The Problem of Christmas

I don’t like Christmas. I especially don’t like going home for Christmas. In fact, a couple years ago I cancelled a trip home at the last minute — a dramatic, and frankly hurtful and inconsiderate, action — because I just couldn’t bear it. The amount of emotional energy that goes into this aversion seems disproportionate at times. Is it really such a burden to visit home for a few days and go through the motions of a few traditions? Apparently, to me it is.

I have sometimes mentioned to my family that I don’t like Christmas, and the reaction is always: “Yes you do.” Talking to my dad after cancelling a couple years ago, I mentioned that Christmas was hard for me and cast a cloud over the two months proceeding. He was absolutely shocked. And I suppose they have a point, because Christmas was a very happy time for a long time.

Thanks primarily to my grandfather’s high-seniority job at General Motors, we lacked for nothing. Every Christmas, my sister and I got everything we wanted — a Nintendo, a Castle Grayskull, an elaborate Barbie house, even a computer one year. We were encouraged to make detailed lists, so that the element of surprise was limited to utilitarian items like clothes (of which we got a ton, leading to a mandatory “fashion show” later in the day). It was like we put in our Christmas order for the year.

I realized at the time that we got more than other kids — maybe more than anyone other than the family that owned the factory in town. And as I got older, I started to become uncomfortable with this. On a moral level, it felt strange that we were being induced to be so greedy. I still made my lists, of course. I wasn’t so uncomfortable that I stopped wanting my stuff! But I had started to notice how hard things were in January, how often my sister and I would cower downstairs as my parents fought about money. I began including cost estimates and prioritization, trying to keep the total bill under a certain figure of my own devising. (I had taken all the Microsoft Office tutorials on the new computer, so these were full-featured Excel spreadsheets.)

Meanwhile, as I got older and the “fun” big-ticket items became harder to come by, it started to stand out to me how little some of the gifts had to do with me. Clothes, for example, were a constant battle for me, because my family was constantly pushing me to show off all the latest fashions when I just wanted to wear jeans and a t-shirt and fit in. The Christmas fashion show was often the only time certain items would be seen. How many years did this repeated pattern have to occur before they caught on? I did express these feelings during back-to-school shopping season, but they would inevitably guilt me into accepting the more expensive or flashy clothes that they apparently pictured me in. And coming from the other angle, there was increasing discomfort with my actual interests. Once my aunt got me a gift certificate to a bookstore, but specified that I was not to buy any “weird books.” Later I learned that she had not allowed her children to read Harry Potter, not because of the witchcraft, etc., but because she didn’t want them reading big books and turning out like me. Maybe these were jokes! And I bet that if I brought these incidents up, no one would remember them ever happening. This is how family works.

The other main Christmas ritual was visiting the Kotsko side of the family. Most other times of year, we tended to avoid them. I was never close to my Kotsko grandparents — and I now realize that that’s in part because my Grandpa Kotsko was a scam artist and conspiracy theorist. I have had two one-on-one conversations with my Grandma Kotsko in my life, one of which centered on the fact that she liked living in Michigan because there is (according to her) only one kind of poisonous snake (the water moccasin) in the state. Yet on Christmas Eve, we spent hours and hours there every year, eating food we disdained, getting crappy presents, watching the various uncles get drunk. I never understood it.

Both the avoidance of the Kotsko side of the family and the excessive spectacle of gift-giving (or the latest fashions from the Gap, for that matter) played into a narrative of class-aspiration. The Kotskos were lower-class, especially my dad’s brothers, who included an alcoholic truck driver and a homeless drug addict. My dad’s journey into evangelicalism — whether he knew or intended as such — was also a journey into a higher social class. And when his salary as a truck driver couldn’t supply all the trappings of his new class identity, my grandparents (my real grandparents, on my mom’s side) could step into the gap, and eagerly did. Two nicely polished, college-bound students were the natural outcome of this edifying narrative.

As I got older, I came more and more into conflict with my parents, as teenagers and college students do (or at least did, back before the millennials came along and ruined it). They didn’t like my girlfriend, didn’t like that I was starting to value school friends more than church friends, didn’t like that I was trying to get away from the church altogether, didn’t like my major, didn’t like how my studies were changing my ideas, etc. And Christmas was the time of year when all of that was supposed to go away, when we would be transported back to the happy days of my youth when peace and consumerism reigned. We kept going through the same rituals every year, including spending the night at my grandparents’ house (and later my aunt’s) on Christmas Eve. And I began to feel like a failure in a new way, as I never had a girlfriend to bring home from college. The overall effect was a near-total alienation from everything and everyone around me. Most years, I literally cried myself to sleep during those Christmas Eve sleepovers. If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything.

The alienation accelerated in grad school, as my values started to deviate ever more from those of my family. These were the peak years of Iraq and the War on Terror, and I was not shy about sharing my views about what my Republican family was supporting. I got into so much conflict with one uncle that it was decided that it would be easier if I came for Christmas rather than Thanksgiving — hence cutting off my access to the lower-pressure holiday each year. And I grew to resent the expense of renting a car every year to drive from Chicago, which they never helped me with — though they did continue to spend money on clothes I didn’t want (and at this point, that didn’t fit, because they apparently still expected me to “grow into them” at age 25). Things got a little better when I started bringing My Esteemed Partner home with me — especially because our late-lamented dog was very popular with everyone. Our relationship also provided a pretext for alternating years. And in other ways, I started asserting myself, for instance by opting to spend time alone with My Esteemed Partner rather than go to the Kotsko Christmas Eve event. (True to form, of course, my family did not believe I would actually go through with it until they were literally getting ready to leave and noticed that we weren’t.)

The crisis moment came the next year I was set to go home after skipping the Kotskos. On the phone with my mom, she started to ask me my preferences. Was I going to the Kotskos this year? No. Did I want to do gift exchange? Not especially. And when did I want to go to church? (This was unusual; Christmas was on a weekend that year.) Actually…. At this point, I sensed that long-suppressed anger in her voice as she asked me sarcastically, “What’s wrong with church now?” I sheepishly said that I’d do whatever my sister preferred and got off the phone. A couple days later, after nearly sleepless nights, I announced I wasn’t coming. But even after that dramatic gesture, even after I unloaded on my dad about my anxiety surrounding Christmas, my mom sounded sad on the phone when I said we were just staying home for Christmas — and not, I think, because she felt aggrieved that I didn’t take the chance to come visit her. My sense is that she was sad that I was missing out on Christmas, which I love, deep down.

So that’s why I don’t like Christmas. I don’t like the falsehood, the fakeness. I don’t like being recruited as a prop for a narrative that has nothing to do with me. (That, by the way, is why she wanted me to go to church — not for my spiritual edification, but to show me off.) And I especially don’t like being told over and over that my feelings must be mistaken, that Christmas is actually what I want. I do feel guilty and selfish for staying home and hurting their feelings. But I will feel guilty and selfish for playing along and guilty and selfish if I work up the courage to be honest — so why not feel guilty and selfish and also do what I want?

ADDED: I normally use my personal narratives as a jumping-off point for some broader social problem, but this one is still a little raw, so I forgot to. But this sense that Christmas is the time of year when you have to lie and say everything is okay is what makes it so hard for so many people — and such a high-pressure time even for those who “believe in” it. Where I made the mistake, of course, was in not having kids, because I would lose sight of my own problems in planting the seeds of their future neuroses.

5 thoughts on “The Problem of Christmas

  1. My family is currently watching our traditional christmas movie, Christmas with the kranks, the moral of which is no one is allowed to skip christmas. It feels very much like, no one is allowed to not be adventist, to me. Mark me down as someone who endures it and would rather skip it most years.

  2. Agreed. Christmas has always been a puzzle. It was especially awkward for me when I was a young man in that I never made much money–kind of the beatnik dropout in the family, so I was never able to buy gifts. At seventy-four Christmas has come down to visits with friends, maybe a shot of good scotch, and the occasional exchange of books. The best thing I got this Christmas was a recipe for hash brown crust quiche. I do understand that Christmas is really a very beautiful holiday, once you extricate all the obligations and unreal expectations, i.e. get the money and mandatory travel out of it.

  3. Hmmm. I think I only loved the ritual and spectacle of Christmas. My Mom was half Mexican, so we were on a first name basis with the Virgin and her Son. However, my Dad is half Choctaw, so our family was socially, ” Catholic”, with a serious heathen bent. We knew Christmas was hype…but it was an opportunity for small scale family reunions. It really was always more to share time with kinfolk, and keep family bonds strong.
    My niece and grand nephew relocated to ATL, and my sister has been a bit down since her daughter moved “away”. As eldest daughter, I asked my older brother who is an academician as well, about us taking a family trip so we could share Christmas with them. So we all descended on ATL…not to exchange gifts…we ate non traditional fare, played Boggle, Scrabble, ( which were my late Mom’s favorite games) in English, Spanish, and Choctaw so my Dad could kill us since he is fluent and we now remember fewer words). My brother and his family helped host. We did nothing outstanding, nor news worthy, except love on each other, and be in each other’s presence. Even my Buddhist self considers Christ a Boddhisatva. But as a queer woman, I know there are many who can’t do that with their families of origin. I am grateful for mine for allowing us all the space to be ourselves…which makes for some raucous family discussions! My family members of choice are ,thankfully, just as lively. I think it’s great to create your own celebrations, rituals, and traditions!

  4. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this for so long. I’ve never celebrated Christmas because of my religious beliefs. I can’t reconcile celebrating Jesus’ birthday on a day we all know he wasn’t born, amongst other reasons. However, your experience sounds terrible and seems to be common among many families. I don’t promote Christmas but I do think time with family is important. I wouldn’t want you to regret missing time with your loved ones. Time is so precious and we often don’t miss it until it’s gone.

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