This essay was originally published as part of a holiday compilation organized by Clay Rivers called: Christmas Memories. I was and still am extremely flattered and humbled to be asked to participate in this. So much so that I said yes before I knew any of the parameters. It was a fun project that introduced me to a number of different writers. Please take the time to check them out.
I’d taken the “Christ” out of Xmas decades ago. Our holiday, while rooted in the story of Jesus, was not centered on it. It was focused on family, gifts, and food — in that order. Despite that, there was still a white man at the center of our holiday until the whole Santa thing was debunked. We were still in single-digits age when that happened as the story never made sense — a man goes around the world to every person’s house to give them gifts in one night? And he comes in through the chimney? A chimney we didn’t have? Because he was magic? Yeah, ok. No.
Mom was over the whole Santa thing before I was born, but when a lie is that entrenched in our culture, to the extent that honesty is seen as cruelty to children and socially punished, it’s easier to pretend it matters until your kids figure it out. What that meant was that the moment we expressed legitimate doubt, Mom was ready to share the truth. Plus, it’s hard to care about a ridiculous lie when you’re skating on the edge of a melting lake of depression like my mother was. Her life, filled with children, several with special needs, was challenging enough without spending years screwing up our understanding of reality with a story that erased her and Dad’s work from the joy of the holiday. Crediting some semi-magical white man for the things she and my father worked hard to provide for their children was not a priority, so, when my questions became more pointed and my skepticism more obvious, she let the illusion shatter with little fanfare or remorse.
Despite the lack of religion and belief in Santa, Xmas was a special day. It was a day we anticipated all year and planned for all month. We decorated the front window with artificial snow and glass bulbs hung in a grid pattern. The bulbs were always blue, and throughout the month we’d guess which ones would fall to the floor and shatter as the masking tape’s adhesiveness faded day by day. Xmastime in our house meant shoes at all times because of those glass bulbs. But we didn’t mind. The necessity for shoes heralded the coming holiday, and nothing could suppress our joy for that.
We had an artificial tree with color-coded tips informing us of where to place the branches. Unfortunately, the colors faded away years before I was born so each year we laid the branches down and arranged them by size, doing our best to figure out the proper order for the tree. We’d sit at the table with strings of lights draped across the dining room table, wiggling each one seeking the short that darkened the whole string. We’d pull out box after box of homemade and store-bought decorations, each one special because of the child who made them. And, eventually, after much back and forth and hours of bickering over which branch went where, we’d have a well-lit, over-decorated tree and it was always perfect. It was our family tradition.
Then came the year of my most memorable Xmas. Truth is, no one recalls what we did. Not my mother, not my father, not my siblings, and definitely not me or my brother. Every year we revisit this story and wonder what we did to merit such a severe punishment, and every year we laugh because no one knows. But something happened that fractured the lake under my mother. And while she didn’t fall in, she had reached the limit of what she could take. And so, to punish us for a transgression that none of us can remember, my mom canceled Xmas.
She didn’t cancel it for everyone, just my brother and me. We scoffed. Nobody can cancel Xmas, we thought. Things were already underway. The tree was up and gifts were being moved under it daily. Except, after that day, the pile of gifts under the tree became smaller and our names disappeared from the collection of gift tags. My brother and I watched and waited, confident that she’d change her mind. As we crept closer and closer to Xmas, we saw that nothing was changing. As a result, we were quieter; some would say we were more respectful, but really, we were cowed. We asked our father again and again, “Can she do this?” His reply was always a quiet, “Yes.” And so we moved through the holidays, not with cheer but with growing dread of what was to come.
Finally, on Xmas Eve, I believed her. Her resolve never wavered and no gifts appeared for us under the tree. My brother remained hopeful. There was always a chance she could change her mind. While he sat and hoped, I made an Xmas Day game plan: I’d sleep through Xmas. I stayed up late ensuring that I’d want to sleep in. But my sleepiness did not deter my mom. She woke us up bright and early so that we could watch everyone else open their gifts while we sat there with nothing.
The exclusion was tangible, and it was as painful as she’d hoped. We sat, watching the gift giving ritual, fully aware of our exile as everyone opened gift after gift, their piles of wrapped presents shrinking while their pile of goods grew. A part of me secretly hoped that if we were well-behaved, we’d prove that we deserved gifts, too. But no, we got no gifts that Xmas. Not one.
We continued the day. At first, I pretended that I wasn’t bothered, and honestly, it was only when other people asked what I’d gotten that I felt any kind of way about my lack of gifts. I enjoyed breakfast with my immediate family. I enjoyed spending the day with my extended family. It wasn’t the lack of gifts that bothered me but the humiliation that I felt as people learned how we were punished that year — the laughter we endured at my grandmother’s house and the disbelief we tolerated from our friends, fleeting things that ultimately meant nothing because after the laughter faded, I was okay.
That punishment broke my normal. I lost the belief that I was entitled to Xmas gifts. I learned that the people in my life meant more to me than any gift I would receive — and I acknowledge that is in large part because I am fortunate enough to have my material needs met. I learned that Xmas is a privilege, not a right. It was an illusion I needed to have shattered, and I’m thankful to my mother for it.
I needed the lesson I learned that Xmas and it’s stuck with me, decades later. Every time I tell the story, people ask what we could have possibly done to deserve that. Did we burn the house down? Steal and wreck the car? I can safely say it was none of those things. But what does it say about our sense of entitlement that felonies are what are considered needed to cancel Xmas?
I appreciate the privilege I have in celebrating Xmas as I choose. While I do appreciate gifts, I am more appreciative that I can share this time with people I love. Every year, I make it a priority to be with the people who help make my life a rich tapestry of experiences.
Breaking normal is how I learn and grow. That year, my mom broke my perception of a normal Xmas and I love the ways it’s changed me.