Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas On The Couch

By which I mean the psychologist's couch, not a particularly laid back Christmas which sounds wonderful.

I'm one of those people in the 'Christmas is a day to be survived camp.' Even though my family of origin are good and nice people that I would be happy to spend a day with even in the absence of any relation.

I don't have fond memories of Christmas day from childhood, Christmas day was a good 30 minutes - 1 hour in Childhood where myself and my two siblings would coordinate ourselves to come down stairs and open our presents together. It was exciting and fun and Mum and Dad would look on and perhaps exchange gifts with each other. (I've never thought about it before, but the lie of Santa does help facilitate kids feeling no reciprocity to their parents for all the gifts they can't buy them, and God knows how many kids feel indebted to parents all their lives even with Santa.)

Even though it may sound materialistic, after opening all the presents we would be given our marching orders, having to dress and pile into a car to endure a long and boring car ride from the Rat to Melbourne, where we would have to have Christmas lunch with my mum's side of the family, the semi-standard winter fare roast up that was not a novelty for children of the 80's whose parents could afford protein every day, and hours upon hours of idling and waiting and then a crappy present exchange with the extended family that mostly involved watching for children - and that parts key - my (and dare I say, our) childhood Christmas' were spectator sports, we mostly got to watch my mum's family have their Christmas.

And as if that wasn't enough, relief came in the form of being bundled back into the car and driven to Gippsland for Dad's side of the family. This was inarguably much more fun. My cousin had a better computer than we did and more games we didn't have. My paternal relatives are much more chill and keep it casual, the only real problem was that taking a leisurely stroll is not very pleasant after running a marathon. We were also faced with two unappealling options, not that we were given a choice - stay in Gippsland at Nana's house - which would keep us from getting to play with any of the gifts we'd learned we had. Or drive hours back to Ballarat (I'm not sure if that ever happened). Quite often we'd have a camper in tow, and Christmas day was actually the unrelaxed start to our annual vacation - which was great, and through adulthood has anchored my geographically when the family home was sold and everyone relocated - but nevertheless facilitated depriving us of any lasting joy in Christmas day.

Now there are certainly worse things that can and do happen to people on Christmas, although I can't claim to feel it's truth, I believe isolation would be much worse than an excess of family for company on the day. But upon reflection, Christmas as a child was an emotionally isolating experience, I know to some extent my siblings shared this experience, as we wandered aimlessly through the three open rooms of my Aunt's house, bored out of our fucking minds and cowed by my maternal relations lack of conversation skill in being unable to talk to eachother, that and the fact that the most desirable thing to discuss with my siblings would have been complaints about our immediate circumstances.

It walked that fine line between unpleasant enough to be torture, and so trivial you couldn't address it. There were kids of divorce, kids of abusive parents, kids raised in abject poverty to think about - we were 'the Turkey's a little dry' kids, nobody need get a violin out for us.

I have a pet theory though, that I can't really prove and have an unscientific sample size for. It's this though - the more dysfunctional a family the more in to Christmas the family is. I can furnish a story for why a believe this to be the case. If you have a dysfunctional unhappy home, the social expectations and rituals of Christmas finally unite the family into performing the role of people who care about each other. If father is a resentful callous abuser, it's going to be a huge relief to see him acting the role of great provider, and if mother is a resentful stressed out mess most of the time, then seeing her stress over decorating and preparing a Christmas table is going to be a welcome preoccupation for her.

If your family are chill people who get along with eachother every other day of the year, the stress of Christmas ritual is a deficit to the standard operation, not a relief. Hence I'm happy to say that Christmas is a day I simply hope to survive, because it indicates that the status quo is way better than Christmas itself. In fact, I've had a few 'orphan Christmas' and these are much better than the family gathering, not because of any character flaws of my family of origin, but because Christmas feasting actually can facilitate bringing me closer to people I care about when it's a bbq on a public holiday in a public space with a group of geographically displaced friends who care about each other.

So the dreaded commute has dropped off in adulthood, presents flow in every direction not just from Santa filling a pillowsack with shit I wrote on a list for him. The lunch is at my parents house, and the number of maternal relatives involved has more than halved.

So what has to be endured? Survived? My mother, in my case, and sadly what has washed out in recent years is a paradox that I believe a lot of people find themselves in at this time in this culture, if the comically stressed vibes surrounding my visits to the supermarkets in recent days are anything to go by, I cannot be alone.

The paradox is this, the rituals of the feast-day are all with the intention of showing people you care about them. These rituals have become so costly and stressful that a bunch of families have turned the day into demonstrating how much they care about the ritual.

To put it another way, because I find it helps, imagine if a relative (the one who cares the most) came to you for each of the 5 days leading up to Christmas and said 'yo, I need $20 contribution for your Christmas fund.' and dutifully you hand them $20, each day for 5 days until you've paid up your $100 dues. Then the next day you receive approximately $20 worth of food and gifts.

If you are someone like me, you are not going to be able to ignore that it's fucking stupid for a celebration to cost you more than you get to celebrate. Today as I'm writing this it is not Christmas day, but it like the past 5 days and the next 2 days have been stressful as my mother transforms into a Yuletide version of the Bridezilla phenomena. And while the worst Bridezilla is only going to have 3-4 weddings in a lifetime, Christmas happens every year.

In my personal case, Christmas is and always has been about my mother, and probably to dig a little deeper about her childhood traumas. She's been safe for decades now, but can't realize it in the way most trauma can't recognize safety. Worst of all, I lack the imagination to devise a solution.

She simply cares more, looking back on my childhood Christmasses, why would I care? How could I care? I don't think my mother realizes, but whatever she finds so special about Christmas, I've been left out of all my life. She is somewhat cognizant of this fact, long before we ever brought it up (excluding the honest insightful grizzling and whingeing of children) my parents have expressed regret at how they handled Christmas through our childhood.

But we are not that household that cooks seafood for Christmas, or has a picnic in a public park where kids can play and climb trees, we aren't that family that goes to a restaurant to take the stress out of Christmas and help some backpackers make bank serving tables. We are the classic Australian family that cooks climate inappropriate anglophiliac foods in excessive quantities in a decorated house because it reminds the grandparents of their grandparents nostalgia for the old-country.

Past attempts to wrest Christmas away from my mother's control - like taking over the cooking and minimizing the decorating have received the damning review 'It didn't feel like Christmas' and there is the sticking point for my imagination, 'it didn't feel like Christmas' is a glowing review for someone like me who doesn't enjoy Christmas much, but my mum cares about it a lot.

Leaving one with the only option one ever really has: acceptance. My best recourse is simply to accept that Christmas is always so long as she (or I live) going to be about her, and her childhood. By accepting that you can begin to reject the societal messages of what Christmas claims to be about and experience and expectation can harmonize.

There are people that judge those in the 'Christmas must be survived camp' as Grinches, but to me and in my experience it's generally indicative of quite positive psychology, people that have accepted that Christmas is how the feel about Christmas and not how Christmas is marketed to everyone. Because people fuck it up constantly by caring about the rituals, the decorations and it isn't fare to say they don't care about the participants, they just forget how to care about the participants.

Have a safe Christmas everyone.

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