My mother has always excelled at holidays. When I was little and she was a stay-at-home mom, she transformed our enclosed porch—our shitty apartment’s one nifty feature—into a craft room, and she spent hours in there every day manufacturing her own decorations. She soaked colorful glass balls in bleach to remove the metallic paint and then painstakingly filled them with dried flowers, sequins, and Easter grass, tying the necks with satin ribbon and attaching pompoms and charms with hot glue. (She was distraught if one broke.) She cut pictures out of magazines with a hobby knife and then decoupaged them onto keepsake boxes. She made wrapping paper from grocery bags and rubber stamps and she’d use it to wrap all the gifts she gave, decorating each one with twine bows and handmade tags addressed in gold paint pen. She had a small artificial tree for every holiday, and it was always decorated with seasonally appropriate handmade ornaments.
It could have been a tranquil pastime, but instead her perfectionism turned it into a furious ordeal with a soundtrack of profanity. She was like a very angry Martha Stewart, if Martha Stewart was from Long Island.
Christmas was when she went all out, festooning our living room in decor worthy of any department store window: nutcrackers, Santa figurines, holly, poinsettias, tiny porcelain houses lit from within by miniature light bulbs, reindeer, mistletoe, and of course the tree, which was a particular point of pride. She would spend days on it, hanging ornaments and applying handfuls of tinsel with surgical precision. One year she pulled a Clark Griswold and wrapped it in some ten thousand lights. My asshole stepfather, looking for something to criticize, remarked that it was overkill and advised her to take some off. She did nothing, then called him back into the room an hour later.
“How’s this? Better?” she asked.
He affirmed that it was a huge improvement.
Since it was always so laden with expectation, Christmas was naturally also the time when my mother and I fought the most. My memories of holidays in our family are a mixed bag that includes hand-written letters from Santa stamped with reindeer hoof prints, and being called a “stupid fucking idiot” for failing to hold our newly cut tree steady in its stand while my enraged mother struggled to anchor it to the living room wall with fishing line. It’s having the words “It’s obvious that you hate me!” shouted in my face on Christmas Eve while Johnny Mathis croons in the background. History has taught me that winter is conflict season, and my nervous system is accordingly programmed, gradually ramping up my anxiety beginning in early November and reaching a fever pitch in mid-December, at which point I am fully armored and ready for a showdown. An emotional gladiator.
For the better part of the last three months I’ve been buckling under the weight of depression. This isn’t new. I’ve dealt with it for most of my life, but it’s been a few years since its last visit. Fortunately, therapy has helped transform my mother from a person who shouts hateful insults at her teenage daughter over the correct positioning of a Douglas fir into an approximation of a comforting maternal presence, so the four days I spent in her home for the holidays were restorative rather than corrosive.
We ate glazed ham and drank mimosas. We watched The Oranges and DVR episodes of Hoarders and Intervention. I told her when her remarks hurt my feelings and instead of angrily doubling down she stopped making them, so that’s one family tradition we’ve successfully put behind us.
In keeping with tradition, Mom cautioned me that she had scaled down gift-giving this year. She’s given me the same warning every year for probably the last fifteen years, and like always I still made out like a bandit. I got:
- Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself by Anneli Rufus.
- If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) by Betty White
- My First Five Husbands and the Ones Who Got Away by Rue McClanahan
- Your Beauty Mark by Dita Von Teese
- Love at First Stitch: Demystifying Dressmaking by Tilly Walnes
- The Stitch Bible by Kate Haxell
- The Official Bob’s Burgers Coloring Book
- A Batman onesie
- These Bob’s Burgers socks
- This Tina Belcher figurine
- Assorted stocking stuffers, mostly chocolate
I gave Mom a book, a parody prayer candle depicting a heavenly cat with Jesus dangling from its mouth, two pieces of embroidery, and a stocking full of small goodies. After four days, I rounded off our visit by missing the bus home and having to kill six hours in Seattle while I waited for the next Greyhound, which departed an hour late. I’ve never been so happy to crawl into my own bed.
It was a satisfying footnote to a year that has been, on the whole, fiery garbage.