On Gifts, Music, & The Season

So I sit here listening to Great Big Sea’s “Come & I Will Sing You”. The band claimed it’s not a Christmas song, since there’s many similar counting songs from many Euro cultures that aren’t tied to the Winter holidays, but it’s hard to separate such songs from Christmas, thanks to the ubiquitous “12 Days”.

Our Winter playlist includes a variety of things, Pagan, Christian, Jewish, other — I used to have a copy of The Nutcracker done by a klezmer band, but the Great Laptop Kerblooie back in November deep-sixed it. Luckily, between the iTunes Store & our own CD collection, we didn’t lose much music, but the bit we did lose hurts. It was the rare, hard-to-find, impossible-to-find, obtained years ago via Napster and other file-sharing services — that’s the only stuff lost.

90% of our playlist is not from our childhood’s, neither mine nor Brett’s. The season is fraught with bad memories & too much familial pressure & expectation for things that deliberately invoke the terror and fear and depression. So we’ve got Loreena McKennitt, the various Winter Solstice & Celtic Christmas albums from Windham Hill, the “Very Special Christmas” rock/pop/rap collections that benefit AIDS charities, Blackmore Night, Aine’ Minogue’s “To Warm The Winter’s Night”, Peter Hollens, Straight No Chaser, “Christmas With The Rat Pack” (aka Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin ooze & sing their way thru the holiday), “The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice” (a Renfaire/medieval revel that’s freakin’ awesome), Bruce Coburn, “The Perfect Christmas: Glisten/Glow” that Bath & Body Works put out several years ago — I know, I KNOW, but damn, it’s an awesome collection of things that (at the time) aren’t often heard — The Dolmen’s “Winter Solstice”, and a collection of things I recorded at various radio stations over the years from when I was a DJ. I’ve even got some odd bits of Gorillaz in there, just to break it up.

There’s a few things in there that somehow managed to avoid being tainted with bad memories, despite the efforts of our families. John Denver & The Muppets “A Christmas Together” is just too innocent & enthusiastic & happy to ever be brought down; ditto the original Vince Guaraldi “Charlie Brown Christmas”.

Christmas time in my family started right after Thanksgiving. Mom was in charge of music and all decorations, the mailing lists, the bit of cooking needed. She’d put up one decoration a day over the course of Advent; the tree went up about a week before Christmas, & was gradually decorated in stages over the last five days before Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was spent first at evening Mass — so we wouldn’t have to go on Christmas Day — then we piled in the car to go to Grandma & Grandpa’s on Mom’s side, out in the countryside around Lebanon OH.  All the cooking had been done there & dinner was eaten at Grandma & Grandpa’s, with Christmas Day spent visiting Mom’s aunts & getting stuffed with their cooking, and then, maybe, Dad’s step-Grandmother & aunt, if there was time.

But Christmas always ended back at our house, with Grandma & aunts on Dad’s side coming over to our house “for just a quick visit”. It always ended with Grandma upset about whatever gifts Dad gave her, before she demanded to go home so she wouldn’t miss her TV programs — and she’d toss a fit if Aunt E. didn’t want to leave the moment Grandma demanded. We were the only grandkids on that side (save for an unknown child born out of wedlock to one of my aunts & given up for adoption before I was born); Grandma would take us during the summer, every Monday, and often babysat at other times, so she saw quite a lot of us all through the year.

Christmas Eve was the good part of the entire holiday.  It had all my cousins, my age & younger, as well as all of Mom’s brothers & one sister & their spouses: others to play with and talk to. Grandpa also kept a stash of comic books — mostly DC/Teen Titans (the original ones, not the “new” of the ’90s) and various old horror titles — and gladly let us read & play. The radio was usually on, as the area stations always switched to Christmas songs for the entire evening; Grandma & Grandpa’s tree was a small thing in the window, covered in lights & candy canes that they let us steal, with Grandpa bringing out his collection of wind-up toys for us to play with and oooh-ahh over, too.

Christmas Day? Not so much. I’ve already posted about Dad’s obsession with home movies & how Christmas Morning was always the flood-lit, massively-controlled & staged production guaranteed to result in bored, tired, hungry kids acting out.  That acting-out continued all thru Christmas, guaranteed by adults that treated kids as non-existent (at best) or inconvenient brats (when kids — surprise — acted like normal kids bored out of their skulls). Mom’s two aunts didn’t have kids our age, nor did Mom’s cousins have any children, either. That meant that those Christmas-Day visits were always Mom & Dad talking adult stuff at length with the aunts & uncles while us kids got more & more bored. We weren’t allowed to bring any of our new toys or even books on those visits. We had to sit quietly & “behave” while the adults talked. If we were lucky, they would turn the TV on so we could at least watch something. This was before cable TV inundated every household, so the “something” would be whatever the local UHF stations aired: a well-worn B-movie (usually Santa Claus Conquers The Martians — I never saw It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th St until college), the Disney “Babes In Toyland”, the Russian “Jack Frost” thing (the one MST3K later lampooned), various choirs, or local religious services.

One of Mom’s aunts had married into a family that was rooted in the Kentucky hills; she’d learned to cook from those folks — not just cook, but COOK. That was always the best part of those visits, Aunt Annie stuffing us with turkey, ham, homemade gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, all rooted firmly in Kentucky’s part of Appalachia, then afterwards, standing in the kitchen with Mom & helping Aunt Annie wash up.

But the final part of the holiday was always getting back home in time for Grandma & Dad’s sisters to visit. That’s when the weird fucked-up parts started.

Grandma didn’t like getting gifts. Whenever she was asked “What would you like for Christmas” (or any other occasion), her response was the same: “Nothing. I don’t want nothing. Don’t get me anything.” She meant it. She didn’t want anything. She happily baked nutroll and other holiday goodies for us, but she didn’t want any gifts in return.

Not that Dad ever listened to that.

In the last couple years, I’ve been doing a lot of reading & research on emotional abuse, narcissistic personality disorder & abuse, depression, and the like; my therapist recommended several books & online support groups, with their recommended resources. If you were to compile a list of of all the symptoms & signs of narcissistic disorder & abuse, my dad would hit 99% of that list. And one of the biggest signs, the one that’s on most of those lists, is unable to accept a ‘no’, aka will not listen to your “no” and won’t remember you ever saying it, aka how dare you try to set boundaries, you selfish brat.

No matter who said “No”, Dad never listened, never accepted, and got pissed if you tried to enforce that boundary.  I’ve already posted about the vid-cam debacle at my wedding, & Dad bullying me in the Smokies; those are just two events of an entire lifetime of my attempts to say NO, and Dad stomping the boundary flat. I’m his child. To his mind, I don’t dare say NO, I have no right to say no, and if I try to say it, he’ll just do whatever he wants, no matter what.

His own mother? Shhhhyah. Grandma was small, a first-generation immigrant from southern Italy (south of Naples), where folks are small & dark-haired & olive-skinned; she barely came to my shoulder.  Dad took after his father (who died before I was born), so he was taller & bulkier, and he had no qualms about bullying his own mother under the guise of “gift-giving”.

Grandma didn’t want gifts. Dad gave her gifts anyway. Grandma tried to refuse them — she’d actually start whining, then start getting angry & tossing a small tantrum, and Dad would never listen, would never heed. He’d bought her gifts, so she had to take them. Watching your father & grandmother get into these weird pissing, whining, temper-tantrum contests — Dad stomping on all Grandma’s boundaries & getting angry over a cheap wool scarf & hat set, Grandma trying to stand up for herself in the only way she likely knew how, all set to the cheery music of Mom’s Christmas albums playing on her stereo: Elvis, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Ruth Lyons…

I’ve never been certain whether I should be sad or happy that I never knew my grandfather on that side.  But growing up, every Christmas night, once I was old enough to understand “abuse” and “domestic violence”, the answer was plain, and sad, and heartbreaking, and embarrassing. I watched the answer play out in that constant weird argument & pissing contest.  I watched in silence lest the weight of Dad’s refusal to hear NO turn back on me.

So now I sit in my apartment, with my husband and five cats, a ham spiked with clove & glazed with brown sugar in the oven, homemade cranberry sauce cooling (my husband’s specialty), potatoes boiling for mashing, with our own selection of music ringing from the speakers: The Dolmen’s “Winter Solstice” at the moment. (Seriously, if you’re Pagan, I highly recommend their album. It’s freakin’ awesome.).  But the one song that always hits hard, the one that best sums up everything about this messed-up holiday for me & everything I wish for everyone, is from ELP:

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter’s light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree’s smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
They told me a fairy story
‘Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
I looked to the sky with excited eyes
Then I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise
I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.
— “Father Christmas”, Greg Lake & Peter John Seinfeld



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