People at work keep stopping by my desk to harass me about Christmas. Well, to be fair, they are stopping by everyone’s desk, and they probably think of it as “small talk” rather than “harassment.”
But honestly I am getting so sick of deflecting the casual questions. Are you ready for Christmas? Got your tree up? Have you done all your Christmas shopping? What are you doing for Christmas? Got a big Christmas planned? Spending time with your family for Christmas this year?
I used to just go along with it and shove down all my holiday stress to not make the conversation awkward. But now, I think screw that, why should I be uncomfortable because you are asking some personal questions loaded with cultural assumptions and obliviousness?
So my answers vary depending on the asker and the question:
- I don’t celebrate Christmas so I’m as ready as I’m gonna get.
- I don’t decorate for Christmas.
- I’m not Christian.
- Nothing. I’m doing nothing for Christmas.
- Getting drunk, binging on Netflix, and devouring boxes and boxes of chocolate and mandarin oranges.
- I’m not seeing my family for Christmas.
- I’m estranged from part of my family, so no.
- This is a stressful time of year for me, so I’m trying to keep it low-key.
- I fucking hate Christmas.
- Not much, how about you?
When people wish me Merry Christmas, I’m mostly happy to say thanks, same to you. But I really resent all the assumptions behind the Christmas questions. The assumption that Christmas is part of my tradition, the assumption of happy (or “happy enough”) families who actually like to get together, the expectation that such togetherness must happen at this particular time of year, and so forth. But my prickliness at people’s assumptions is just the surface, the thing I grab onto when I don’t want to think about what’s underneath.
I hate consuming. I hate advertising with the fire of a thousand suns, and I do my best to buy as little as possible. I generally don’t like receiving gifts of “bought stuff” (although I’ll take cheques, hug coupons, and homemade cookies any day). I don’t buy gifts anymore. The crass commercialism of the western world really reaches a disgusting pinnacle at this time of year, reinforced by songs telling kids that if they’re good they’ll get presents, and ads full of healthy, able-bodied, white, heteronormative families posing in tinsel-laden sets. It makes me hostile to feel pressured to conform to the social conventions of being grateful for shit I don’t want and didn’t ask for when I am both so broke and so opposed to owning more plastic crap made by exploited workers paid a pittance by multinationals.
I don’t like large groups of people. The loudness and the music and the tables groaning with food, the shrieks of laughter during the after-dinner card games—it actually literally hurts my ears and kind of scares me. Even when I am playing in one of those card games, even when I am actually surrounded by people I love and enjoy, I still have to force my shoulders down from around my ears, and remind myself that there is indeed enough air in the room for all of us, that I can breathe normally.
I am super uncomfortable around people who are intoxicated. Not just falling-down-drunk, but even just the three-glasses-of-wine-and-shouldn’t-drive intoxication. Because there are alcoholics in my family, because there are alcoholics and drug abusers in my past relationships, because I have been so personally and intimately impacted—no, not “impacted”—call it what it is—so hurt and degraded and abused and mistreated and humiliated by people in the throes of their addictions, I am now wary (the technical term, of course, is hypervigilant) around people who are drinking or using other drugs.
I am estranged from my dad and most of his side of the family. My dad has invited me to make contact again when I am ready to recant, to pretend that stuff never happened, to act—as I did for years—as if everything is okay and the things he and especially my stepmother said and did to me weren’t actually hurtful or harmful or indeed even worthy of notice. But now that I understand the crazymaking and gaslighting, I can never pretend. Sure, I’d love to have a decent relationship with my dad, but not at the expense of my own mental health. Not if it means I have to abandon my own perceptions and accept theirs. So yeah, a family-oriented holiday gets me thinking about him and how I wish things could have been different.
People in my family tend to die at this time of year. I’ve read that this is actually quite common (or is that dying right after retirement?). At one point, it was so bad that at Christmas dinner (yes, I attend them some years), the joke was “Next year, let’s just meet up at the hospital.” So I think about my dead ones, especially my grandmother.
And all of this stuff is deep for me, but it still sits on top of the deepest thing, which is that no matter what I do at this time of year, I will be wrong. I will make the wrong choice, I will disappoint the people around me; I will hurt someone; I will show my true essence as a bad and selfish person. And this, people and bots, is what happens when you’re an asshole and make a little girl choose between her parents.
My parents split when I was very little and my brother was still a baby. Very early on, my stepmother turned Christmas into a tug-of-war. (Please note that while I am “blaming” my stepmom here, I am fully aware that my dad was an adult who witnessed this and chose not to intervene or protect his little kids from this woman, and I do absolutely hold him accountable for that.)
Every Christmas Day, after having spent Christmas Eve with my dad and his family, it was time for my dad to drive me and my brother over to my mom’s so we could have our Christmas with that side of the family, And my stepmom would start asking, sometimes even the night before, what time we wanted to go to our mom’s place. It was a trick question. If I said “early,” then there was the anger and guilt-tripping about how we’d rather be with our mom than our dad. And if I said “later,” there was the shaming and sarcasm about how obviously we’d rather be gone already and she knew we were just trying to humour them. (And also, I was terribly anxious that I was wrecking Christmas for my mom by not getting there as early as I could.)
This is a terrible position to put a child in. And it started when I was little, way too young to understand the game that was being played, but aware and wary enough to know I had to watch every word. It wasn’t just Christmas, of course; any “family holidays” brought it out. She always framed it as a choice I was making to avoid my dad, and interpreted it to mean I liked my mom better. No matter what I chose or said, I was wrong. I was selfish. I was being thoughtless and mean to my dad and breaking his heart. I was a disappointment. Not, you will notice, I did something disappointing. But I was a disappointment. Not I was making a bad choice, but I was bad.
It’s hard to remember that actually they should not have done this to me. When I was five and seven and eleven, the adults in my life (by which I mean my mom and my dad) should have made these arrangements directly without involving me. And my stepmom should have stayed the fuck out of it. And my dad should have intervened. I still think I should have been able to handle this better, that if only I had said the right words and made the right choices, they would all have been happy with me. As it was, there was always this undercurrent of having to navigate the minefield of contradictory expectations, of having to avoid the anger and shaming and ridicule, and of having to attend the family events and plaster on a big smile and pretend that we were a happy family. Meanwhile, my stepmom would be talking shit about my mom’s religion, her character, and her housekeeping. “No wonder you would rather be there; I know she doesn’t make you clean your room.” ” I know that at your mom’s house you don’t have to wash your face before you go to bed, but that’s not how we do things here.” Et cetera. (These things were not true, but that’s irrelevant.) (For those of you who are separated with kids, don’t ever talk trash about your kid’s other parent in front of them. And don’t EVER allow your new partner to do so, either. It’s emotional abuse.)
So the holidays are always stressful for me, and even though I generally like my mom’s side of the family, I am not as “attached” to family as others seem to think I should be.
This year, I am going to spend the four days of the Christmas long weekend chilling with my cats and dogs, reading a bunch of books, drinking red wine and eating chocolate, making art, and maybe watching some movies that pass the Bechdel Test. My theory is that if I am going to hurt and disappoint people anyway, if I am going to make wrong and selfish choices anyway, if I am a bad person anyway—then I may as well go all the way and spend the holidays exactly how I want.
No people, no pressure, no plans. Just me and the critters and one of my Grandmère’s quilts wrapped around me and some big fuzzy socks. I think it’ll be the best Christmas ever.
Edited an hour after the original posting to replace “pigging out on chocolate” with “eating chocolate.” “Pigging out” is how my stepmom (and society at large) tries to make me feel about eating “junk” food. It’s an easy habit to slip into, this denigrating of one’s self for seeking pleasure. I try hard not to reinforce that but it’s sure easy to fall into the habit.