It is, of course, OK to be sad during Christmas; this advice received from one of the more earnest newspapers I skim online at the start of each day. These wistful few weeks at the close of each year are made worse by the customary Christmas fantasies which are omnipresent in the noise around us, on bill boards, television, shop windows, even as I look down at the screen of the ATM I see a happy, green and red clad family looking back at me, with cold vocational smiles that could only be pulled off by photographic models. So it is a time to be approached with a sense of resignation and to only allow yourself occasional flashes of healthy anger; a television commercial where a handsome pair of professional young adults casually gift each other expensive cars will do it for me, what kind of society can suggest such extravagance? I fume involuntarily each time, what messages are we transmitting to each other? Desires as boastful, plaintive, as naive as a Cave man’s painting is probably about right, while they clustered for warmth in the cave dreaming of feasts walking around on four legs outside in the cold plains, we sit at home contemplating the risks of 1.7% APR and no money down on signing; no wonder Christmas is an unhappy time. And all the Dickensian dispatches from is resting place in Westminster Abbey – these generic chirpy families around abundant dinner tables, redemption for the mean spirited, ambition and kindness cut across class boundaries like a warm knife through butter….are all equally fake and problematic; in his day the whole thing is easier to understand, in a land full of orphans and widows, extreme poverty, the idea of a shared day of gluttony and comfort in the presence of your family might make total sense. But for most of us, never enjoying the advantage of being orphaned at an early age (I’m joking!) and so facing the reality rather than the myths of parenthood, it’s a day to be endured and to forgive for some of us who can. Christmas has always been under attack in my lifetime, even as a precocious child I derided its backstory while being forced to participate in nativity plays, in teenage years laughed at its blatant commercialities and now complain of its climatic damage, of which I am a participant, moving hundreds, thousands of boxes through the air in the Cargo holds of planes.
Is this the worst time of year to be in New York? Certainly the weeks just before Christmas when the city is full of outsiders, apparently uncertain how to walk down a sidewalk without stopping in our path to check directions on their cell phones, can be annoying – the weather, which arrives with a grey cold predictably and persistence of a Jehovah Witness on your doorstep, also can add to the pain. Yesterday, against better advice, I wore insubstantial sneakers in the rain and spent the day with wet socks and moist feet which brought to the soft skinned surface of my memory school days when this miserable state was not untypical.
But personally I think Christmas Day and the few days afterwards can be lovely, slumbering in their quietude, not only are tourists well gone but so are many locals and we can hear our own undrowned voices clearly in the downtown streets, find a seat in a familiar restaurant without too much trouble, catch an early afternoon movie. So coming back into the city on a cheap bus from Philadelphia is the time I enjoy most, arriving on the edge of SoHo, which we feel we have to ourselves, a place which remains a living repository of our happiest memories and one we both know at some time in the distant future, its cobbled streets will be heartbreaking to walk through, thinking of our lost younger selves, of time and talents wasted. But for now, we will find that snug, warm place to eat, feeling happy that we behaved well, that we have done our duty visiting family.
Christmases in my childhood were typical, in that they were hugely anticipated and therefore as a necessary part of that naturally arc shaped experience, the final part was one of disappointment. In my case, from my earliest years I would be highly specific ( dictatorial even) about the gift I wanted and perhaps as a cruel life lesson, almost but never quite, received it. Instead, something close was given, the Raleigh racing bicycle that I dream’t of for months, turned out to be one with a strange, unheard of, brand name. And for someone desperate to fit in with my circle of friends it was devastating, physical proof of my outsider, second rate status. I knew, and suspect my friends knew, that the gift would have been purchased carelessly by my parsimonious father, I imagine him now leaving the pub, finding that he could save a few pounds bringing home a cheaper bike. On its maiden ride I managed to damage some of the metal tubing and spent the next few weeks hiding it from him, agonizing over it and admonishing myself rather than dare question the bikes poor quality. Another year when I had been craving the football toy “Subbuteo”, I received instead another game altogether which I am sure was bought in the same casual manner and which resulted in me crying in my bedroom and later being beaten soundly for my ingratitude. These events planted the seeds of a lifelong interest in buying quality objects, to never skimp, and even now harbor an irrational snobbery, contempt even towards badly made things. But it was really the inattention to my wants (and perhaps you could even call it “taste”) or rather the dismissal of them, which was so crushing (and perhaps this sounds all too precious) these little mistakes half a century old, such minor slights, still hurts to this day. And still I blame myself. If only there was a time machine I could borrow to go back to the 1970’s and not be so spineless, the things I would fix, like Michael J Fox I would disrupt the family dynamic….make it all better. But in the real world after each occasion, each unhappy Christmas there would be the doleful coda, when we children were sent to upstairs to bed, then the fiery downstairs rows, scream’s from my mother, the booming retorts from my father – me shaking under the bed sheets and assuming it was my fault they hated each other; a family held together by a gossamer thread and somehow even the giving of gifts caused irreversible friction between my parents.
Mary on the other hand had amazingly chaotic Christmases, or at least that’s what I experienced in the 1990’s when we were first married and her father was still with us. I cannot pretend it wasn’t a shock, to be at these populous events, a room full of such huge personalities, loud hyper active children, running around, fighting, and the ceiling above creaking under the strain of beds transformed into trampolines. It was a family wary of alcohol, and wisely there was little wine or beer, but on one occasion – knowing I needed a little help to get me through the evening they had bought a case of beer which disappeared early on in the evening, taken by (or more likely gifted by her mother to) the local fire department, dressed as Santa’s and ruthlessly terrorizing the streets in their fire truck. But this was also another powerful life lesson for me; that you can have a blistering row, say awful things and then five minutes later find the protagonists in a laughing embrace assuring each other of their mutual love and whenever I see this I always imagine hearing the soft sound of psychologists and psychotherapists everywhere applauding.
But I was raised English and our family dinners were largely silent affairs, the brittle sound of knives and forks on china, longing to be away from the table to watch television and to this day, the child in me races through meals. Outside it would be raining, the patter of water on glass, pale olive and earthy colors of trees blurred behind downward tracks of the rainwater, and inside the sound of Julie Andrews posh voice in the mountains of Switzerland on the television, casting a blue shadow which pulsated against the living room walls, and then we would be brought together later in the evening thanks to the comedian’s “Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show” acting as a kind of third party moderator to bring safe laughter to the family.
I still have an overwhelming fear of conflict and need for decorum. When I was about twelve years old my only aunt called on the telephone asking for my mother, I confess I was a little abrupt, possibly in a pre-teenage mood, distracted. After the call my mother said to me angrily, “What did you say to your Auntie Valerie?”, “Nothing” I replied….”well she is mad with you!” and apparently she remains so, because she never spoke to me again; that was forty seven years ago, and I’m mentioning the story only to leave you with no doubt how fucked up my family was. One last story. When my father was alive and before he got sick, Mary asked him what kind of child I was and his reply was “He was a happy little chap”. To this day she repeats this laughing, knowing how it infuriates me, not just the inauthentic folksiness, but I know a big part of her motivation is her love, she really wants it to be true, for my sake, and for hers too….she doesn’t want a messed up adult with unresolved anger. But the other is an admonishment of sorts, to force me forgive him, to let things go, and perhaps I have a bit of my aunts stubbornness in me, this unwillingness to exonerate or perhaps just a lazy inability to care enough.
So it may seem strange to say I am looking forward to Christmas, to travel on that inexpensive bus to Philadelphia then out to its grim suburbs, to be with Mary’s family where I will be bear hugged and kissed by the very children who jumped on the beds and browbeat us adults all those years ago…now with their own young families. They call me “Uncle Neil” which I will never get used to and makes my skin crawl, because when I was young these uncles were crusty, old and uninteresting…how it possible that this is me now, while my mind is as young, younger even than theirs? I try to compensate for my age by telling them I like some of the pop stars that I imagine are in their universe, but suspect this just adds to my eccentricity. But Mary’s family is one where love is unconditional and so I am glad to within the tender folds of that community, even for the short evening, they are warm and kind to me and most of all accepting. More than once over the years, I’ve disappeared quickly to the bathroom to wipe illogical, infuriating tears from my eyes, quickly rejoining the party before I’m missed, hoping no one notices this weakness that is part of me, full of self-reproach and confusion.