Cover Story: The Ghosts of X-mas Past

The value (and sanity) of new traditions

Nov 29, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Ryan Greis

Christmas time is here. A time to spread good cheer and joy. A time to be with family and friends and to remember Christmases past.

And a time to start looking for that rope or revolver and to plan your suicide before they start playing that damn Christmas music on the radio.

Even as a kid, I found this holiday a bit tedious. We opened our gifts on Christmas Eve night, and my grandparents were always invited. My brothers and I were, of course, eager to open the gifts. We wanted to see what Santa — actually my father, who managed never to be around in the early part of the evening — had mysteriously placed on our front porch while our mother was forcing us to eat horrible oyster soup and deli meat sandwiches.

After throwing up, we would bring the gifts inside and place them around our festive aluminum Christmas tree. My mother would then bring out the Bible, and my brothers and I would start complaining, because we knew what was coming next.

After the threat of a beating, we would then take turns reading from the Good Book about Joseph and Mary, the three Wise Men and the birth of Jesus. My mother wanted us to understand the true meaning of Christmas. We just didn't want to get hit.

When gift-opening time finally arrived, one of us was appointed to hand the presents out. We opened gifts one at a time, allowing the person opening plenty of time to marvel and say nice things about the socks, underwear, frying pan, what have you. We'd then pass the gift around for all others to gaze at and say more nice things.

The evening always turned into a marathon, and I became more irritable as the hours turned into what seemed like days. I remember one time when my grandmother passed me a cookie sheet to look at that still had its price tag. In an effort to bring some humor to the evening, I said, "Looks like Santa went to K-Mart, Grandma, and spent $3.95 on this thing." No one laughed, and I was forced to eat more oyster soup.

I grew up, got married and had kids of my own, but Christmas still remained an endurance test. I remember Christmas 1989 and the Christmas tree from hell. My wife and I had just bought an old colonial house in Westwood, and we were determined to have an old-fashioned Christmas with the kids — complete with a large tree to adorn our living room.

On a beautiful Saturday morning, we went shopping for a blue spruce and had no trouble finding one. After shelling out a hundred bucks, we hauled it back to the house for my special holiday treat: getting the tree in the stand. Turned out the stand was much too small for the tree, so back in the car I went to look for a bigger one. It was the week before Christmas and finding any kind of stand was extremely difficult. I finally found one somewhere in Kentucky that I thought would work.

Hours later, I returned home. The stand was fine, but the tree needed trimming around the bottom. Back to the car. I went to a hardware store and purchased a small saw. After the trimming and after several attempts, I finally got the massive tree in the stand. By now, night had fallen and I spent another two hours trying to get the tree straight in the stand.

No matter what I did, it was always lopsided. After shining a flashlight on it, I found out the trunk of the tree was crooked as hell.

I hauled the goddamn thing into the house and stuck it in a corner, positioning it every which way until it "appeared" to be straight. I then barked at my wife, "Never move this thing and never attempt to position it to look better, because it's a sick piece of shit!"

While my wife and kids trimmed the tree in fear of the man with tree sap in his hair and on his face and hands, I drank a six-pack of beer and smoked a pack of cigarettes, scolding them the whole time. After the holidays, I cut the thing up into tiny, little pieces and set it on fire. Joy to the world!

I think for me the true meaning of Christmas — besides having plenty of liquor in the house — is solitude. New traditions replace old ones. My grandparents and mother and father are gone, and I'm now divorced.

On Christmas morning, I join my grown kids and former wife at her place for Christmas breakfast and the gift giving. It lasts only a couple hours, and while the rest prepare to visit other relatives, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and just go home.

I like this tradition. I have the day to myself. I can listen to music, read, get drunk — whatever I want to do — and nobody cares. Sometimes I'll have a good cry, not because I'm sad but because I'm happy. God, it's almost over!

Maybe I'll get sentimental this year. Perhaps I'll prepare myself some oyster soup. It's been a while since I've had a good vomit. ©