The day after Christmas, John and I went out for a long walk in twenty-degree weather that culminated in stopping at our favorite German tavern for some beer and popcorn. We took seats at our favorite table and continued the conversation we’d been having while walking, which was really a long string of several short, separate conversations.
“Did you see this thread?” said John, handing me his cell phone and reading glasses.
It was open to a friend’s status update on Facebook, made on December 25: “Most horrible Xmas day ever,” it read.
John told me I should read the thirty or so comments that followed when I got a chance, which I did the next morning. They followed two tracks: “Spend your Christmas with us next time” and “Mine wasn’t so good either.”
Our friend’s dilemma got me thinking about my Christmases past, some that were brilliant, some that were dismal.
The Christmas I got my first two-wheel bike, a chrome and royal blue number with no bar in the middle, stands out as one of the good ones. So does the one when I got my chemistry set. My mother had a holy fit as I rode my new bike around and around our Early American dining room table, occasionally bashing into the backs of the chairs.
What I remember about the Christmas I spent in Florida are fake Santas in the sand, fake evergreen wreaths on the doors of manufactured homes, and palm trees with Christmas lights. The people I stayed with, relatives who were impossible to please, gave me a pastel pink sweatshirt with a built-in shirt collar and a knockoff of a George Foreman grill that weighed two tons. When it came time to leave, I didn’t have room in my luggage for the two-ton grill.
“I have to leave it behind,” I told the difficult relatives. They pitched a holy fit. I left the pink sweatshirt on the bed.
One of the best Christmases I’ve ever had was with John, when we packed two sleds, two sets of cross-country skis, our Christmas presents and our cat into his car and drove five hours to northern Wisconsin to a Finnish farm. We stayed in a cabin along a river with a fireplace and no TV, and took breakfast and dinner in the farmhouse and long breaks in a hot sauna. We skied, we hiked, we sledded, we read, we rolled around in the snow in our bathing suits after the sauna. Our cat played with a paper ribbon that had come off a present and took long naps in a window in the winter sun.
This year was also good. Still recuperating from our respective semesters, John and I decided to stay in Milwaukee and have our own Christmas. I did most of my shopping online at the last minute and wanted nothing to do with the Christmas cards; John signed my name and mailed them all. We did no wrapping. Our Christmas tree was the inflatable one we got at the secondhand shop last year.
Christmas morning we put all of our Amazon boxes and FedEx envelopes in a pile on the living room floor. We had no idea whose packages were whose, and we laughed when we got them mixed up. Our cats (we have two now) pawed at bubble wrap and jumped in and out of empty boxes.
John unwrapped two large snifters wrapped in brown paper bags and poured us some Drambuie, a gift from me to him. We watched “Uncle Buck” and “The Sopranos” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Summer Fun: Hyde Park Live,” filmed in London this past summer. I cooked a small ham and sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
It eschewed all kinds of tradition. And it was beautiful. With each passing Christmas, I grow less tolerant of the hype. It really bothers me that Christmas was only two weeks ago, but it feels like two years. That the day after Christmas the carols stop and the TV sets scream “Markdowns!” I can tell by the way the horns are honking on our busy city street that the good cheer has stopped. In the past week we have received three tax forms. When it’s over, it’s over.
You wouldn’t expect the Christmas that occurs a month and a half after your mother dies to be a good one, but that one was actually pretty nice.
The most heartbreaking Christmas I ever had was the year I left a bad relationship. It was 2002, and I was also estranged from members of my family because of an incident that occurred the Christmas of 2001 that I had the temerity to speak out against. It caused a very deep rift that was still going on a year later and as a result, I had nowhere to go for Christmas.
My brother invited me to stay with him at his condo in Ohio. Some friends in Wisconsin invited me to Christmas Eve dinner with them. I decided to go out with my friends then spend Christmas Day driving to Ohio.
Christmas Eve dinner was at a Chinese restaurant with dark paneled walls and red velvet drapes. It was the scene from “A Christmas Story” but with better furniture. And it was crowded. I liked that my friends had turned this into a tradition for their family. Their adolescent son regarded me tentatively, as if I were stealing some of the attention he’d normally get.
Despite being thankful for someplace to go that evening, I was also feeling desperately lonely. My brother would be at my parents’ when I got to Ohio, so he would leave the key under the mat. I had received an email saying that while it would be OK if I came for dinner, it would be better if I just came for dessert.
Christmas Day I received a message saying that I was no longer invited for dessert.
I let myself into my brother’s condo, unpacked my things in the back bedroom, and opened a bottle of wine I’d brought in my suitcase.
As bad as it felt to be alone Christmas Day, the eight hours it took to drive from Milwaukee to Ohio were sparked by unexpected flashes of love and light: four phone calls from six friends who were calling to see where I was and how I was doing. Who knew I was driving to somewhere and nowhere at the same time, that I wasn’t invited to Christmas and why, and that just five months earlier I had left an abusive man.
- • One of the calls was from the friends who’d taken me to the Chinese restaurant.
- • One was from a friend who was looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve with me.
- • One was from a very handsome man in Wisconsin I’d had a few dates with.
- • One was from Jan and Greg, two loves of my life.
They told me they couldn’t wait to see me, that they loved me, and to be careful driving, they’d see me soon.
Our friend’s December 25th Facebook post struck a nerve. “I can commiserate” was the general tenor among the comments. “Friends always love you,” wrote one person, with a little heart at the end of the sentence.
Another person acknowledged that Christmas is a difficult time of the year.
However, he added, “If you don’t ask too much from it, sometimes it surprises you with more than you requested.”
If Christmas is bad for you, I hope you make the most of the next ten months before it all drums up again. I will be there for you next December if you need me.
For those of you for whom Christmas is good, I bet you are also the sort whose goodwill isn’t contained within two months of hype. May you be blessed for that.