Regardless of how screwed up our family was, Christmas was always a very celebratory time for my mother. Ask anyone that has ever stepped foot in her house and they would tell you that it’s “Christmas all year round” in her home. There is something dismally discerning in the amount of ornamentation our house would continually yield. From the outside it must have seemed like Santa’s holly jolly fucking workshop, while from the inside it was more like one of Krampus‘s treacherous torture chambers. Christmas lights adorn everything that would sit still long enough for my mother to string up. Every artificial bough decked with mementos from seasons past, that on first glance seemed heartfelt and nostalgic, but when looked at on a closer inspection would reveal the casualties of one of my step father’s many drunken and unprovoked thrashings. So many figurines and ornaments broken, smashed, torn, glued together, and then shattered again.
It was the Christmas village that child services forgot. I probably sound overly dramatic in it’s description, but trust me I’m not exaggerating in the least. According to my mother, or at least as she remembers it in her mind, her Christmas holidays growing up weren’t always as festive and joyous as she had hoped they would be. So because of this, she always set out to over do and over indulge as she saw fit, to make up for her lackluster memories of Christmas past. She was insanely particular and overly critical of every detail. She wasn’t even religious in any way, which might have shed some light on her neuroses if that had been the case. She was just desperately trying to cling to some fantastical hallucination of what she thought her life should be, which brings me to The Christmas Story of ’94. I was thirteen years old and it was this year and holiday season in particular that was especially traumatic for me due to the series of events that took place.
My parents had been out all day looking for the most perfect Christmas tree specimen they could find. Unfortunately for my mother, being the only working parent, she had to drop the tree off on the front porch and head to work immediately. She worked at a bar and my step-father would usually take her there and then sit at the bar all night and drink for free. Since they were both gone for the night, I thought I would go for the child of the year award by helping out this Christmas. I was so excited to be a little helper elf of sorts, hurriedly clamoring about to create the most spectacular display of holiday cheer this family had ever seen. I decided that I was going to set the tree up for my mother so she wouldn’t have to worry about it when she got home. I wanted them to be so surprised when they got home to see our tree fully erect and lit up, just awaiting the final touches of approval by my mother.
This tree was a little bit too tall for our living room so it had to be trimmed down a bit. I used a hand saw and easily took the trunk down a few inches and then a couple inches off of the other end as it was a bit leggy at the top. I set up the stand and after about 30 minutes of adjusting, I had the tree standing perfectly in the front picture window where I knew my mother would have wanted it. I strung the white twinkly lights in a perfect, evenly spaced spiral, from top to bottom. I had initially planned to stop there but I had remembered a recipe I once saw in one of our family cook books for “salt dough ornaments”. After preparing the dough, I used cookie cutters to cut out perfect star shapes. After they were baked I painted them with a gold and silver burnish making them look antique and finished them off with rustic jute twine to hang them from the tree. I only made about 20 of them, but I figured this would get the tree started and my mother could add her own finishing touches.
I was so proud of myself. When I was finished I just sat on the sofa admiring my handy work. I couldn’t wait for my parents to get home and see what I had been up to all night. They were going to be so proud of what I accomplished at such a young age. I could have never been more wrong… At around 2:30 am they came home and I was waiting eagerly at the door to show them my surprise. They staggered in, inebriated and with a look of what I believed at first to be delight and excitement, that quickly revealed itself to be disappointment and resentment. (insert record scratch) My mother immediately started sobbing uncontrollably. You would have thought she had arrived home only to find her 13 year old child murdered, disemboweled and lain scattered across the living room floor. But alas no, this was about the tree.
My step father went from a dazed stammering state of wasted-stumbling to an about-face embodiment of concentrated rage and fury in the blink of an eye. I had apparently committed the most heinous of crimes ever perpetrated by a child in all of recorded history. What I had done was an act of selfishness and ignorance. What I thought was going to be a grand gesture of holiday spirit turned out to be a fatal miscalculation and defamation of everything sacred to his wife. He exclaimed about how I had trimmed the tree too much and therefore resulted in my destroying this perfect tree of theirs. He went to the kitchen where we kept the scissors and then proceeded to forcibly hold me down while viciously cutting at my hair with quick sharp jabs. “How do you like having your hair butchered just like you did your mother’s tree?” he shouted at me while I fell to the ground balling uncontrollably. I couldn’t understand how things could have gone so wrong. I would have never expected this type of reaction in a million years. And my mother did nothing to stop him the whole time, as though she thought this punishment was just and deserved. “You know that decorating the tree is your mother’s favorite thing to do and you just ruined it for her.” still echos in my head.
My ornaments were all quickly removed and reduced to trash and discarded. My hard work resulted in a truly heartbreaking spectacle that I have to believe in any other home would have been a warm moment that would have brought the family together. These memories still haunt me today as I imagine they would anyone. It’s hard to make sense of any of it. I find it hard to enjoy the holidays for a multitude of reasons and this being at the top of the list. To this day it’s almost impossible to think about my mother with anything other than hatred and disappointment in her inability to rationally assess the situation and protect or defend me in any way. It’s impossible to talk about anything like this with her because she either changes the subject or ignores me entirely. My mother always says that she did the best she could with what she had, and the older I get, the more I realize that her best really wasn’t anywhere near good enough.
The anger and hatred I solicit when reflecting on these childhood memories continues to resonates deep within my core like a vibration that I cannot silence or even muffle. Night terrors frequent my sleep more often than not as I continually play out these past situations and scenarios in my dreams. It effects my everyday life in ways I am still beginning to recognize. Now I try to channel these harbored feelings of anger and frustration into my writing as a form of expressive therapy. It can be a double-edged sword as this type of deep reflection can stir up emotions buried deep inside me. But there is also something soothing and therapeutic about releasing these thoughts into the universe and no longer letting them have power over me. The most I can hope for is that my stories will inspire people to see things from a different perspective, or even effectively help them deal with their own demons.