Monday, December 13, 2010

Ten Good Reasons Why Christmas Sucks Rocks

If you are Catholic and have had the uncommon privilege of halfway decent catechesis at some point in your life, then you are probably aware that Christmas is not the supreme High Feast day of the Liturgical Ordo. No, that honour, the crowning jewel of the Calendar of Seasons, belongs to Easter. It is the Day of Days; the celebration of Christ triumphing over evil and death forever. Yet Christmas has it's place, especially in modern culture, where the sacred presentation of the Nativity of Christ gives way to a flurry of privately held traditions, even if that means denying any tradition at all.

Christmas was always a kind a brutal tug of war in the family I grew up with. I had the very proper Eastern-bred paternal grandparents who threw lavish semi-formal parties in their home, complete with crystal chandeliers, a "don't even think about touching that" tree towering in every room, and fine linens protecting the mahogany table in the overly formal dining room, every horizontal surface crowded to excess with enough holiday food to feed a small town, and enough blended Scotch to keep all of the brothers and my grandfather very giggly and generous until everyone was exhausted and ready for sleep. Attendance was evidently mandatory and never really questioned - a situation that never sat well with my smoldering-tempered mother, who felt forcibly alienated from her own kin, and she made a point of saying so every chance she got.

On the other side of the familial fence there was my diminutive maternal "Gram." Hailing from a family of a dozen-or-so Nebraska-farm-reared siblings, five times married, and a veteran of the war-time entertainment stage, my Gram would pull out all the stops with parties where not a drop of alcohol was allowed, but guitars, banjos, singing, and games ran clean through the night and into dawn without respite, and not one person felt any need to argue about anything at all...which, if you've ever been within twenty miles of that family line, you know what a certifiable miracle is witnessed in such a feat.

Only once did my parents take my brothers and me to the latter family gathering. I was eight years old. Earlier that day, the Catholic church across the street from my Gram's house burned to the ground and, at some point, my Gram, my Great Grandma Grace, my mother, and I stood in the shadow of the carport under a clear black sky and just wondered at the acrid scent of dampened smoke in the air, and the sad, jumbled pile of dark grey granite stones across the way that had just one sunset before been the small fortress church where my mother had grown up and eventually found her conversion.

I stood under my Grandma Grace's shoulder just then and hugged her tight, breathed in the warm scent of lavender that permeated her tiny, soft, pearl-buttoned cardigan, and she held me close in return whilst she chatted quietly with her daughter and grand daughter. It was the first and the last time that I would ever get to spend Christmas with my great grandmother at her house; the following year she was in a nursing home and not long after her arrival, she fell, broke a hip, lost her left leg to sepsis, and faded quickly and quietly away in the Spring.

That last Christmas night, my Gram gave me one of her decorations; a tiny pearly-white plastic music box, shaped like a pipe organ, made festive with tiny sprigs of green plastic holly and a golden-winged angel sitting at the bench, tiny alabaster hands poised over imaginary keys that played, when the secret key in the back of the box was turned just so, a very tiny "Silent Night." The music stopped ages ago, but to this day, it is one of my favourite possessions. It reminds me of the night when my mother was home with her elder sisters and seemed almost happy--the only Christmas that I can actually remember when she did not loose her temper at some point, drag me into an empty room and paddle me silly for some indiscretion of manners, real or imagined. It is the only Christmas that I ever saw my Gram in her authentic, radiant element, playing the boisterous hostess to everyone she loved, whether related by blood or not. It was beautiful because it was simple, it was memorable because it was a night truly governed by peace in the midst of tragedy.

I was eighteen-years-old the last time I ever attended a family Christmas party. I stopped going because that year I tried to institute a new family tradition, and failed miserably. I came that night armed with a Bible, gathered everyone together in my grandparents' living room, and read the Nativity account from the Gospel of Luke. Three days later on Sunday morning just before I left for church with friends, my mother told me over the phone how embarrassed she was by such a "brazen display of hypocrisy" and she assured me with an unmistakable sneer that I had made a fool of myself by doing something so "stupid." The next year I just stayed in bed under the covers and read a book with a trusty box of chocolates at my side. The year after that I had the flu. Another year; I lived fifteen-hundred miles away and began a chosen pattern of working holidays so that others could go home to their own families.

...A decade more, and my paternal grandfather died; our family scattered silently to the Four Winds never to gather together in the same space again, just as my mother's family had done when Grandma Grace had left us. Over time misunderstandings and bitter tales of slights and crimes against egos would fracture, splinter, and eventually kill my family on both sides. In my immediate relations, after my parents divorced, sides were chosen, stories were told and scandalously embellished in the retelling, lines were drawn in concrete and, finally, there came that one empty, aching moment whilst watching the snow twinkle as it fell softly under the street lamp outside my window when I realised that the family that I missed and loved no longer existed, nor did anyone but me care to resurrect it. Not too many years ago I decided that it was time to call a spade a spade: for all practical purposes I am an orphan in this cold, massive world that my true mentor once called "the long loneliness," and there is no "home" to be at for Christmas in this or any other year.

I spend a lot of time with homeless people during the holidays, not out of any sense of devotion, but out of necessity. The holidays have a way of breeding guilt in the hearts of country club Christians who suddenly grow consciences that inform them (however wrongly) that condescending to some poor social lepers in the soup line for a few hours will expiate a mountain of sins against Charity. The poorest of the poor may be lacking in material blessings, but they aren't lacking in brains, or insight into human nature; they see the fraud afoot, and they graciously ignore it as best they can. What's the alternative?

I talk to many of these people during this season when city works departments start wrapping lamp posts in gaudy tinsel and glaring lights; they have often told me how grating the kettle bells are when they know that some nice bank vault will receive a fat, heavy bucket of guilt change that night whilst their own empty stomachs continue to gnaw and gurgle within them because they haven't got two dollars to spend on a cup of instant soup at the A & P.

Right now, at this precise moment, the Union Gospel Mission is turning men away because they haven't any room left to keep them. It's three degrees outside. I beg local donors for old blankets to stuff in our beaten wreck of a car so that we can go search for our friends who sleep down by the lake and the rivers where the police won't go looking for them. Every now and again, we luck out and someone dumps a black lawn bag of old mittens and hats and an occasional hunter's jacket on our covered porch without a word; it's not difficult to find barren bodies to put them on.

I have watched homeless men die of hypothermia whilst police officers mistakenly argue over whether they are just drunk or stoned. I have sat in our car and cried over weary mothers huddled in their own cars with children who do not understand that the reason that they cannot go home is because Daddy lost the rent money at the track or, worse, tried to strangle Mommy to death in a rage last week whilst they slept in the next room. I have had to run for cover in the face of one of the most obscene injustices I know: an honourably discharged disabled veteran returned from battle overseas, lying on crushed cardboard under the canopy of a tree in the Chancery park because our Congressional leaders chose to cut his pay and his benefits instead of their own whilst he was half a world away sacrificing life and limb for a war that should have never been waged in the first place....I am ashamed of what they have come home to, and I am ashamed to let them see me cry for their forgotten honour.

Often I ask these people if they have family; I am no longer disappointed when they tell me, "No." I used to be deeply bothered when a homeless person told me that they do not know whether their own parents, siblings, or children are alive or dead. I no longer wonder at the absurdity of someone telling me that they don't remember the last address their mother lived at, or that the last phone number they had for a brother or sister was disconnected ages ago.

In too many ways the homeless people whom I have come to regard as my family are veritable orphans. People in better circumstances are all too quick to assume that the bum on the street drinks or drugs themselves into a stupor out of selfishness or sloth. I know better. I know from first hand experience the dull, throbbing ache of the long loneliness; I know what it is to be so far away from kin that you know that you are a cipher in the deep, deep snow to those whom you love in absentia. I know what it is to weep over the loss of someone who you have only known in the exchange of a blanket and a kind word, or an hour in a warm, idling car over a shared cup of coffee and a cold sandwich.

Tonight one of our friends was found dead in a park. Flashes of smoldering piles of deep dark grey granite filled my mind as one of my police contacts told me that they "don't think he suffered much." I know that this statement is absolutely untrue, and I hate it that we live in a society that believes such lies. My friend at the police department asked me if our friend has any family that can be contacted. There is no one.

No one.

Another beautiful-but-nameless orphan in the world who was known to us and who will be known no more because he froze to death alone and unwanted in a public park. He's the tenth friend we have lost thus far this Winter, and Christmas hasn't even been and gone, yet.

I've decided that I absolutely hate Christmas, and this year I have ten very good reasons why:

Jonathan.

Katie.

Eddie.

Mark.

Uncle Jack.

Edith.

Badger.

Charles.

Tony.

1 comment:

marge said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the post. Was googling for some friends and me who are flat out broke this year and ignoring christmas as best we can. Thought I might find some kindred souls.

When I saw "christmas sucks" of course, I clicked on it.

But I am several months behind on my rent, not evicted yet, not on the street yet. One rung above and therefore, for the moment, fortunate.

I too was raised in this sort of childhood christmas you describe, wealthy and abundant.

I am broke this year because of politics and activism.

It was on my way down that I discovered the Catholic Workers movement for the first time, wondering why I never knew about it before. It was to a local house here in Connecticut that I made the last donation I have made to anyone, the last one before I became way to poor to donate. The Catholic Workers are the bedrock of the poor because they bear accurate, truthful witness almost invariably.

Thanks.