The morning of December 19th, 1999, my brother and I were waiting by the back door to leave for church when we heard what sounded like sobbing coming from my parents’ bedroom. We turned the corner to find our mother splayed on the floor, the top half of her body in her closet.
She was crying with gusto, the hitching kind you’re used to hearing from a toddler in time out, but not from a grown woman getting ready for church. Even though I was 15 years old at the time, I remember the scene jarring me, for it tore away the tenuous belief we have when we’re younger that our parents are superhuman and infallible.
On the surface, it appeared the motive for her crying was that she couldn’t find the mate to the brown dress shoe she clutched in her right hand. But that lost loafer was really the final dagger, as evidenced by what she said once Ben and I crouched down to comfort her.
“I hate Christmas!” she yelled. “All this work for one fucking day!”
I didn’t really understand what Mom meant at the time, but in hindsight, I totally get why she snapped. Christmas is a LOT.
The gauntlet begins as soon as you clear the plates off the Thanksgiving dinner table, when it’s time to transform your house from functional home into a Winter Wonderland. Hide all the useful towels, folks; it’s time to break out those elaborately embroidered ones that don’t absorb for shit!
Melinda and I have a pretty traditional division of labor when it comes to decorating for Christmas, meaning she puts up all the decorations and I “supervise,” a.k.a. sit on the couch and drink beer.
Ok, I’m not super helpful when it comes to hanging tinsel. But I do contribute each year by hanging the lights on the house.
Historically, this is a task that takes me about two hours. Before Melinda and I bought our house, I’d run a single string of multicolored bulbs across the front gutters and call it a day.
But every year since being a home owner, I’ve felt this little voice inside me, this little seedling of testosterone that begins rumbling once the calendar turns to December.
More lights, it whispers. MORE.
“I’ll be right back, honey,” I’ll yell inside. “I’m going to Home Depot.”
This year it took me four days to get all of the lights the way I wanted them. I’d come home from work and unspool them on the front lawn, rubbing my chin and pacing as I visualized the logistics of getting 16 strings of lights powered by one single exterior outlet. In addition to the gutter, I augmented this year’s display with half-a-dozen sets of net lights covering the bushes and a string of 300-multicolored LED bulbs bordering the garage door.
I’d work well after sundown, lighting my path with a headlamp like a coal miner deep underground. When it got too cold to feel my hands, I’d pack up and start again the next day. It was a lot of work, but my chest swelled with that fatherly pride that keeps every man going on an arduous home project. I just kept thinking about my kids’ eyes when they saw the house from the street for the first time, the validation and affection Melinda would lavish upon me. I thought about what the neighbors would think when they drove by:
Now THAT’S a good looking light display. Well-lit, good spacing, excellent variety of bulb sizes, not a bit gaudy or flashy.
I also thought about how I’d do the big reveal. As a child of television, I have grown up with the understanding that moments like turning on the Christmas lights can’t just happen. They require fanfare and anticipation. So I decided I’d get the kids to sing “Jingle Bells,” and then, right when they got to the word “sleigh,” I’d trigger the lights with the remote control in my pocket. It was genius.
Turns out, the kids were not all that interested in seeing me flip a light switch.
“Ok, you guys,” I said once I marched them out on the lawn in their pajamas. “In order for the lights to work, they need some Christmas spirit. Can you give us some Christmas spirit?”
“I’m cold,” J said.
“Cut to the chase, Sam,” Melinda said. “You’re losing them.”
I got them to trudge through a half-hearted version of “Jingle Bells,” and when they mumbled “one horse open sleigh,” I hit the button.
Turns out, the remote control had a pretty short range, and it wouldn’t work from the street. It was the ultimate Clark Griswold moment.
“Can we go in now?” D said.
“Yeah, we can go in,” I said, moping like a scorned child. “Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Then there’s the pressure to include your family in the joy of the holiday season. I don’t know how this “share Christmas with your family” thing got started, but whoever decided family togetherness was a holiday requirement deserves to have their gall bladder removed with a rusty scalpel.
Look, I love my family as much as the next guy. But it’s a lot easier to love them when they’re 300 miles away and not in my house, demanding Sweet & Low and using all my toilet paper.
You know that boardwalk game that has the two electrified metal handles on it, and you’re supposed to hold onto them as long as you can while a mild shock courses through your body? That’s what it’s like hanging out with my in-laws. You set your jaw and cast your eyes to the horizon, dreaming of a day when you’ll be free.
This year, my in-laws roared in like a hurricane, taking up so much physical and mental space I found myself reaching for a beer well before 5 o’clock.
My father-in-law’s name is also Sam, and he’s a hell of a friendly guy. So friendly, in fact, he’ll engage in conversation with anyone who comes within a two-mile radius. Like the sketchy dude coming back from 7-Eleven who passed us on the sidewalk while we unloaded the car.
“Well hello there!” Sam said to the potentially homeless, potentially shiv-wielding man. “How’s it going today?”
“Excuse me?” Sketchy guy said.
“I’m here visiting my daughter and her family,” he said. “We just got here.” He chuckled like he was sharing a joke with a good buddy. “There was a little bit of traffic, but we made fantastic time.”
Sketchy guy grunted and kept walking.
It would take pages to encapsulate Sam’s many cliched father-in-law traits, but probably his most excruciating attribute is his compulsion to walk around describing everything he sees and passing it off as a form of conversation.
Now, Sam spent 30 years teaching at a school for the blind, where I’m sure this talent was incredibly useful. But for those of us blessed with the gift of sight, not so much.
“Oh look, a fire,” he said, pointing to the flames in the fireplace.
“I know there’s a fire,” I said. “I built it.”
“Look at all these nutcrackers!” he said, touching every figurine Melinda put on the mantle. “There must be 40 of them!”
Sam forgot his hearing aids this trip, so most of his comments were blind guesses about the topic of conversation.
Right after they arrived, I had to ask him to move his car so we could go run some errands.
“No problemo!” he said. Where are you going?”
“We need a few things at Costco,” I said.
“Cocktails? Wow, fancy!”
“That’s right, cocktails. Please move your car so my pregnant wife and I can go slug martinis at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Sam carved a pretty wide swath of destruction over the course of 48 hours, but the most hilarious intrusion was probably when he committed the cardinal Christmas sin:
He touched the Elf on the Shelf.
If you have a pulse and live somewhere on this planet, you probably understand the Elf on the Shelf is a little toy designed for shitty parents to validate their own creativity and serve as a behavioral modification tool at a time of year when toddlers are notoriously squirrelly. The only rule governing the Elf is that you must not, under any circumstances, touch him.
This piece of cultural intelligence apparently escaped Sam’s comprehension. He was on one of his normal intrusive ambles around the living room, poking and touching, taking books off one shelf and putting them back on another, when his eyes lit on Eagle the Elf, who was hanging from a stocking.
“Look at this thing,” he said. “It looks like a little elf.”
“DON’T TOUCH HIM, GRANDPA!” J screamed, sprinting from the kitchen and trying to intervene. But it was too late. Sam had already hoisted the elf from its perch and was turning him over in his hands.
“Jesus, Daddy,” Melinda said. “You’re not supposed to touch the elves or they lose their magic and die.”
“Well how the hell was I supposed to know that?” he said. “I just wanted to look at the tag and see what it was made of.”
It took Melinda a good 15 minutes to calm the kids down, concocting some elaborate story about getting Eagle back to the North Pole so Santa could fix him with magic. He’s fine now, convalescing under a blanket on a Barbie bed in the living room.
After dinner on the third night, we bid farewell to the in-laws and graciously returned back to our regularly-scheduled lives. I appreciated them coming all this way to see their grandchildren, but I was even more appreciative that I’d fulfilled my obligation for familial face time for yet another year.
I want to blame the annoyance of Christmas on society, on our consumer culture, on our stupid desire to be the best, most festive family on the block. I want to curse the Christmas machine for forcing me to bolt up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I forgot to move the goddamn Elves.
But ultimately, it’s nobody’s fault but my own. I subject myself to the annual misery for the same reason I sit through choir concerts and dance recitals and soccer games: I care. I want my kids to forge the same kind of memories I have sparking in the back of my mind each time I hear Bing Crosby on the radio or watch Ralphie pull that sleek Red Ryder from its box. I want them to grow up loving Christmas as much as I begrudgingly love Christmas.
And I’ll do what it takes to accomplish that, even if it means potentially ending up sobbing in the bottom of my closet.