It’s always been the same. Christmas. It’s always been about the food and the awkward moments clustering around the notion of food: the family moments, the pictures, the Christmas tree (always missing something), the gifts, the excessive drinking and overeating, the idiotic jokes, and the sudden jolt of recognition that we all are mere shallow human beings who are bound to make mistakes. And like all creatures of habit we’ve turned all this into a celebration of habit. Christmas is the excessive salivation at the sound of the bell. It’s the constant worrying about those extra kilos and the mother-in-law who thinks everything is inappropriate. It’s when food is served with fear. It’s about dad’s jokes, the ones that deep down, hidden between folds of carefully chosen language overheard from other conversations, hide a darker truth, one that always ends up being sexual. It’s about those other people stopping by and about their crinkled noses when they’re offered another piece of homemade panettone. They’re so full of it. I mean, just look at them. And it’s about dad telling them that from the waist down you resemble him. Why would he even say that?
Christmas is also about friends coming over. Those people who are not really your friends because, believe me, there had been a time in their lives, a time as long as a moment’s beat, in which they disagreed with something you did but never had the guts to tell you so. It’s about their sexual frustrations. And yours. Gosh, it’s never been about the birth of Jesus Christ or whatever. That’s just an extended commentary, a side note to whatever we do at this time of the year. That’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, the one that doesn’t push the action forward but doesn’t bring it to a halt either. It’s something that we know by heart; it is etched into our daily lives so much so that we’re not longer paying attention to it. It’s metalanguage, a mental lullaby. And I don’t want to bring that to your attention, don’t worry, I’m not here to preach about how we’ve lost the “true” meaning of Christmas and instead replaced it with a mercantilism as tasteless as fruit out of season. Nothing of the sort. Its magic hasn’t been lost or wasted on us. On the contrary, it has become more subtle, a trait of adulthood, a portent. I’m here to tell you that, at least for me, Christmas is the saddest thing ever. For a couple of reasons.
I used to go caroling when I was little. I rehearsed it months before the winter holidays because caroling was essentially a “profession” for us kids. It was a way of earning money. The better we sang and the longer the carols the more money we got for it. And each year, like ever expanding chain stores, we went farther from our house because rumor had it that certain houses, such as those of the rich people from the village, gave out more money. Relatives and acquaintances also gave out more money and at the end of the night we would return home and count our money and dream of all the things we could buy with it. We hid the money in the most unexpected places. I never knew where my brother hid his money, but mine was always behind one of the holy paintings spread all around the house. We never bought anything significant with it because the things we bought came with a dose of bitterness. We couldn’t buy sweets because our mother and grandmother forbid it. What would the other people in the village think if they saw us buying sweets from the local shop? They would think of them as bad housewives. There were plenty of sweets at home. We couldn’t buy toys. They were useless anyways. And so there was not much left we could buy. So the money lingered, hidden behind the paintings until mother asked us for a loan. The money was never returned but mother used to point to us that she got new shoes for us, and the winter coats, and sometimes she just waved it off with her hand.
Santa, too, was a sly piece of a man. He never cared about what we wanted because the things we wanted were just too expensive. Once, he brought me about two pounds of tangerines and a plastic mask. I can distinctly remember when I opened the package because the logic behind it was so uncanny that even today it leaves me speechless. I ate all the tangerines that Christmas day. I can’t remember what happened to the mask but I do remember I only put it on my face once and it was enough. The plastic had the color of skin and the cheeks were painted lipstick red. It was not funny. At all.
The only other Christmas gift I can distinctly remember is a remote toy car that only went forward and backwards and had a long wire on its tail that connected it to the remote. The car was white and it was a sports car. Mine broke a couple of minutes after I opened the gift. My brother’s toy car kept working long after. I remember our school friends gasping when we told them about the toy cars. I didn’t feel the same. I had never dreamt of toy cars. Cars were not my thing but Santa never listened anyway. He wasn’t interested in the details, he was too far off to see the details. No wonder he lived so far removed from the all-inclusive, politically correct western society.
Eventually we understood that Santa didn’t in fact exist. Yet that realization was not as instantaneous as it is usually portrayed in the movies. We didn’t stare into the abyss when we came to it. We didn’t think life sucked from then on. Life was bad even when Santa was still in power, his totalitarian regime controlling every aspect of our lives. The realization grew on us because of the gifts that we got every year. Santa resembled our family’s financial situation just too much to be something other than a figment of our parents’ desire to maintain a familial fantasy. When times were hard Santa never came, no matter how good we had been during the year. One Saturday night, after our weekly bath, not long before Christmas, mother made me wear a new pajama. It was beige and had little boys drawn on it in repetitive patterns. Then the pajama disappeared and I forgot about it. It reemerged victorious on Christmas when I was given a gift by a fake Santa at the kindergarten. I did not realize at that time it was the same pajama and I even pointed out to my mum that my brother could wear the other one, the one that had been previously given to me on that Saturday night. Mum didn’t say anything. She just nodded in agreement. From that point of view, Santa was a good teacher. He taught us good deeds meant nothing when it came to the money machine.
Back then, Christmas was also about excessively cleaning the house, about keeping up appearances, about those couple of minutes when the priest came into our homes to bless us, the faint smell of basil in the holy water. When all the cleaning up was over we were not allowed to sit on the bed. The pillows needed to look fresh, the covers perfectly tucked. The food had to be plenty and sometimes, when not all of us were around, my grandmother would look at all the food and start crying. It was about remembering those who had passed away and who returned to our homes through food offerings. I can still remember the dumplings one of our neighbors brought on Christmas in memory of her dead husband. I recall the jam inside them.
I recall how every year there were less and less people sitting with us at the table on Christmas eve. First it was my uncle, who went abroad to look for work and meaning. Then it was my father, who also went abroad to look for work and run away from his past. Then it was my mother, who couldn’t bear the thought of living without my father and followed him submissively. My brother went after them and sent us pictures of other people sitting at different tables in different countries. Then I went away as well, as if tired of all those empty seats at my grandparents’ table. Nowadays, when I call my grandmother to wish her happy holidays I can hear something falling inside her voice, a hope that is crumbling. We are never coming back, grandma.
Somehow, Christmas always feels like a reminder of how far removed we are from some nobler, more perfect version of ourselves. A reminder of who we are, where we stand in the grand scheme of things. It’s an indicator of class as it is an indicator of our relationship status. It tells us, like the result of some difficult equation, that some people among us have gotten lucky because, look at them, they have something to hold or kiss beneath, at least, an imaginary mistletoe. It’s that time of the year when we look back at the things we did and realize we cannot have them again under any shape or form. That’s why, for me, whenever I wish somebody to have a merry Christmas what I mean to say is that I wish for them to have a merry recollection of that past, of that nobler version of themselves. And it’s not about putting glitter over shit as it is not about embracing things with joy, or drowning them in liquor. It’s more like realizing that you’re breathing and then holding your breath in until it hurts.
So, merry Christmas, whoever you are.