up at North Towne Mall for the arrival of Claus, recognized as a fake by every kid in our tribe by the time we could wipe our own butts. Maybe we went, as hundreds of others did, because this was something different. The fat man and his elves would arrive not by sleigh, but by parachutes.
I was in sixth grade. My parents divorced, and I went to live with my grandparents, and they split up the same year. Life was less than good.
The weekend after Thanksgiving 1967 was pleasant in Rockford, Illinois, so the turnout was even greater than expected. Seething hordes of thrilled children filled North Towne’s parking lot on N. Main Street, some perched atop cars, some in the beds of pickup trucks.
My four cousins and I leaned against my aunt’s rusty Rambler, arms crossed, hoping for catastrophe, braced for disappointment.
Speakers blasted carols. A DJ broke in now and then to pump the excitement.
Small airplanes buzzed overhead.
The elves came first, dropping one by one like pellets, then swaying under their umbrellas as they floated from the sky to land gently, perfectly, in a circle roped off at the center of the lot. Wild applause.
It was Santa’s turn, and the DJ demanded we sing in welcome, “You better not pout, you better not cry,” etc., which most of the monkeys did. A wee speck ejected from the airplane. Gravity brought him down, down, trailed by the spiral of red smoke. For optimal viewing of the Great One’s advent, planners had affixed a special device that would track his path.
He just kept descending.
Like a black pea in a glass of clear December syrup, he fell, fell, fell, and vanished behind the tree line. He burned in. The smoke drifted away, a corkscrew with no wine bottle. Oh.
Parents frantically packed up their kids, refusing to answer any questions. The DJ was silent at last. My cousin Pat and I high-fived each other as if we had accomplished something – idiots – and everybody piled into the Rambler.
I heard that Santa landed in my doctor’s backyard, making his own hole, and later the pilot married his widow.
— Randy Osborne
The only Christmas package I remember receiving from my mother’s mother contained a bathtub toy (a windup dolphin that did not swim so much as flounder desperately in the water — perhaps disinclined toward dolphin-ness because it was, inexplicably, orange), and a necklace (a long chain from which a two-inch tall faux turquoise-and-silver owl pendant dangled, heavy as lead and possibly containing some). Even though I was too old for one gift and too young for the other, I tried out the dolphin and tried on the necklace, because that’s what you do when you’re nine. I thought her presents funny and a little bit odd, but then so was my grandmother.
She smelled of bourbon and Salems and Shalimar, and always wore a soft cardigan. I remember sitting in her squishy lap, playing with her charm bracelets. One of them was filled with gold coins she had collected, which she’d tell me about in her husky voice. She died when I was ten, and the coins were parceled out among her granddaughters. I didn’t know until years later that she was an alcoholic; I didn’t know that she was sad. I still miss her.
Christmas presents from my father’s mother, on the other hand, were extravagant. She hated Christmas, so she tried to get it over with early by mailing a package just after Thanksgiving each year. Once there was a gold pocket watch and chain for my twin brother, and a full add-a-bead necklace for me. Instead of sentimentally adding the beads on subsequent milestones as the name would suggest, she bought them all at once. Gold prices were on the uptick, and she said it was a smarter investment that way. I still have it. I have worn it twice.
I have no idea what her lap felt like, because I never sat on it. Despite her superficial generosity, she had a mean streak. There were strings. One by one, she cut off communications with each of her grandchildren, usually due to an imagined slight or disappointment. She lived until three weeks before her 100th birthday, almost twenty years after I had last spoken to her.
The price of gold is up again. A few days ago, my husband asked me if I’d be willing to sell the gold coin he knew had been given to me by my grandmother. It’s worth a fair amount, he reasoned, and it’s not as though I’ll ever do anything but keep it in the safe.
“Other grandmother,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said. “Never mind.”
I might be talked into selling that necklace, though.
— Kate Geiselman
It’s a strange moment of the year if I stop to think about it. My TV flickers with Charlie Brown Christmas reruns and spontaneously revealed diamond earrings from men I have no chance of meeting because they don’t really exist. After Black Friday, I watch the forty-percent-sale signs drop to twenty in department stores and the people around me decorating their homes in bright lights and faded plastic reindeer. The children in my neighborhood have left years ago, leaving behind aged grandparents and a vague sense that the 90’s was once a time when things were cleaner, better, and less expensive.
The kitsch of the holiday season is overwhelming. I can’t walk past my mailbox without seeing lights, novelty flags and snowflakes pasted on the sides of homes. Something about this time of year has lost it’s appeal to me and I can’t explain why. I remember anxiously shaking a small box, hoping for a color Game Boy to find yet another cheap felt pony and no barn. Something for my naked crew-cut Barbies to ride and nephews to load with black cats later in the week. It was a moment to dream for the perfect toy and bravely settle for second best.
My lopsided gingerbread house was replaced for a modest apartment in a questionable neighborhood and the second rate presents exchanged for a false sense of freedom. Each year is a thinner, shakier version of the last. Family has become a quiet meeting of four weary adults and polite conversation. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is no longer the high point of the evening, but a soft reminder in the background of something that once was.
Despite it all, I return to my childhood home each year to write, read, and make the best of it. The lake by my parents’ house freezes over and I stand on it holding onto the ladder bolted to the dock. The ice beneath my feet groans under my weight. It’s like this almost every year. I hold my breath and slowly shift my feet for better footing. On New Years Eve my mother and I watch the news to wait for the ball in New York to drop. We tell each other the new year will be different, but privately know the silence will extend into it.
— Lisa Reese
Late on the morning of December 25, 1978, three days past my seventh birthday, my paternal grandmother finally emerged from her bedroom. She blew past the blinking Christmas pine, a small hill of unopened gifts, three anxious boys, their confused parents and the heavy, middle-aged hunter who was playing the role of her boyfriend. She claimed her purse from the dining-room table and announced, “By the time I get back, I want you all to have cleared out of here.” She slammed the back door and disappeared into the Nashville cold.
The night before, there had been a misunderstanding between my mom and grandmother. I don’t recall any shouting or even more than a few sharp words, but the confrontation had been intense enough to ensure it would be the last between them.
My grandmother has come to Florida several times over the past 32 years, always to visit a sister or to check in on my dad’s younger brother. She allows my father her company, but she declines his invitations to see her grandchildren. She has no problem talking to me on the phone, however, and she closes our brief, polite conversations by saying, “You know I love you, right?” As I’ve aged, so has my response. “Yes,” I’d whisper as a child. “Uh, huh,” my teenage self would grunt. “OK” appeared sometime in my 20s.
I don’t know what my grandmother looks like these days, but I keep her black-and-white wedding photo near my writing desk. Even my mother admits that I favor her, particularly her thick eyebrows and silly grin, though I could only ever hope to feel as attractive as she appears in that photo, her confidence and beauty projecting across the years like so much starlight.
Is it possible to miss someone you’ve never really known and who did everything in her power to avoid knowing you? I can tell you that it is.
Two years ago, my dad, whose capacity for forgiveness ranks high among his many enviable traits, spent Christmas in Tennessee. I asked him to deliver a card to my grandmother. The note shall remain private, but not the message: We may be strangers, though now as ever, I hope you are not a stranger to yourself. I signed it, “with love.”
— Jake Cline
It would probably be my father’s last Christmas Eve, but we did what we always did: he, my sisters, and I drove to my aunt’s for dinner. We ate, drank, and, as was tradition, watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Dad, who preferred to eat and run, acquiesced begrudgingly — part of his curmudgeon shtick. He claimed to like Bedford Falls better when it became Pottersville, the town of flophouses and short-tempered bartenders: “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.” His favorite line.
Back at his house that night, my older sister and I stayed up. Let’s watch a movie, she said. We’d seen so many with our dad. On the floor in that living room, the smoke of his cigar hanging above our heads, we watched Vertigo, Stand by Me, and Full Metal Jacket over and over.
We decided on Goodfellas, one of his favorites. It has a Christmas scene, we said. Right after the big heist, a bar glowing with tinsel and lights. The mood is joyous — Robert de Niro kissing everyone while The Ronettes sing “Frosty the Snowman” — but then just as fast, the shit hits the fan. The music stops and de Niro bitches out his crew for buying too lavish of gifts, demanding they return everything.
It already felt like a lament, remembering the thing we did with Dad by doing that very thing, while he slept one room over no less. He was 52 and had cancer and a little dementia thrown in for good measure— a skinny man that last year.
We love It’s a Wonderful Life because of this idea of tradition, but I’m glad Vicki and I ended the night with Scorsese. There’s a lot to like about Goodfellas, but one of my favorite things is that shit goes wrong and stays wrong. No redemption, no happy ending. Everybody gets whacked. We’re not cynical, but sometimes you don’t want Bedford Falls and angels getting wings. You want rummies and degenerates and wiseguys set to a 60s girl group. So we’ve started a new tradition — one part “I love you,” two parts Joe Pesci. Whenever the curmudgeon in us emerges, from either one too many carols or someone taking the last glass of glüg, we’ll smile and wish each other a Merry Fucking Christmas, just as Dad would have wanted.
— Laura Adamczyk