Today is Boxing Day, officially called a “bank holiday” it was the day after Christmas when the servants of the rich were given their bonus and given time off to go visit their families. Though I am neither a servant in the strictest definition of the word, nor am I a tradesman, I am taking the day to relax and reflect on the year and recuperate from a busy two days.
I am not predisposed to like Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Past and I have been wrestling with one another for almost four decades. For a short period of my adult life, I had beautiful ornaments, unique stockings, a working train set that would encircle the tree, and even a lovely creche. I sold it all on eBay years ago and never looked back.
I must have been in sixth or seventh grade when I first read The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. The short story published in 1905 touched me deeply and will probably forever color my attitude toward the Christmas holiday. In summary, the story is about a young married couple who don’t have much money, but want to buy each other a Christmas gift. The wife has her beautiful, long hair cut off and sells it for enough money to buy her husband a chain for his prized pocket watch. When he gets home, it is revealed that he sold the timepiece for enough money to buy her a gift of combs and hair accessories. It ends with them realizing how much they love each other exemplified by their sacrifices to buy each other a gift.
The story is supposed to be heartwarming, I suppose. It has inspired many adaptations, films, and television episodes. But I was horrified by the tyranny of the entire drama. By the time I was a kid, The Gift of the Magi had seemed to twist and warp in the psyches of Americans, spurring on this orgy of consumeristic frenzy in an effort to show our love of our family and friends by showering them in presents, even if we had to go into debt to do so.
My parents divorced when I was seven years old. We moved from our small farm to an urban area and I was forced to change schools in the middle of second grade. My mother had custody of my younger brother and I while my father retained visitation rights. The first couple of years were an awkward transition period, especially around the holidays. While we were never even middle class, and being the late 70s/early 80s, our now smaller family was exposed to increasing financial insecurity. My father seemed unaffected, quickly purchasing another home and moving on with his life.
Things really changed when my father remarried, about two years later. He was quickly and completely absorbed by my stepmother’s family. Apart from the car ride on his weekends or holidays, I would never again have time alone with my dad until my stepmother died over 30 years later.
My stepmother’s family were some of the meanest, stupidest, and most vapid people I’ve ever had the misfortune to know. Other than our grandmother, the holidays were dominated by my stepmother’s relatives. Even summers or the odd weekend was spent in the company of my stepmother’s grandchildren, kids much younger than I whom I resented and disliked. I would learn years later that my stepmother trash talked me to her family, sabotaging any hope for friendships with any of them.
There was never any discussion, at least not with me or my brother where we would like to spend our time. The major holidays (when school was out) were spent with my dad. Even birthdays were spent with my father (we are both summer babies). When asked, my mother would say she had plans before quickly changing the subject and helping us to pack for our dad’s house. I would learn later as an adult, those plans usually involved her longtime boyfriend and a Denny’s.
Once I was old enough to drive, Thanksgiving and Christmas became all-day and almost all-night marathons, driving to four, sometimes up to six different houses and celebrations to make the required appearances. There was little enjoyment – gifts painstakingly selected and purchased with what little money was had were met with awkward acceptance and quickly tossed aside – clearly not what they wanted. Forced smiles, small talk, and the same dry turkey, too-sweet ham, and the rest of the traditional fare shoveled down until we had to gather our things, put on our coat and head out in the cold to the next destination.
No one bothered to figure out what I may have liked as a gift – I was usually given a bland card with just a signature and a $100 bill to buy what I wanted. Usually I would try to make the most of it by hitting the after Christmas sales, wondering what I had done to deserve so little consideration.
So, while it wasn’t even in the top ten reasons I moved to San Francisco at the age of 21, I took full advantage of the excuse it provided in avoiding going home for the holidays. The quiet, unhurried solitude was a welcome respite from the years of running the family obstacle course each Christmas.
Once I was a more mature adult, the holidays and I had a fragile truce. Some years, I spent them with my mother. Some years I stayed home. Our detente however, was broken six years ago when I remarried. The love of my life was himself freshly divorced, and despite having 7? 8? siblings, four children of her own, and a couple of grandkids, his ex-wife was still turning up to all the family events. Clearly something is wrong there, but that’s a different topic.
While she was never confrontational, family gatherings were awkward and a little hostile. After suffering the company of my stepfamily for so many years, I found myself asking why I was putting up with this bullshit. My inlaws didn’t have the heart to tell her to fuck off, feeling pity and resignation.
Last year, my beloved attended Christmas Eve celebrations all by himself. I couldn’t bring myself to go through the motions of another artless Christmas with each of us on opposite ends of the house. I wasn’t upset, angry, or sad. I had a nice evening hanging out with my dog in favored pajamas, watching movies. But when my darling came home, dejected and missing me, I decided to change things.
This year, I attended both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the inlaws. For the first time in six years, the ex-wife was not in attendance on either day. It was relaxed and fun with everyone mingling and talking. There was an ease I had never before experienced with them. Christmas Day had us telling jokes, playing games, and I came away with a nice bottle of scotch from the white elephant exchange. I hope we can continue this tradition in the years to come.
During my childhood, I hated being sent to my father’s house for every seasonal celebration. My mother went through the daily grind with us – getting us to school, dinner every night, clothes and dentist appointments and the sniffles. Yet, she somehow thought it was better for us to have a “real” Christmas with people who were not our own. It was her version of The Gift of the Magi. These days, I wasn’t sure what the most helpful sacrifice would be – staying home or going to family holiday celebrations with my inlaws. This time, what I thought might be a sacrifice turned out unexpectedly rewarding. Maybe the Ghost of Christmas Past and I can finally be friends. Maybe.