My worst Christmas ever was the first one after my parents got divorced. I was a sophomore in college, and my parents were determined not to let the big change in our family have any effect on our holiday. My dad, who had moved into a tiny, shabby bachelor pad that made my dorm room look palatial, would be spending Christmas Eve with us at home, just like he always had. He’d be going to church with us, just like he always had. He’d even be staying overnight so that he’d be there first thing in the morning to open presents. Sure, he and my mom would be sleeping in separate rooms, but everything was going to be normal. Totally, totally normal.

Well, apparently, no one told my father this, because he showed up without any presents for my mom. He was shocked to see the pile of gifts she’d bought him, and he pulled me aside in a panic. We both agreed that when my mom found out he no longer deemed her gift-worthy, things would get ugly.

Christmas had already withstood one major blow that year. It just so happened that this was the year I finally put my foot down and refused to go to church. “Why isn’t Jerry dressed for church?” my sister asked when she came downstairs in the dress she’d picked out especially for the occasion. “I guess he doesn’t believe in God anymore,” my mother replied. My sister looked at me disapprovingly, not so much for my heathenism, I think, as because I dared to stir up more drama on such an emotionally fragile day.

As it turned out, skipping church proved incredibly convenient. Skipping church would allow me to do something noble, the kind of thing Christmas specials are made of. I was going to save Christmas. “Give me some money,” I told my dad as the good Christians were getting ready to leave. “I’ll take care of everything.” While Mom and Kathy waited in the car, Dad slipped me a hundred dollars in twenties, and I quickly assessed the situation. The church was about half an hour away. A Catholic mass on Christmas Eve lasts about fourteen and a half hours. I should have plenty of time.

But there were other things standing in the way of my heroic act. It turned out the mall was already closed. I drove by K-Mart just as they were shutting their lights off. Even the supermarkets were closed. Then, finally, I found the only place within a ten-mile radius that was keeping normal hours on Christmas Eve: Blockbuster Video. It was my only hope.

My mother was never much of a VCR person. When my dad moved out, she let him take the family VCR without much of a fight. But not long after that, she went out and bought her own, a move which surprised us all. She just figured she should have one, and she asked me if I could show her how to use it. I knew that teaching my mom to work the VCR would not be an easy task, but now, it would be a necessary task, because my she was about to get a hundred dollars worth of videotapes. Merry Christmas, Mom.

My mom didn’t really like movies, and this was back before anyone but super-rich super-geeks collected VHS tapes of all their favorite flicks. So that certainly limited my options. I grabbed three Jane Fonda workout tapes (well, they were all the rage among middle-aged women back then, I guess), an economy-size package of blank tapes (which everyone with a new VCR needs, right?) and plenty of candy. As I walked up to the register, I felt a great sense of relief, and a little bit of pride. Christmas was saved. I put my gifts on the counter and handed over four of my five twenties. Then, the cashier winked at me and made a good-natured jab about last-minute shopping, and I felt like I might cry.

By the time the rest of my family got back from church, my mom’s presents were under the tree, neatly wrapped and stacked in a little pile just for her. I surreptitiously slipped my Dad his change and told him about my triumph — how I had to drive all over to find somewhere that was open and how I left the gift tags blank so he could write “To: Maureen, From: Jerry” in his own handwriting, and how my gifts weren’t the greatest, but they were better than giving no gifts at all. He asked me what I bought, and the look on his face when I told him made it clear that he probably would’ve preferred giving no gifts at all.

On Christmas morning, the normalcy we all hoped for lasted only until we opened the gifts. My father’s gifts to my sister and me made it clear that the Santa duties in the past had probably fallen mostly on my mom. They weren’t great gifts, but we were determined to love them because we loved him, and because we wanted to have a normal Christmas. Totally, totally normal. My mother was less hesitant about showing her disapproval. When she opened the first Jane Fonda tape (all of which were separately wrapped to give her gift pile added volume), a blank look crossed her face.

I wasted no time in stepping in to choreograph her response. “Wow, you love Jane Fonda! Oh, and you just got your own VCR! What a thoughtful gift!”

“Thanks,” my mom said, dryly, and she put the tape aside. I’m still agnostic, but I do believe that Hell is seeing someone give that response to a Jane Fonda tape and knowing she has two more left to open.

Since then, Christmas has never been simple. My mom got remarried and then re-divorced. Dad remarried and then passed away. I graduated and moved to California. Kathy married and had kids and then had to split her holiday time with the in-laws. And now there’s Drew and his complicated family to complicate things further.

Drew and I are both bad at making decisions, so this year, we decided to split things up. I flew to New Jersey to my sister’s house on Thursday. Drew came in on Saturday, then left on Tuesday for Rochester to be with his family. I left NJ mid-day on Christmas for Rochester, then came back to LA on Saturday. Drew stayed in New York two more days, until Tuesday, before heading back. So we each got two days with the other’s family and a week with our own, and we each made about a thousand trips to the airport.

My schedule allowed me to spend Christmas morning at my sister’s house, where the most anticipated event was how my two-year-old niece would handle the occasion. Last year, she was barely old enough to unwrap presents, let alone understand what all the fuss was about. Christmas last year started with all of us excited about how much fun she would have, then ended with us disappointed and anticipating how much more fun she’d have next year. So at 7AM, as my mom brought her downstairs for her first glimpse of Santa’s bounty, everyone gathered at the foot of the stairs with our cameras ready. Her tiny, pajamaed feet came down the steps slowly, one at a time, and when her little face came into view, she stared at all the presents under the tree and was completely petrified. Speechless, she sat down on a step and gazed silently at the tree for a long time before my sister finally implored her to come downstairs. “SpongeBob in the wagon, Mommy!” she said, more excited about the wrapping paper (which was covered in little SpongeBobs wearing Santa hats) than the actual gift (the wagon). Soon, the shock wore off and she was plopped under the tree tearing open her gifts. She barely had one open before she started on the next one, as if the fun weren’t at all in the getting, but merely in the opening.

My niece’s favorite words are “no” and “mine”, which work great in tandem when she’s trying to steal toys away from her seven-month-old sister. Surrounded by tons of brand new stuff, the only toy she ever wanted to play with was whatever Duplo block or plastic keyring her baby sis was sucking on. A scolding followed, then tears, then a quiet, awkward breakfast where we all anticipated how much more fun she’ll have next year.

Thankfully, I was able to cut out at that point and jet off to be with Drew for the rest of the day. There are seven people in Drew’s family. Some of them have moved out and moved away, but they all come back for Christmas. They like to buy lots of gifts, and they like to talk a lot. So in his house, Christmas lasts all day. By the time I arrived at 3PM, they had barely made a dent in opening their presents. Every gift had a story behind it, and by the time they were done giving and sharing (adding in a dinner break and the trip to the airport to pick me up), it was almost midnight.

Buying gifts for people you’ve only met once before isn’t easy, and getting gifts from people who’ve only met you once before can be even worse. You end up with first impression presents, like clothes that you may never wear but that speak volumes about what kind of vibe you give off. It’s not always pretty. But ultimately, it didn’t matter what anyone got me. It felt great just to be included. And they were just as understanding of my clueless attempts at thoughtfulness. Drew’s dad was overly grateful for the gift I gave him: a golf thingamabob (even I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to do), which is probably already tucked away at the bottom of his closet.

This year, the gifts really didn’t matter. And Christmas was a lot better because I didn’t feel the need to save it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s