Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Different Kind of War on Christmas (Or Any Holiday, Really)

"There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers." - WH Auden

Ahh, Christmas!

The time of year people mortgage their mortgages to buy heaps of presents for people they only mildly care about. I have a sneaking suspicion there may be a direct proportion between how much a relative is disliked and how expensive are the gifts they receive.

Pardon my cynicism. It has been a trying holiday for the Stapler clan.

For much of my childhood, and well into my adolescence, Christmas specifically was a joyous, lovely time.

My mother would place Scandinavian nissen men around the house: Little wood-carved elves with fluffy hair. My favorite, to this day, is the sweet-faced girl nissen with hair soft as rabbit fur.

The house smelled of pine from the tree and the wreath, and eventually, of my mother’s holiday-themed cooking. Everyone came to our house for Christmas, and often stayed through New Years. The largest group we ever had was fourteen relatives and friends.

…Did I mention this was in a New York apartment?

As I got older, and relatives and family friends started to pass away, the groups got smaller and more intimate, but the Christmases were no less special. And best of all, if any of us got tired or bored or whatever, we could go to bed. My brother had the escape of his friends who were still in town. When I got older, I had the computer. It was our house and our spaces.

However, when I was 15, Christmas was stolen from me.

Instead of it being at my mother’s house, it was now held at my aunt’s house in Fort Lauderdale. We would be in Florida for the entire two-week break from school, staying at my Grandmother’s before and after Christmas.

I won’t go into details, but let it be said that my aunt’s house was the consummate example of WASP unpleasantness. Lots of familial issues soaked in alcohol and fired at each other while passing the mashed potatoes. My brother and I got very good at hiding behind headphones and books. The worst of the offending parties have long since left this mortal coil, but being there is still an awful experience.

The whole poisonous experience was completely alien to me as well, and it took a few years to realize that something was seriously amok with this branch of the family tree. The Stapler clan is almost unnaturally close-knit, and while we definitely have our squabbles and running fights, they may ruin evenings, but they certainly don’t ruin holidays or lives. This is not the case with the Floridians.

All the delicious food of this past Christmas weekend tasted like ashes in my mouth. From the moment we left New York, things went wrong. Worse, there was no light to the end of this tunnel. There was no saying, “Well, the traveling portion of this weekend has sucked out loud, but when we get there, we’ll have a grand old time.”

Not even close.

But that’s not what this is about. I merely told you all this to understand where I’m coming from.

I hereby declare a moratorium on making nice-nice with relatives I don’t like. Moreover, I encourage you all to follow me in this.

Holidays should be spent with people you care about. They should be filled with good food, laughter, and happiness. So much pain and agita and unhappiness surround holidays, I say it’s time to take them back. Don’t like your Aunt Gertrude? Forget her. Can’t stand Uncle Jim? Ignore him. Has your grandmother criticized you since you were a child? Tell her to shut up and then walk away.

We don’t owe these people anything.

Don’t do it. Don’t play the games. Take yourself out of the running for The Big Affection Prize and forget about it forevermore. There is nothing these people can give you that you can’t get for yourself, and it’ll cost you lots less. I promise.

No more should we paste on smiles and pretend to tolerate people we would otherwise cross the street to get away from. A holiday weekend of furtive “this is why [family member] is so screwed up” conversations and “this is why I’m angry” rants is not one worth my time. When I got back to New York, I needed a vacation from my vacation. And in this modern world, that just wasn’t gonna happen.

And so, in the event my mother reneges on her proclamation “We’re not doing this ever again,” you are all invited to Christmas in my apartment. The tree will be fake, there will be a cat, a rabbit, and numerous rats, but the food will be delicious, and I’ll be with people I love.

My mom may decide she has to put herself through this again, but not me. I refuse.

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