How I stole Christmas

Getting through the holidays when you’re a misfit toy (and married)


I don’t want to screw up anyone’s holiday, so I’m mostly staying out of it. There is, so far as I’ve gleaned, right and proper placement for the ceramic Snoopy ornament from grade school, dishes which people are legally and medically required to consume on 12/25 and exact times at which particular singing, reading and unwrapping rituals of must be enacted. If any of these things are even vaguely askew, the section of the continent on which the offense occurs will crumble down into the Earth’s core and Christmas will be ruined. More specifically YOU will have ruined Christmas whether or not you wanted to participate.

Butbutbut, what sort of person (barring a religious or cultural disinclination) would want to opt out of Christmas? Some joy-loathing gorgon? Some Scrooge? Some Grinch? Sure, kick me and my ilk while we’re at the bottom of our seasonal ebb if it makes your yuletide brighter. I probably can’t actually feel worse, or I might even be numb at this point, so by all means, shovel it on, coal lumps and all.

I get low at this time of year, from the cold and lack of sunlight. Extra-anxious, too, kicked into overdrive by the sparkling and tap dancing I do to compensate for inflicting my wretched self on the cheery public. If I do manage to haul my sorry carcass to your holiday fete, it’ll be decked in a goddamned tiara, a metallic dress, a red-lipsticked smile painted on to camouflage the creature who was, until an hour or so before, most likely sobbing quietly under a blanket bunker in my darkened bedroom while my husband quietly intoned, “Baby, it’s OK. We don’t have to go.”

Yup. Someone has to be married to me at this time of year, and I wish I could grant him a seasonal pass outta me-ville. Not for any lurid spouse-swapping purposes, but because I loathe knowing that I’m draining the voltage on his holiday delight. I’d suck it up and join the merry if I could, but right now, I pretty much just suck.

While I’ve been fairly ambivalent on Christmas since the year my older sister screamed at me for erroneous garland arrangement and our mother used the multi-extension family call to lambaste my grandparents for their parenting failures, his family enjoys the holiday. Scratch that: they scoop up the holidays with a cherry, roasted chestnuts, flaming eggnog and a gilded Seraphim on top, and you’d best swallow it whole.

And I try. I try so hard because I love these people and there’s not a thing wrong with the way they celebrate. The problem is clearly in my set, but I can’t seem to switch the frequency to receive the pleasure. My body rejects it, dims from the brain down. As the gathering grows in numbers, my brain fogs, eyelids and shoulders slump and my breath grows shallow. I used to joke that maybe I’m allergic to Christmas, but a couple of years ago, when I spent much of the day alternately napping and vomiting (we laid blame on an especially gnarly seafood casserole at the Christmas Eve country club buffet) I started to suspect it might be true. As a textbook ambivert, I’m thoroughly content alone, but once I’m around other people, I can draw from their energy, use conversation and connection like some sort of emotional jumper cable and roar to life. But something about that day, that season, shorts out my whole system until I’m just a shell, the Ghost of Christmas Barely.

So just don’t go. God, it’s not that hard.

But yes it is. Especially if your mother-in-law is 91 and widowed and present, but fading. What right do you have to deprive her of her youngest son on this special day, especially when she never gets to see him because the two of you live all the way up in New York City. Would it kill you to just go and smile and make merry for a few days? (In theory, no…)

I opted out last year, with the blessing of my husband (and my therapist) who’d talked me through the emotional upheaval of Barfmas ’12, after which I’d spiraled into some pretty serious serious self-flagellation. (On Weirdo! On Whiner! On Mopey and Quitzen!) I worked in 24-hour news at the time and finding an open shift presented zero problems. Work is a legitimate out for most life events, whether you’re ringing up customers, sewing aortic tears or even giving fellow reporters quotes about a lawmaker’s cultural sensitivity around eating reindeer on Christmas. My husband traveled to North Carolina and I stayed in Brooklyn, heading over to some friends’ home for an exquisite, mayhem-free dinner that I felt wholly guilty for enjoying without him there.

What kind of a garbage wife does that?

(No one actually asked me or him, but I imagined there were “concerns” whispered amongst our loved ones. Which helped my mood, of course.) We do things without each other all the time — it was practically drafted up in the online ad through which I met him ten years ago, looking for someone with whom I could enjoy “a blend of creative autonomy and affectionate solidarity.”

He had no issue with my solo shleps to Las Vegas the week before Christmas for a few years running (a emotional aperitif before the onslaught of wholesome celebration) and posed no objection to my sitting out the trip down South, having seen the physical toll it took on me (and my nice dress) the year before. I surely wasn’t going to stand in the way of his family tradition, which trumped my tenure with him for about four decades, but some hard, dark little part of me wanted to, and I can’t pretend otherwise. Not to keep either one of us from these people we both love, but because he’s my family, too, and I have a little glimmer of a wish that if we can establish our own traditions together, the day, the season, the year can be just a little bit brighter.

But until then, I’ll paint on a smile, deck halls as decreed and try my best to keep my candle from sputtering out and darkening anyone’s magical day. I’ll just be good, for goodness sake — but probably not my own.