I didn’t always hate Christmas.
That’s what I tell people when I’m explaining that: No, I don’t want to watch It’s a Wonderful Life or Love Actually. And No, I don’t want to go see the lighting of whatever green thing in whatever place. I don’t want to sing carols. I don’t want to bake cookies. I don’t want to wear a reindeer scarf. All I want for Christmas is not to hear Mariah Carey sing All I Want for Christmas and for New Year’s Eve to happen two weeks after Halloween.
My third grade teacher told my class there was no Santa Claus. Not in a vindictive way. She wasn’t mean. She said, “We all know Santa Claus isn’t real,” the same way she talked about adding fractions. I cried alone in a bathroom stall until lunch, and then I remembered that most grown-ups can’t hear the Polar Express bell, and so why should it surprise me that she didn’t Believe?
I Believed enough for everyone.
When the ceramic snow village came down from the attic and the tree went up in my living room, everything was going to be okay. Christmas would make it okay. My mom threw dishes, smashed them against the floor and the wall, but she never even chipped her Southern Living Christmas china. My dad wasn’t home very much; he had to travel all the time for work, but he never missed a holiday moment. He chopped down the tree. He untangled the lights. My dad made a “Santa Stops Here” sign for my birthday one time, and he was right: During the regular year, we had to choose between crutches for my broken ankle or cigarettes for my mom, but Santa always gave everyone in my family something so good. My mom bought elves and she bought angels. She displayed them in every nook of our house. Nobody got slapped at Christmas.
I was Head Elf of the Hogan Family Christmas Factory. Fighting about ribbon? Why are we fighting about ribbon? Just give it to me; I’ll wrap everything. Did I say I wanted an air hockey table? Well, that’s just crazy. What I meant to say is I want a new baseball cap. Use that money to buy mom a nice bracelet. Should we sing carols? I think we should sing carols. Mom, your voice sounds like hot chocolate. Dad, that snowman tie is just the thing. Let’s drive around and look at lights! Let’s drink cider and watch every Christmas movie! Scrooge didn’t know he was hurting people, you see. Christmas showed him how to love. Maybe next year we can put up the tree on Thanksgiving!
Head Elves don’t quit when things get tense; they ramp up the merriment and keep on Christmasing.
Head Elves don’t quit when they outgrow the costume; they wrap tinsel around their hats and carol even louder.
Head Elves don’t quit when their dad leaves and Christmas dishes finally get broken.
Head Elves don’t quit when their mom threatens to kill herself at the Christmas tree farm.
Head Elves don’t quit when Santa stops coming, or when their dad can’t make it this year because he has plans with his new wife, or when they don’t have any money left to buy presents because their mom needs “just a little loan,” over and over, all year long.
When I was a kid, studying the Sears Christmas Wishbook, sipping milk from my mom’s nativity scene coffee cups, looking into the kitchen every ten minutes to marvel about how happy she was — baking gingerbread cookies in a reindeer apron and humming along to Burl Ives — I’d never even heard of the “cycle of abuse.” No one had ever talked to me about mental illness or personality disorders. I knew my mom had an alcoholic father who’d beaten the hell out of her her whole life, until she got pregnant with me and married my dad. I knew she had an uncle whose name was always hissed with the word “rape.” She was up-up-up and down-down-down, and sometimes when she made me cry, she said she was doing it just to see if she could. I think she wanted to stop the cycle. I think she wished for it more than anything. She could not. But she could keep it at bay, for Christmas.
I quit my job as Head Elf on a Sunday afternoon in December, sitting across from my mom at the county jail, separated by a piece of bulletproof plexiglass, talking on a grimy prison telephone. My mom was wearing an orange jumpsuit and twisting shredded pieces of paper in her hands. She hadn’t slept, had been crying for hours, I could tell, but she wasn’t out of tears. She sobbed into the phone, said it was my fault she was in jail. She’d stolen checks and identities and money, not for herself, but for me and my sister. To buy us Christmas presents. We were greedy. We demanded so much. Why couldn’t we just love her?
Don’t you dare leave me in here, is what she said. I would never leave you in here.
I had $50 to my name and college tuition due so soon. I put $45 in her commissary account. And I left her there. I hadn’t asked for anything for Christmas in years.
I followed my mom from jail to jail that December, putting what little money I had into her accounts so she could buy snacks and cigarettes and paper to write me angry letters. At the small jails that didn’t have commissaries, I took her warm socks. One tiny jail in the north Georgia mountains had a Christmas tree in the lobby and free peppermint sticks for visitors. I didn’t want to see her, I told the lady behind the desk. I’d heard that she could have thermal underwear here, so I brought her some. And I didn’t know if she got to bring the bras and undershirts I gave her at the other jail, so I brought some of those too. The jails didn’t usually allow outside snacks, but it was Christmas, the lady behind the desk told me, so I went to the only gas station in town and bought my mom all the Oreos.
I was once Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, actually able to see Kris Kringle. I was Olive the Other Reindeer, mistaking a song about Rudolph as a cry for help from Santa, and becoming a holiday hero anyway. I was Buddy the Elf, giving out hugs because they’re my favorite. I was Cindy Lou Who. I was Tiny Tim. But mostly I was Kevin McAllister from Home Alone, protecting my turf from the dark forces that threatened to sneak in and ruin The Happiest Season of the Year.
Back before I woke up sobbing, choking, pulling my hair, plagued by Christmas Eve nightmares of what will one day happen to my mom because I had to walk away, I really, really Believed.
I wonder sometimes if the magic of Christmas might still be alive inside me. I stop in the street when I hear jingle bells, even if it always turns out to be a bike messenger. My girlfriend’s mom read Elf on a Shelf to us this week, and I laughed at all the best parts. One of my best friends took me to Temple Square in Salt Lake City to see the lights and hear the choir last year, and I sat stiller and longer than I ever have in my life. It was the first time I cried about Christmas in a good way in over ten years.
Holiday spirit flares up in me, it’s true, but it’s always smothered by the memories of dark Christmases and the guilt of knowing I failed at being Head Elf.
Moving to Autostraddle this year changed me. Lifted me up. Opened my heart. Brightened my soul. Strengthened my smile. Tethered my waning hope to something real and deep and powerful.
Did you know Carmen Rios is practically Santa Claus and Riese just wants to take her girlfriend Abby (who watches ALL the days of ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas) to Disneyland to see the Christmas lights? And Yvonne’s review of Love Actually is one of the funniest things I’ve heard and Rachel is planning for when we can have real office Christmas parties and Ali keeps an eggnog alternative in her back pocket? Laneia takes care of everyone all the time and Rachel’s everyday grace feels like an actual miracle. I work with these women every day, women who know how hard and dark the world can be, but women who get out of bed every day determined to make it better. Women who love Christmas. They make me think maybe I can learn to love it again too.
Last night, walking home from dinner with my dearest friends, we passed by the lights and carols and ice skating rink and enormous tree at Rockefeller Center. I stopped, and gawked; my eyes were moons. “You hate Christmas?” my sweet friend whispered when I mumbled it to myself. “You hate Christmas?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I really do.”
But when I got home and looked at the picture of us in front of that tree, I was smiling so big.
I didn’t always hate Christmas.
I was born to Believe.