Growing up in an unstable home, the holidays produced conflicting feelings. On the one hand, a special, universal break from the norm, the community bonding over rituals, was thoroughly enjoyable. All of the hoopla was neat, and no matter to what faith (or lack thereof) my friends and acquaintances adhered, Halloween through January first was exciting. A frenzy of candy and goodies, toy commercials, visits to the mall, pageant rehearsals and energetic speculation.
At the same time, the order and structure afforded by the school year and regular activities were a reason to be away from home, as well as a refreshing oasis of predictability in an otherwise chaotic world. In that way, the holiday season was scary. There were long breaks from routine, time that felt extended by a child’s lack of perspective. Long stretches when my sister and I were subject to the moody whims and neglectful care of our troubled parents. Tensions simmering and erupting from too much togetherness and lots of other influences I couldn’t yet understand.
The first time I ruined Christmas, I was shaken awake by my red-faced mother at 8 am on a Sunday morning. She was smoking her standard Virginia Slim Ultra Light, blowing the carcinogens in my 10 year-old face as ashes scattered on top of the newspaper piles surrounding the twin bed. My father a hoarder. My mom a chain smoker. In literal and metaphorical ways, our house was a combustion waiting to happen.
As Gloria shook my groggy form, she yelled. I cried. I’d deliberately sabotaged everyone’s holiday by informing an eight year-old Jenny that Santa Claus was just a figment. I remembered the conversation of the day before well. I’d just been sloppy. I was kind of shocked we’d made it to eight with her faith still intact. She was upset, but I consoled her and shook it off. We’d had a good run, right (it was always “we” when it came to my baby sister and I)? How could I explain? I hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.
Moments prior I’d been dead asleep, and I was 10. I didn’t have words accessible to try to for balance and calm. Instead I was hysterical and ashamed. I’d disappointed my mother and I knew over a week ahead of time that Christmas morning would be awful. No more Santa ritual and I couldn’t fix it. Constant needling about what I’d done at best, silence and knowing, angry glares at worst. Jenny would be made to know it was my fault. I had to sit in the penalty box.
I couldn’t wait to go back to school. No one seemed to know how bad and unlovable I was there. I got good grades. I had friends. I was involved in everything. I was a Lutheran parochial school star.
Seven years later, at 17 years old, neurotically preparing for an independent future, holiday isolation took a young adult turn. By this time my parents had separated, and added to a long list of supremely terrible parenting decisions by splitting custody of my sister and I. Gregg kept me. Gloria took Jenny. It wasn’t even like there was a fight about it. It was somehow understood that this is how it should be.
I got to stay in the unheated family manor, sleeping on piles of trash and getting up every morning at 4 am to go my grandmother’s for a shower before school – because my mother didn’t really want me, and I was afraid my father wouldn’t survive if I left. Meanwhile Jenny relocated to our grandmother’s apartment with mom and enjoyed the clean, privileged world of an only child. I was bitter and relieved for her at the same time. What would happen to daddy next year when I wasn’t around?
As it turned out, my anxiety was needless. Gregg wrote me off entirely that Christmas after finding out I’d lost my virginity to a long-time, super wonderful high school sweetheart. I didn’t get how, but it was clear this was an act of personal aggression against my father. I was a liar, a slut and yes once again, a crusher of holiday dreams. I remember sitting in my grandfather’s old bedroom, secluded and weeping while my estranged parents found something over which to bond in front of Nanni’s Christmas tree. Their oldest child was lost of course, but at least they had one good one left. Becky was destined to be a huge, rogue disappointment.
When you live on the edge of people’s shifting morals and expectations, the pressure and strain is internalized. You grow to hate the holidays because you feel segregated from the warmth and love of the season. You’ve heard for so long that this supposedly special time of year brings out the worst in you, that you start to believe it. By choice you tell yourself, you’ll spend holidays alone, watching movies and drinking wine. Because lonely quiet is better than roaring failure. If you don’t try, you can’t make any more mistakes.
And then finally, after years of therapy, hard internal work and healthier relationship decision making, all the ugliness falls away. You are the grown atheist woman freely dancing around a spotless apartment, in front of a lit Christmas tree. The name on the mailbox is yours. Period. There’s a glass of champagne in your hand and you’re bopping to the sounds of a Frank Sinatra Pandora holiday station. You’ve just returned from a miraculous, symbiotic Thanksgiving Day with that beautiful baby sister, the in-law that’s become a real brother, and the two nieces who fill the heart to bursting.
Those two voices of shame you used to hear in your head during the holidays, the ones that self-selected themselves out of your life, are finally silent.