Disclaimer: as the title says, this is fiction, NOT a reflection of my feelings about Christmas or a disguised memoir. (People keep asking.) My mind wanders to dark places, what can I say?
Don’t expect tidings of joy from me. I can only be merry when Christmas is over. Call it my yearly offering to the gods of Family or my annual sacrifice on the altar of Home, but there’s nothing happy about it. Every year it tears my heart out and leaves me bleeding. That’s the reason for the season in my family.
Every Christmas I join with my sister and brother (plus spouses and offspring) and we celebrate the birth of Our Lord Jesus together with the man and woman whose blood runs in our veins. Each of us was a fresh disappointment to them from the first day we drew breath, and we have never failed to let them down since then. They taught us self-reliance and set our feet on the path to independence so they could be rid of the shame of us.
As soon as I could stand on my own I ran as far from them as I could go, just as my siblings had before me. But every Christmas season we return like salmon fighting upstream on instinct, unable to deny that self-destructive call. We seek out home for the holiday, even knowing the trip will kill us someday. We sleep in our childhood beds and revisit our childhood traumas, and we remember anew why we left in the first place.
Every year we vow never again, and next year in our own homes, but the next year comes, and we trudge back to the old stomping grounds. The night before Christmas, all through the house, everyone is stirring. And drinking. And fighting. And shouting. Because that’s what family does. It’s all about tradition.
* * *
Christmas Morning always begins the same way, with a thump and a shout. Mom or Dad pounds on the bedroom doors onee-two-three, and the words, “Get out of bed, or we’re going to be late for church!” wash away dreams of glitter and gifts with a sour rush of adrenaline.
We are never late for church. Every year is a tragedy of tardiness waiting to happen, but the crisis never comes to pass. Never have we missed the morning service, not once in all my thirty-something years.
But every year, we all wake to the reminder of our faults and the expectation of failure.
Once everyone files through the two bathrooms in birth order, the next generation of children is tucked into holiday finery with care, and somehow, despite the initial panci there is always time for breakfast around the big table as a family.
Christmas breakfast never varies any more than the wake-up ritual. Cinnamon toast with extra sugar and bacon barely cooked, served with a side order of clock-anxiety. The coffee is always too hot or too bitter, and the pitcher of orange juice will never be enough to go around if each of us takes that much.
(It’s the same coffee they use every other day of the year, and the juice never runs out early.)
The food is heaped onto chipped, worn holiday plates gritty with dust from storage, and insults about our collective failures are poured into our ears. The grandchildren get bonus treats: big helpings of the same divisive, half-truths that kept their parents competing with each other instead of allying against our oppressors.
Someday one of us will snap over breakfast, but it hasn’t happened yet.
* * *
Church: candles, decorations, sparse crowds, and infinite boredom. I tolerate ritual observances of a faith I never felt. Stand up. Sit down. Sing off key. Mumble half-remembered phrases on cue. Shake hands. Doze off. An hour spent missing cues, attracting glares, and mumbling. At last we drive home in the minivan that was old when I was young, me crammed into the back-back seat with sister and brother-in-law and a smelly-diapered baby with sticky fingers. The whole way there and the whole way home, Mom talks about who was sinning this week, and who was sinned against. None of the names are familiar any longer. Sister and I make faces. The car smells of peppermint candy canes. Joy to the world.
* * *
After church, the distribution of presents wrapped in layers of obligation begins. Every year we promise to limit gifting to the youngest generation. Every year, the promise is broken, and the Christmas litany is recited anew.
“I hope you like it. It was expensive, and I had to special-order it.”
“You can take it back if you don’t like it.”
“You’ll find a use for it, I’m sure. You do like it, don’t you?”
We shield the next generation from as much damage as possible, my sibs and I and their spouses, but I do worry. How much of the ego poison is absorbed on contact? Will these innocent children learn to mistrust and dread gifts as I often do?
I hope not. Now they shriek and shout and bounce with happiness, and I soak up as much of the happiness as possible by osmosis. Once the kids have their atention buried in toys or books—or are put down for naps—the booze come out again and the real fun begins.
* * *
Dinner preparation is an exercise in crisis management.
The ham is forever too big or too small, the bone splintery or the slices uneven. It will never be right. It wouldn’t be Christmas if it was right.
The potatoes are undersized or overripe. The beans are tough. Or rubbery. A vital ingredient is missing. Last minute trips to the store are suggested, rejected, and finally allowed. Everyone offers to go, but I’m usually the only one sober enough to drive.
Before the last casserole goes into the oven someone will slice a finger or nick an arm, and there will be gauze and vapors and the mention of an emergency room. We are a clumsy brood, and we’re drinking. It happens, every year without fail.
By the time we sit to supper—with silver polished, candles lit, and grace recited over the beautiful dishes that once belonged to a reered great-grandparent—the mood is surly and our appetites have long since vanished.
We eat all the same. Someone compliments the store-bought rolls, and Mom’s tears flow, but the pumpkin pie makes up for everything.
Then comes eggnog and awkward conversation, and the last opportunity for sniping assaults. Someone always slips a dagger in. Guaranteed. When we are done staggering through the gauntlet of disappointed tears and judgmental silences, when we’ve torn out the last shreds of ourselves and offered them up in the service of filial obligation, we will be allowed to crawl back to our bedrooms to bleed out in peace.
I cry myself to sleep under the old faded posters on the walls, and in the dead, empty space where my heart should be. I cling to one shining spark of good cheer: Christmas is done for a whole year.
copyright 2014 K. M. Herkes all rights reserved.
note 1: My fictional protagonist’s unhappiness is mild compared to the pain and sadness many feel in this “season of joy.” Please be kind to those who struggle.
note 2: this story was originally published on Readwave.com, which no longer exists.