Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Another Christmas passed with only the tree remaining outside on the deck of the cottage, awaiting its turn to be tossed over the side and join the trees of previous Christmases in their own, designated place of composting. Removing all traces of Christmas has been the happiest time of the Holiday Season for as long as I can remember. However, this particular one happened to be especially pleasant as my partner and I spent the day alone together at the cottage. I still couldn't resist getting sick at the start of the Holidays; something that has been a tradition with me since I was a little boy. I enjoyed so much being upstairs in bed, surrounded by my new gifts and the smell of Vick's Vapor Rub, humidifier and aquarium both gurgling away, pleasantly muffling the sound of the family talking downstairs, whom I was too sick to be expected to join.

There was another enjoyable Christmas I especially remember when I was somewhat older; probably early in  high school. Just my father and I were on our way to dinner on Christmas Eve at my grandparents; mother and my older sister having gone earlier to help with the preparations. The entire family on my mother's side, who otherwise almost never saw each other, having been summoned by my grandfather to the traditional Christmas dinner; he being the last pater familias with the authority to command the presence of everyone. No one wanted to be there, especially together. The level of stress and tension were palpable even to the very young.

Good luck had it that our car broke down and my father and I had to wait for hours at a garage for a mechanic to arrive and repair it. That time, spent together in the warm waiting room of the garage, leafing though old magazines, watching television, eating cheese and peanut butter crackers from the vending machine, is one of the closest memories of being with my father. We were enjoying an unspoken, conspiratorial, celebration just with each other; watching the clock; knowing what we were missing with each passing hour: the arrival of family members, the awkward time of gift giving, the Christmas dinner after. I remember we smiled at each other as the mechanic finished working on the car; realizing that we would arrive at my grandparents just as the other family members were likely leaving; experiencing that great feeling of having been saved from an onerous event through means in relation to which no one could impart guilt.  The very token of earlier Holiday illnesses spent in my cozy, quiet bedroom.

Christmas day itself we entertained both parts of the family. My mother's more immediate family driven from Germantown and my father's from Roxboro to our suburban home across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. What made that particular gathering an emotional horror for me as a little boy, rather than the strained socializing of extended family members on Christmas Eve, was the rather extreme class difference between the families of my mother and father that was made manifest on Christmas day.

My father's family was composed of his mother, step-father and sister, who was what was called at that time "deaf and dumb", the label applied to those who could neither hear nor speak. Although the term "dumb" was meant to refer only to the inability to speak, other connotations of the word slipped into its application as well. Aunt Elizabeth had never been sent to school or taught how to sign and had always been kept at home, close to her mother, being regarded as an invalid, not competent to survive on her own, but enough so to do handiwork and help with domestic chores. She was, at least, spared the misfortune of being institutionalized in an establishment for the deaf. As a child I was frightened of her; partly because of the inability to communicate with her and the strange sounds she made when trying to communicate with me; partly through sensing the fear of my mother that some day, after the deaths of Aunt Elizabeth's parents, our family would be expected to take her in.  She was quite over weight, as was her mother, a symbol of the class difference from the trim members of my mother's family. I had repeated nightmares as a little boy of a fat lady coming into my room as I slept and tickling me awake. Likely, that  terrifying fat lady was a grotesque image of my aunt.

The handing out of presents was always the worst part; one which I continue to dislike. I would have preferred being part of a family in which everyone tore open their presents at the same time; not being expected to exhibit their gifts, one by one, before the watching family, while showing the appropriate, often faked, emotional response to whatever had been received. The family of my father were working-class immigrants from England, having arrived in Philadelphia shortly after World War I. His biological father was from Germany; had stopped over in the United Kingdom to find an English woman to marry as a means to facilitate his immigration to the United States; left her months after arriving in Philadelphia in order to pursue his fortune in the land of plenty unhindered. His mother was married by a very kind man, a fellow passenger met in steerage on the boat over, who took pity on her having been left alone with two children in a new country. My mother's family was, as I have previously described, rather well-off and had immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early Eighteenth Century.

Initially, her family had opposed the marriage to my father, whose major appeal seemed to be that he was affable, handsome and athletic. He met my mother through her brothers, who played for the Germantown baseball team and regularly competed against the working class team from Roxboro. My mother and father persisted in their romance and intention to marry. One of two things led their relationship to be accepted by her family. Either, the munificence of her father, who was inclined to make charitable gestures toward the poor, came to the fore and led him to agree to the marriage with the condition that my father promised to get a college diploma and, subsequently, join his company, something my father subsequently regretted.  Or, my mother had become pregnant with my sister and my grandfather did what was necessary to set things right. I have no evidence for the latter hypothesis, except my father had a reputation for having been a womanizer and my mother once confided to me as an adult that my father threatened to leave her for another woman shortly after I was born; a fact supportive of the possibility that the marriage may not have been entirely of his own choosing.

At any rate, back to Christmas morning. It is evident that my father's family didn't have the money to spend on gifts that my mother's family possessed. As we each, individually, opened our gifts and ritually thanked the giver, the reality was repeatedly exhibited that the less expensive, impressive gifts given to myself and my sister came from my father's family, the more cherished and wanted ones from my mother's family. Further, my deaf aunt, who due to her sheltered life, tended to respond emotionally more as a child, rather than the adult she was, always received fewer and cheaper presents. Even as a child, I was aware of her beady, observant, intelligent eyes, looking at me with envy and anger, as I unwrapped gift after gift and she sat with her bottle of perfume. You can readily understand how I preferred to be upstairs, taking advantage of any opportunity to be sick in bed, rather than face the painful, embarrassing, exchange of Christmas gifts.

As a therapist I continue to be reminded of what a painful, stressful time the Happy Holidays are for many people. While I know my clients may not form a representative sample in that regard, I feel those negative experiences are shared by a significant minority, perhaps the majority, of people, though there is much pressure not to share that response. The commercial and religious sentiments with which we are flooded during the Festive Season, images of happy families sharing in the joy of family togetherness, purchasing and giving gifts to their loved-ones, contrasts starkly with the actual, inner emotional reality many experience: one of stress, conflict, disappointment. My wish for the Holiday Season is that it could be re-oriented toward what it once was: the celebration of the Winter Solstice. Celebrating with feasting and revelry the end of the dark days and return of the light; absent of gift-giving and the Victorian sentimentality of family togetherness. Celebrating through the Christian narrative, when understood as a re-storying of the cycle of nature and of ourselves, would also be enjoyable; the current orgy of consumption and commercial manipulation of emotion most certainly is not.