Eccentricities, Dysfunction, Passive-Aggression, and an Outside Chance of Violence – Family-Style
When I was a child, Christmas was all enchantment and mystery. ‘Twas Jesus’ all-you-can-eat birthday party, guest starring Santa, who’d show us the true Reason for the Season, which happened to be one-upmanship, when I rode my spanking-new Huffy Green Machine over to the house of my Jewish friends, the Rappaports, with their chess sets and dreidels and other sad little Hanukkah offerings. I’d learned in Vacation Bible School that they were God’s Chosen People. Based on their holiday booty, I had my doubts.
In adulthood, Christmas took on a more selfless hue. Inviting friends over to sit around the Christmas tree and drink the pain away. Wearing the mistletoe belt buckle to the office Christmas party. And staying up until the wee hours on Christmas Eve, assembling impossible children’s toys with missing bolts and directions written in Mandarin – so that fat phantom beardo in red pajamas could walk away with all the credit.
But when considering what binds most Christmases in memory, for me it’s all the foibles and eccentricities, dysfunction and passive-aggression, with an outside chance of violence. In other words, it’s about the people we spend Christmas with… family. Or as Alexander Pope called them, “the commonwealth of malignants.” When I think of these people – my tribe – I think of everything that is both wrong and righteous about this highest of holidays, which leads
me to my saintly mother and the time she tried to decapitate my Uncle Carl with a King James Bible.
As Tolstoy nearly said, all normal families are alike, but each nutcake family is nutty in its own way.
It had been an uneventful Christmas. A family gathering with Crosby and Como on the hi-fi. Uncles and aunts and cousins lazing on the couch in tryptophanic catatonia. But out of nowhere, a theological conversation broke out – a no-go zone as dangerous as politics or comparative salary discussions.
Despite both my mother and uncle growing up Catholic and then converting to evangelical Protestantism (or “Christianity,” as we say when ribbing our Catholic friends) as adults, Uncle Carl was experiencing a temporary crisis of faith. Or more than likely, he just wanted to make trouble. Like any good uncle, he was a professional ball-buster, habitually teasing us children about our big ears or lack of kickball prowess until we either cried or swung on him.
As he did his Richard Dawkins routine on my mom, a fervent, no-quarter believer, he took to asking amateur-hour questions like, “If there is a God, how can there be natural disasters, or child starvation, or a Jimmy Carter presidency?”
Mom gamely endured his Doubting Thomas shtick for a while. But when he started questioning the infallibility of God’s Word, he might as well have punched her in the chops.
That’s when she wound up from the stretch. Mom is only five-foot-one with small hands, but somehow she wrapped one of them around her unwieldy King James and threw a perfect split-finger fastball. No one thought to put the radar gun on it, but she brought the high heat.
The Bible was hurled about two feet higher than where Uncle Carl was sitting, but then dropped right where his head was… or should have been. Uncle Carl was a star three-sport athlete in high school, and even with all the Christmas carb-loading, he still had the reflexes of a lynx. The Bible hit the wall and crashed to the floor.
The door slamming behind her, Mom stormed outside for a righteous walk-off. My worldly, older cousin Debbie, (savvier than I am about matters such as religious warfare) whispered, “We’re going to have to go. Your mother threw a Bible at my dad’s head.”
But they didn’t go. And we all stayed together for the rest of the day because it was Christmas and we’re family. Mom came back. Apologies were offered. Embraces exchanged. The kids were still shell-shocked, but all the adults laughed and recounted the highlights as if the story happened years ago. “You’ve heard of bible thumpers,” my dad deadpanned, “she’s a bible thrower.”
I don’t pretend that my Christmas crazies are crazier than yours. As Tolstoy nearly said, all normal families are alike, but each nutcake family is nutty in its own way. Family pride, however, dictates stipulating that my mother and uncle came by their Christmas craziness honestly, or at least genetically. Growing up in Pittsburgh, their father was a large-hearted, short-fused fireplug of a Sicilian who they called “Magoo,” after Mr. Magoo, the oblivious cartoon character who always narrowly averts disaster. Similarly, my grandfather was blind in one eye due to an injury on his construction job, but that didn’t stop him from driving lustily and erratically as other motorists feared for their lives.
Christmas in the Magoo household similarly resembled a multi-car collision. My grandfather had little patience for the niceties of buying a Christmas tree. One year, after buying an anemic little Charlie Brown number, he couldn’t fit the tree in its holder due to obstructive lower limbs. In a Paul Bunyan-esque Yuletide fury he took out a hack saw and cut the tree, and he kept cutting until only a half a tree was left. Now deep into mid-tree, where branches proliferate, the tree fit its stand even worse than before. So he threw the tree to the floor, kicked it and cursed, “We’re not having a tree this year!” His children looked on, wailing.
Fortunately, his cooler-headed sister implored him to go buy the kids a decent tree, even though by now it was late Christmas Eve. Sizing up the last of the lot – the bound-for-the-wood-chipper trees – he picked whatever orphan he could find, sawed off the bottom, and tie-wired it to the top half of the old one.
And therein lies what we in the life-tidying trade call, “the moral of the story.” Christmas with family isn’t always about heralding angels and jingling bells, Jack-nuts roasting over an open nose, and eating perfectly cooked reindeer loin with sugar-plum chutney. Sometimes, Christmas with family is just about making things work, brutishly and gracelessly. That’s what families do when they work right: They are what we count on, when we’re unable to count on anything else.
Besides, once you surrender to the madness, families tend to be fun as hell. The weirder, the better. Some of the happiest days of my life have occurred around Christmas, courtesy of the strange birds I’m related to by blood or marriage.
There’s my 80-year-old father-in-law, Vic. His favorite Christmas hobby is protesting Christmas. When he buys presents (if he buys them) he throws them under the tree in an unadorned paper bag. Years ago, we went to an ornate local-lights display, requiring us to spend half an hour idling in our car in a line of onlookers. When Vic didn’t feel like waiting, he commanded us from the backseat to get out of the line and head home. Caught up in the Christmas spirit, we refused. “You were warned,” he shrugged. Then he lifted his loafered barges over the front seat, made a clicking sound like a gun turret, and let a terrible ripper, fumigating the whole car like a flatulent Orkin man. We returned home with the windows down, lights unseen, and everybody coughing.
Then there’s Uncle Bill (my mom’s other brother). Once upon a time, he was a Reagan Republican. But somewhere along the way, the George W. Bush presidency radicalized him in the opposite direction. He started keeping what he called his “Fox News Notebook,” a holstered Steno pad he kept handy with facts and arguments to refute claims from Sean Hannity and company. He now occasionally breaks it out for discussion at family gatherings if he can find it. We’re not above hiding it under a chair.
As more Christmases accumulate behind than lay ahead, you do start thinking of your family life as a stage production, one in which all the great character actors are dropping off, with no hope of replacement. On my Christmas in-memoriam honor roll are Uncles Phil and Dean, and Aunt Natalie.
Phil was a slightly dangerous uncle… always the best kind. When I was a tyke, he’d pour me a third of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer when no one was looking. When he built a bathroom in his garage, he wallpapered it with naked cartoon ladies, their breasts inflated like birthday balloons. He once ate a whole handful of decorative scented chips from a dish on our coffee table, being none the wiser but confiding to me on the side, “That is some awful candy.” He played George Jones cheatin’ songs and smoked Kools like he was trying to break his lungs, which he eventually did.
My wife’s Uncle Dean could fix anything. He’d come by the house, make a repair, then sit down for a beer. You’d tell him a story, he’d nod, then say, “That ain’t nuttin’.” Then he’d tell you his stories, which all began with the same dateline, “Oakmont, P.A., 1943,” and he’d be off to the races telling you a tale you’d heard ten times before. But it didn’t matter. Because all was calm and bright and Uncle Dean was here, fixing things.
Once, he almost fixed me for good when he hit me, full force, in the forehead with the backswing of his ball-peen hammer while trying to bang out my dented lawnmower deck. As I stood there, stars swirling, Tweety birds singing, trying not to go down like a sack of wet cement, he didn’t apologize but said something I’ll never forget: “Ahhh, it happens.”
Sometimes, Christmas with family is just about making things work, brutishly and gracelessly.
A lukewarm Catholic, Uncle Dean nevertheless had a supernatural sixth sense. He could often tell when people were going to die. Their faces would grow cloudy to him. Soon thereafter, they’d keel over from a blood clot or stroke or whatever showstopper the Reaper had devised. Uncle Dean never knew what exactly it would be, but that it would be was something he kept to himself, figuring when your number is up there’s no getting around it. We suspected his own face grew cloudy to him in the mirror the last time he came by to check on a repair, before he dropped dead of a heart attack behind the wheel of his car in a casino parking lot. He wasn’t quite himself that day. And as he was leaving he reached behind himself for my wife’s hand, squeezing it hard. Then he walked off to his Lincoln without looking back.
Dean’s sister, Aunt Natalie, suffered childhood convulsions which left her mentally impaired. But she’d put on a show at every Christmas gathering by sneaking copious amounts of vino from a coffee cup and popping her dentures out like a cash-register drawer. At some point in the evening she’d disappear with a Food Lion shopping bag into the bathroom to change into her Christmas costume. One year, she was “Ms. Wreath,” her body encircled head-to-toe in homemade wreaths. But her crowning glory came when she transformed herself into “the Living Christmas Tree.” Natalie hung ornaments and tinsel off herself, then strung herself in lights and plugged into an electrical outlet. Having forgotten an extension cord, she dutifully stood by the outlet, illuminated for the rest of the night.
One Christmas, she admitted to us that it had been a hard, lonely year. “I’m praying for God to take me,” she said, with hope, rather than bitterness. He did, shortly thereafter. But not before Aunt Natalie put me in mind of John Cheever’s words: “The irony of Christmas is always upon the poor in heart; the mystery of the solstice is always upon the rest of us.”
When talking family, I don’t exempt myself from having Christmas quirks. My wife, who is not otherwise given to salty language, regularly calls me “the Christmas dick.” Probably because I bark at her when she starts playing Christmas music shortly after Halloween. It’s usually of the punishing variety – think Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” – that sounds like a bad PsyOps experiment in which Christmas radio DJs are trying to make the Jews come out with their hands up.
For a few years, I played phone-Santa to my nieces and nephews, calling them days before Christmas from the “North Pole” to take their gift requests. But I did Santa in the voice of a bullying John McLaughlin shouting down Eleanor Clift. By the time I’d given them the third degree on whether they’d been naughty or nice, the children were so intimidated that they couldn’t recall what they wanted. It seemed instructive to portray Santa as a projection of God/McLaughlin… a semi-stern, half-joking Jesuit flapping his flews, leaving you off balance, wondering if blessings would be given or taken away. Fear often inspires reverence.
Like most Christmas dicks, however, I am at heart a sentimentalist. Especially when it comes to my Christmas Tree Graveyard. I don’t view the end of Christmas as a time to drive my tree to the county dump, or to chop it up for the outdoor fire pit. Instead, I haul my Fraser fir out to the deck and throw it over the railing into the backyard where it might stay anywhere from a week to four months, depending on my winter sedentariness and/or spring’s first lawn mowing.
But eventually, on the tree’s stump heel, I carve the year that the tree faithfully stood sentry over our family room. Then I drag it out to the woods behind my house to its final resting place. I don’t walk the woods much in the summer, when they’re thick with poplar and beech and sweetgum, along with a heavy tangle of underbrush. But in the winter, especially after a light snow, I love to clear the head and lungs by crunching over dead branches down a steep ravine to a trickle of stream where I look for magical totems like snowy owls or white-tail deer sheds. But the most magical of all is the Christmas Tree Graveyard.
For as I see those carved years on the Christmas tree stumps, now stacking up like cordwood, it brings everything back. Not just the Christmases, but the family who populated them. Some living, some dead, but all living in memory. The bible-chuckers and the scent-chip eaters, the plugged-in illuminators and the car fumigators. They’re all there, making life what it should be: weird and warm and raucous and loud. It’s my hedge against the sound I dread more than any other… their silence.
Excerpted from The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holiday, edited by Jonathan V. Last and including stories from P.J., Christopher Buckley, and plenty more fantastic writers.