When I was a newlywed, an acquaintance who had already enjoyed a few years of marital bliss enlightened me on her secret. It was, she said, compromise.
She gave the example of morning beverages. She had always liked tea, he preferred coffee. So now they drank coffee. I nodded in agreement, and yet I knew instantly she was describing capitulation.
I vowed right then not to become that person: the one who drank espresso while craving Darjeeling. And yet, there I was some 30 years later, the master capitulator, peace-keeper and Christmas fairy, making the festive magic happen exactly as my ex dictated.
The Ghost of Christmas Past:
How did it happen? How did I become the person who couldn’t speak up and tell my ex I hated what Christmas had become in our home. I hated the excesses, the waste, the artificiality, and especially the burden of doing it all to make him happy.
When I was a child in the 1950s, my earliest memories were of traditional Christmas celebrations. My mother would exhaust herself baking, cooking, decorating, and shopping. My father’s role was to find the right tree and put it up, and then it was up to my mother to finish Christmas off, so to speak.
The problem was that her exhaustion manifested negatively and shortly after Boxing Day every year she would take to her bed pleading illness, leaving me confused and feeling guilty.
The last Christmas my ex and I spent with my parents was soon after we married. We moved across country the next year, and distance made it impossible for us to get together much with my family, thankfully.
Christmas Day our last year away from family started pleasantly enough, with my siblings arriving and everyone in a good mood. My mother began the preparations, and it wasn’t long before it was obvious she was working herself into a dark place. Finally, the meal was prepared, the table was beautifully set, and we took our seats and began filling our plates. The first bite of turkey was barely in my mouth before my mother began to sob, loudly proclaiming between gasps, “No one helped me prepare this meal!”
Silence prevailed as all forks were lowered and she ran from the table and slammed the door to her room, where she spent the rest of the day.
The Ghost of Christmas Present:
Starting out in our new home as a young couple, my ex’s enthusiasm for all things Christmas was, at first, a welcome change. He took charge of putting the tree and decorations up. He shopped and wrapped with energy. He was exuberant at the thought of Christmas and decorated elaborately while blasting traditional carols on our sound system.
He was, however, equally clear on what he would not do, which involved taking down the tree, cooking or cleaning up dishes, picking up wrapping paper, or anything else after the celebrations ended. And as the years passed and our children arrived, the rigidity of his Christmas rules went from charming to alarming. Once he had eaten his dinner, he signalled an end to his involvement by withdrawing to a darkened room and watching television by himself.
We spent too much money and time on tacky decorations that I hated. Even the colours had to be within his approved range of red, green, gold or silver. The base of the tree had to be overflowing with gifts, and since there were only four of us in the family, he accomplished this by buying cheap items such as bags of candy and wrapping them in big boxes. Quantity mattered; to hell with quality.
And then, of course, there was his all-time favorite: the Christmas Brick. He found it hilarious to put a brick into a box, then another and another and wrap it and address it from Santa to one of our children.
The roots of his need to control Christmas came from his own disordered childhood. Christmas was the only day of the year when his divorced parents came out of the trenches and called a temporary truce, pretending for a day that all was love and peace. Unconsciously, he was recreating that every year in our family, demanding that we all enter into his fantasy of the perfect day.
The Ghost of Christmas Future
My ex is remarried, my children are grown, and now I live by myself. The first year after our separation, I went into overdrive rejection of all things traditional, buying and decorating a silver Christmas tree with pink and white.
No one liked it, including me as it turned out. My son telephoned me last week about Christmas Day arrangements and to ask what I’d like. I told him my usual: a gift voucher for my favorite hardware store. We’ve pared down what we spend and how many gifts we give, and reduced our stress levels. I don’t care if my children can’t make it for Christmas Day. Any other day will do because it’s about the time I get to spend with them that matters, not about a date on the calendar.
My son said he didn’t know what to buy his father, who has remarried and apparently continues to decorate to excess with the cooperation of his new wife. My son said perhaps he’d get some cheap candy and a brick and wrap it up in a big box. Continue that long, strange tradition!
As for me, I don’t know what Christmas Future will be like. I take it one year at a time, and I’m open to change and compromise, but not capitulation.
And the good news is that I’ll never, ever, have to unwrap another Christmas Brick.
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