This storyteller tried to find a way to keep the peace, while battling to find the right Santa-inspired gift.
The worst Christmas had been in the making for a while. It began several weeks before the holiday when, after learning that my daughter wanted a camera, I queried her for specifications. Somewhere in my periphery my wife signaled me frantically that this kind of questioning was totally inappropriate — like I was on the verge of overturning a rusty wheelbarrow full of our most horrid sexual secrets. My daughter — unaware, precious and innocent — proceeded to tell me, via my leading questions, that she wanted a digital camera, “you know, like one of those HD video cameras, um, with lots of pixels to make movies about garden fairies.”
This got me to thinking about Christmas in general. It’s another one of those holidays belonging mostly in the domain of married women, common-law wives and similar wannabes. Men simply need to hurry up and wait until mobilised. Indeed, men often get the shit duties of Christmas, like peeling potatoes, scrubbing the latrine, or clearing minefields. This is the stuff of MIAs and heroes. For example, here is an inspiring hero story:
Just two weeks ago, my friend Chris disclosed a most brilliant strategy to address the annual blitzkrieg of imperial materialism exacted by his wife and her family. Tired of the tedium of getting the right presents for a geometrically complex gift-exchange pyramid, he simply went online and purchased each family member $100 certificates to his favourite charity. “Fucking genius,” I thought as he recounted the looks on their faces when they opened parcels containing United Way pledges. What a stratospheric, one-two napalm strike! No one heard the B-52s approaching, or the “Ride of the Valkyries,” or the bombs falling. But, before they knew what hit them, Santa’s Village had been fireballed. He went on to explain that he, too, experienced a more marginalised role in Christmas as his boys moved out of toddler age. He was becoming a lowly cadet in a war he no longer understood.
The same dynamic had played out for me domestically. In the interest of full disclosure, I come with all the baggage of horrific Christmases past, particularly after my parents decided in the 70s to exercise the upper-middle class debauchery that was the norm of the era until the Christian Right wrestled control back from the cultural left under President Reagan. But between the years of my emancipation and the birth of my children, I also experienced some of the best Christmases ever. There were magical times, like when I was a little kid and got a large Lego set, and my extended family came round to participate in a warm, candle-lit dinner of moderate inebriation and glowing love. There was the family Christmas in Chile the year after Star Wars came out, the Christmas in Ohio the first year I knew my wife, the Scarsdale Christmas, and the list goes on.
But the presence of children completely fucks Christmas up. Not through any fault of their own, of course. No, it’s the system that ruins Christmas. It is a Christmas Industrial Complex of sorts, one that is deeply rooted in the notion of perfection. It is driven by a code that demands children never be subjected to an “off-Christmas,” a holiday with normal doses of reality, of mishaps and mistakes, of benign sarcasm or humorous misanthropy, lest they be alerted to the duplicitous nature of the ultimate Christmas lie: Santa Claus. I reckon a good sum of Christmases have been ruined by this jovial, doughnut-eating son of a bitch.
Anyway, that is just what I was doing once again – getting involved in Christmas and ruining everything. I was filling it with the aesthetic of faultiness and asperity, scuffed and well-worn, featuring dirty city snow, peep shows, and momentarily lapses of authentic familial attitudes. I was creating a literal pre-Giuliani Times Square of Christmas.
So, back to my daughter and her camera. I was duly informed that my wife had already exacted specifications from her, and already picked up some cheap-ass-made-with-lead-in-China kid camera out of a catalogue targeted to bourgeois, Mozart-Baby parents of purported exquisitely gifted children who are, with providence, the next Boltanski. But I knew that I would be called on to sort out this piece-of-shit camera on Christmas morning, which, upon learning of its sorry-ass user interface, defective lens, and proprietary and lean software, would be un-returnable because Santa would be back at his North Pole workshop, completely slammed with producing next year’s round of crappy toys. It would be like, as the man of the house, I was being tasked a mission to transport UN inspectors from Anbar Province back to the Green Zone with a collective of undisciplined death-metal enlistees, no proper artillery, stale intelligence, and an un-armoured Humvee fleet. This was an Irwin Allen disaster film in the making.
Additionally, I also discovered that my daughter wanted the remaining set of a book I purchased for her in England. So I decided that it would be nice to get the complete set from the UK. I had it all figured out: I would order it super-cheap online for immediate dispatch through Royal Mail to my cousin’s house in London, and he would bring it when he came across the pond for Christmas.
As for the camera, I had now completely cluster-fucked everything with that gift and it was my job to sort it out. My approach was to utilise a brief survey of the market in conjunction with a “choose, point and click” technique I picked up in the late 90s. Following these steps, I secured a simple, moderately priced but popular video camera with free shipping.
Nevertheless, Christmas was now hanging in the balance with a number of parameters and their associated failure-probabilities notated. Would the camera work out? Would it arrive unharmed and on time? Would it be useable by our child? What would be our strategy if I failed to make good? How would the family recover if the falsity of Santa was revealed? As for the books, would my cousin receive the package or would postal workers strike again? Would they be the right books? Would he remember to bring them because he is both an alcoholic and a high-functioning asshole?
Atop all these worries, add this: My birthday occurs on Boxing Day, which makes me particularly susceptible to Worst Christmases and Worst Birthdays. This means that Christmas Eve festivities are followed by Christmas Day and evening dinner, so that by the time my birthday arrives on the 26th, I want to do nothing but eat a monk’s meal and abstain from alcohol. It is my birthday, after all, and I should be able to demand this, shouldn’t I? But the reality of Christmas is that I cannot be afforded this luxury. Every year my wife insists that we have a party within a couple of days of my birthday. But who wants to party on the 26th? Most of my friends claim they are out of town for good reason. I finally put my foot down and demanded that my birthday be deferred until January. I don’t need a birthday party – I’ll just take this activity off-line and meet my friends in a topless bar downtown after work, just like the normal blokes on TV.
I was exquisitely pissed off at this point and told my wife that I was going to boycott Christmas this year if she didn’t back off and chill out. We worked out a temporary cease-fire and demilitarised the zone around the Christmas tree but, truth be told, my wife and I were too close to the edge and on the 23rd of December, when, having successfully delivered my daughter’s two at-risk Santa gifts, she started again to exact unreasonable conditions on the packaging and wrapping of the gifts. Oh, the details are too lengthy, too complex and too dull to endure retelling. Suffice to say, I am certain that all of you, regardless of your race, creed, colour and gender, have been there, and can surely fill in the details with an astonishing level of detail and accuracy.
This brief exchange on Christmas logistics put me in a funk that proved difficult to kick. I had trouble interacting with the family. I barely mustered up the energy to attend a highly anticipated Christmas Eve party at my friend’s house. Dulling Black Dog depression continued into Christmas morning. I passively participated in a round of opening presents in which my daughter gleefully received the two now-infamous gifts. Nevertheless, dejected, I retired to my studio downstairs to watch reruns of Frontline. Christmas dinner at my uncle’s house that evening looked highly unlikely for me.
But throughout the day, I worked on rebuilding my Christmas spirit, and by late afternoon had decided to attend the party. My cousin would be there and I knew I could count on him to raise my spirits through his infectious hedonistic tendencies. I went upstairs, changed and combed my hair, and put on my loud, fashionable shoes that I occasionally wear to gay discos and dysfunctional Christmases. When my wife saw me all dolled up she’d had enough and announced that she wasn’t going.
That’s what I had been waiting for – a Christmas gift with all the love and none of the fuss. I could see that she was giving the greatest Christmas gift one could give, one full of self-sacrifice and realised in the truest expression of the Christian spirit. She instructed me to tell everyone that she had a “tummy ache,” but come on, when one’s spouse fails to turn up for Christmas dinner everyone knows the reason why. The truth is that all of them have emerged from Christmas sieges of their own. To lie would have been disingenuous and more stressful, and would perpetuate the dysfunction that got us here in the first place. So I levelled with everyone when I arrived. I said that I had been an asshole and pissed her off, and that she needed a little break from me. Everyone regarded both of us with loving compassion and empathy. Not one person made a fuss over it, noting, I’m certain, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
I wound up having a great time. This has actually turned out to be a fine Christmas and I think that my family might actually be able to start having fun Christmases again. In a way, we have cleared out the fear of a bad Christmas. We have looked fear in the eyes and seen our imperfect selves, the ones incapable of expressing the faultless, low-carbon footprint, Martha Stuart holiday. The Christmas free from strife, bickering and the longing for better, more valuable store-bought gifts with greater memory, pixels and thread-count. Tomorrow is my birthday and I will endeavour to remove all of the bullshit from that day, too. I will eat grapefruit for breakfast, expunge from my bowels the remains of last night’s Christmas dinner, and then take the kids to the cinema for a film they want to see. I am hoping that will take the pressure off of them to produce the ideal birthday with breakfast in bed, contrived good behaviour, and poorly executed homemade gifts of nominal utility. Moreover, it will take the pressure off of me. Perhaps this will be the year I smile and love it when they fail to deliver the perfect birthday… again.