En route to our holiday festivities, my husband wondered why I hadn’t engaged in my usual buoyant domination of the radio waves with Christmas songs. I demurred, and admitted when pressed that it hadn’t seemed worth it this year: last year, I was awash in holiday cheer when a series of wretched events, beginning with Newtown and ending with my more or less loss of a sister, turned Christmas into the kind of desperate miming of happiness that I always associated with older, inept people who don’t know how to chase the badness out of their lives.
Turns out you can’t. Not always.
And if I began my harnessing of those all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations as a direct counterpoint to the fear and sadness that gripped my hometown immediately after 9/11, it has to be said that at no point in the intervening 12 years has my delirious–though earnest–embrace of the holidays appeared to bring joy to anyone but myself. People hate Christmas songs. They don’t even like eating together at the same table for any great length of time. If they are faced with the option of a snowy venture, either among trees or in the quest for a snowman, and the couch, they will choose the couch every time. So I said I hadn’t seen the point. I said the things I always used to resent everyone else for saying–that people are just going to be stressed out about food and gifts, and there will be lukewarm receptions and passive aggressive comments and barely-held tempers and just, why bother. Why bother getting excited about it when it’ll only let you down. And my husband said to me, in an attempt at comfort, that we ought to overlook the bad and enjoy the good; that some of the bad things weren’t to be helped because “we’re all different people and we get more different than each other every year.”
And I thought, well, yes. That’s the problem.
And it was. Cocooned in a kind of emotional cryogenic state I put myself into on long-term guest (i.e., no blood kin) visits, I watched him blow up at flagrant displays of racism, sexism, and good old classist arrogance. I watched the people he had grown up sowing a history with hurt him through their own ignorance and occasional selfishness and watched his efforts to convince them of the wrongness of what they thought and how they carried those thoughts into the world and inflicted them on others fail. He failed because, like patron-state relations in a civilization strategy game, his influence had decayed. He had counted on being the trusted brother with the voice of reason; a role he had mostly forsaken over the years as distance and other concerns got in the way. I knew what he felt because, albeit in a much less chivalric fashion, I’d done the same thing ten years before. There are no encores. There may be hidden perks, like suddenly finding yourself the most cheerful or steady in a group in which you used to be the black sheep, but still. Don’t ever count on those city-states not setting fire to your walls again. The agreement has ended.
Because yes, you do keep becoming more different than each other every year. And it would be great if that just meant meaningless differences like taste in home decor or preference in beer vs. wine. But sometimes it means whether or not you think people of a different color or class or chromosome set than you are worthwhile human beings. And when the answer is no, it can be difficult not to feel betrayed by the people you grew up thinking–being told, really–would be the last people to betray you, ever. These people who are now dismissing large swathes of the population as in some way beneath them. These people who are labeling you as idealistic or uptight for calling them on their bullshit.
This is the first holiday season I have felt like an adult. Stalwart, resigned, restrained. Desiring a retreat into a corner with a book and away from comments I knew would jab but which jab no less for the heads-up. This, then, must be why we keep propagating these idyllic images of childhood holidays: it’s less about the gingerbread men and snow angels than about still being on the same page as everyone else regarding the logic behind gingerbread women always being consigned to dresses, or of the existence (or not) of angels. It’s about remembering the times before you were so different from each other, back when you were too blind to question the prejudices you’d been handed with your breast milk. Back before you noticed them in others.
Because, like the roles you can’t reprise, those kinds of disappointments can’t be unseen or unheard. And it makes you that much more different than each other, every time, in a way that isn’t cause for celebration. At all.