Kick passed out before we left the subdivision. My mom’s cousin Andy’s party was the third she’d been to that day and the sixth in three days, it was 9 p.m., she hadn’t napped in 72 hours, and all she’d had to eat was four bites of ham and 357 types of Christmas cookies.
We had a trunk full of presents and bellies full of food and at one point at least every hour I’d laughed so hard it hurt. It hardly mattered I was slugging back repulsive bottled “peppermint mocha” drinks and testing the upper speed limits of I-94. Kick snored. Mr. A snored. Andy Williams on the radio was bellowing about the merry bells.
I grew up traveling from house to house on Christmas, from my parents’ to my grandmother on my mother’s side to my grandmother on my father’s side to my great-aunt Mary’s where 35 people crammed into a house the size of a modest NYC apartment and played pin-the-carrot-nose-on-the-snowman. When I tell people about it the reaction is almost always one of pity and it makes me insane.
“Oh, wow, that’s so much to do.”
“That sounds like a lot of work.”
“Don’t you wish you could just stay home and relax?”
“You go THAT MANY places?”
Yes. Yes we do. Yes, we have frantic American commercialized Christmas. There are too many presents and too many people and we should just be sitting by the window contemplating a single candle in monastic silence, right? How terrible for us, to have too many friends to see and too much fun to have. How difficult.
Lamenting how we spend our Christmases has become almost as American as how we actually do it. We swing wildly from buy-buy-buy to guilt and shame for buying, from wanting to celebrate to angrily asking how dare we celebrate. The exhortation to relax goes hand-in-hand with the accusatory question of whether you’re enjoying yourself enough.
And the entire War on Christmas, where we make it into a contest to out-Jesus each other, is exhausting. We confuse individual actions with the collective priorities of the state, critique the former and ignore the latter. We sanctimoniously Christ-jack the smallest interaction with a sales clerk who just wants to go home to their own family, like what happens at Macy’s actually means anything.
We spend so much time interrogating our experiences that we forget to have them.
I’m not immune. I do my share of complaining, but today in the light of it, I am sick of my own sick-of-it-ness. It’s 2 degrees below zero and the world, as ever, is caving in. We’re gonna run out of ice for the polar bears soon and we should not get het up, as I’ve said before, about our joy.
So if you do Christmas, do your Christmas. Go to church. Don’t go to church. But don’t go around scolding and hassling everybody about whether they are KEEPING CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS like it’s a damn contest and you’re somehow gonna win. Stay home all day and sleep in and go to the movies. Work at a shelter. Go to every single party you can find. Do what you have to do to stay alive and don’t worry about if it’s the right way to do it.
It’s dark outside, cats and kittens. Make some dang light.
When I look back at the frantic Christmases of my childhood I don’t remember the times I was overwhelmed or acted up or drove my parents nuts, and because they are good people, those aren’t the times we talk about. We talk about how every year Great-Aunt Mary made her alcoholic punch a little stronger, how she remembered the names of second and third and fourth cousins’ kids no matter how many of them there were and treated us all like we were the best thing she had. I remember the way my grandfather, a man of legendarily few words, would fling open the door and shout, “Meeerrrrry Christmas!” and the way his sweater felt when he hugged me. I remember the paper-ball fights my father and his younger brother would have, before Dad fell asleep in front of a tree that was usually so wide we called it the Christmas Bush.
I remember walking outside to the car after all that noise, in the echoing silence and the cold, and looking up at the stars.
Last night, right around the point where Kick started refusing to listen and her baby cousins were egging her on and I was about to tell Santa to come pick up all her shit, the other relatives had a genius idea to start a tiny rock band in the basement. Six-year-old on lead guitar, 3-year-old on bass, underneath the most impressive Packers shrine anyone has ever created. Kick played drums AND sang lead vocals. Upstairs the adults were exchanging small gift cards and drinking; downstairs the miniature thrashers absolutely wrecked a banging mashup of Moana and Hamilton.
Mr. A shouted “Cleveland, we love you!” at the end of the show and threw Kick over his shoulder. We draped her parka over her green velvet dress and we skedaddled home, 79 miles in the frozen dark.