The Holidays are tough in the best of circumstances, whatever you choose to celebrate. We do secular Christmas, so I’m going to talk about Christmas for the rest of this. Feel free to substitute your own festival if you like.
There is so much internal and external pressure to do everything just right, to make everything special (more special, even, than the last time you worked so hard to make it special, which was more special than the time before that). The expectations we put on ourselves, always greater than the ones we imagine others are putting on us, that we can never meet. The whole BUT IT’S CHRISTMAS of the season. It’s a lot.
It’s been a hard year for all of us. I mean, it’s been rough in Castle Wheaton, what with my seizure and Anne’s back surgery. But it’s not just the Anne and me us. It’s the all of us … us. Everyone is going through something this year, and whatever that happens to be, it’s magnified by *gestures broadly at everyfucking thing*. I have so much love and respect and appreciation for everyone who is doing everything they can to manifest some of that Magic of the Season those obnoxious car commercials suggest ought to be delivered in the form of matching SUVs. But you know, in a genuinely meaningful way that isn’t tied to spending 140,000 dollars. Seriously, just making that damn Elf on the Shelf move around for 24 fucking nights? In a row? After everything else you have to do just to keep your house from falling apart and your family fed and everything else the rest of your family just expects will magically happen? Respect. Someday, your children will be 49 and writing about That One Christmas During the Third Pandemic Year that you worked your ass off to make special for them. I see you, and I love you.
This year, more than any year in recent memory, the Ghosts of Christmas Past are everywhere I look. They showed up one at a time, and then all at once, starting maybe a week ago. Most of the memories they brought with them are painful. Some of them are joyful. They all weave together into the tapestry of my life, and as much as I’d like to pull the painful threads out, you know what happens when you pluck at threads in your tapestry.
I don’t know why I need to write these things down. I just know that I’ve been reliving them nonstop for several days, and writing them down at least gets them out of my head.
Most of this is in chronological order, but the first Ghost of Christmas Past to show up was from 1983, so that’s where I’m going to start.
It is Christmas Day, 1983. I’m wearing my red footie pajamas. I’m almost too big for them. The big toe on my left foot is starting to poke out. I love these pajamas, but it’s going to be easy to say goodbye to them when I open my Return of the Jedi pajama set, yellow with a speeder bike on the front, and a green collar, like a Polo shirt collar. On children’s licensed pajamas. My brother will have an identical collar on his Raiders of the Lost Ark pajama set. I guess this is the year we graduate from footie pajamas to fancy pajamas.
My brother and sister and I are in the hallway, behind the closed door, waiting to be gently shuffled, eyes closed, into the living room, where we will wait again, while dad gets set up with the camera.
Christmas music begins to play in the living room. My summering excitement breaks into a rolling boil. Mom tells us to close our eyes. She opens the door and leads me, then my brother, then my sister, into place. My brother squeezes my hand and I squeeze his back. We are vibrating. It is Christmas morning and whatever Santa has brought us is right there, just a few feet away. It is Schrodinger’s Present, existing and not existing until we observe it.
“Okay, are you ready?” Dad asks. I can hear that he’s across the living room from us, on the other side of the fireplace.
We all scream that we are! Oh, the excitement and the anticipation! An entire year of wish books, subtle and not subtle hints, visits to Santa at the mall, letters to Santa, follow-up letters to Santa, quiet prayers to Santa … all of it, accelerated and compressed and refined for weeks — an eternity in kid time — crystallized to form this moment.
Mom and Dad count down from ten. When they get to five, Dad forgets what number they were on. They’ll have to start over.
“FIVE!” we scream in unison, eyes still tightly shut. It’s all part of the bargain. Part of the unspoken Rules of Christmas. The suspension of disbelief that allowed for Santa Claus to exist and fill our living room with the gifts we still had not seen.
Mom and dad laugh. It’s a good natured laugh. A happy laugh. It’s not the cruel, mocking laugh I’m used to from him.
“Are you sure?” Mom asks.
It’s all part of the dance. The beautiful dance of Christmas Morning, and we happily, joyfully, play our roles.
My little brother’s hand is now sweaty with excitement. Or maybe it’s my hand. Maybe it’s both of us.
Dad takes a loud, deep breath. I imagine he and mom make eye contact, nod their heads, and pick up the count together.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One!”
I open my eyes, and before I can register anything, I make the shocked, happy, excited face I’ve been practicing for the picture. I know it’s what mom and dad will want, and I want to make them happy, so I perform. It only lasts a second, but it’s enough for the picture. As the blue afterimage of the flash fades away, I see a bike. A dirt bike! Silver and blue, with pads on the frame and everything! It’s the biggest thing in the room, but it’s not for me. My brother’s stocking hangs from the handlebars. Past it, to my right, a Cabbage Patch Kid, and what I can only remember as “girl stuff”. I was eleven, so. Yanno.
I looked all the way back to the left, holding my breath because I had never wanted anything as much as I wanted it, and it just had to be there, it just had to be.
And it was. Leaning against the tree, with my stocking in front of it, the thing I’d been obsessing about for what felt like my entire life: US 1 Fire Alert Electric Trucking. A slot car thing from Tyco. You drove trucks around the track, filled them up with construction materials like pipes and gravel, and then dropped them off. You didn’t exactly build anything with them, so when the bloom fell off that rose, out came the star of the show; the fire truck, with real flashing red lights and a bell that rang the whole time.
I look pretty excited in the picture, but that picture does not come close to capturing the mainline hit of joy and excitement I felt when I saw that big box in my living room. I was so overwhelmed, tears sprung out of my eyes and I fell to my knees.
‘Thank you, Santa!” I holler, knowing that my voice doesn’t have to make it to the North Pole for him to hear me.
My brother and sister celebrate their gifts: his first “big boy” bike, and the coveted Cabbage Patch Kid for her. I don’t notice them any more than they notice me. We have all gotten exactly what we wanted for Christmas. I don’t know it at the time, and I won’t admit it to myself for over forty years, but it will be the only Christmas I remember feeling like my dad loved me.
It is Christmas Eve 1981. The whole family is in dad’s Dodge Ram Van, heading toward the 134 on the 405. We’re by the Budweiser brewery in Van Nuys. The smell of brewing beer fills the passenger compartment.
We are driving from Aunt Val’s house in Northridge to my father’s aunt and uncle’s house in Toluca Lake. They are nice to me, but they aren’t kind like Aunt Val is. I won’t know how to vocalize this difference until I am an adult, and I don’t hold it against them. But the difference between the houses couldn’t be more stark. Aunt Val’s house is middle class. It’s warm. It’s welcoming. I feel safe and at home there. By contrast, my great aunt and uncle’s house is upper class. We aren’t allowed to touch anything. We can’t sit down. There are whole rooms we can’t go into. Mom is super stressed before we go there. She fusses with our hair endlessly. She admonishes us to be on our best behavior. We don’t go there to be around loving family, like we do when we go to Aunt Val’s. When we go to their house, we have to pass a test. I doubt very much that’s their intention, but it’s how mom makes me feel.
I’m not thrilled about leaving the warmth and love of my Aunt Val’s house for a mid-term. But tomorrow is Christmas, and I just have to be on my best behavior, keep my mouth shut, and be essentially invisible for maybe an hour at the most. I can do this. I do it every year. Why would this year be any different.
We are listening to KRTH 101 on the radio. They are playing 24 hours of Christmas music, without commercials. I can’t recall who sponsored it, which is strange because I feel like they told us between each song. I want to say it was Cal Worthington, but it probably wasn’t.
My brother is sitting to my right. Our sister is to his right. We typically end up in this configuration, which matches our birth order, whenever we go anywhere.
It’s relatively early in the evening, probably around 6 or so. But it’s winter and it’s already dark, so it feels later than it is, which is a cruel trick to play on kids on the one night a year they can’t wait for bedtime to hurry up and get there. The DJ reminds us that they’re playing 24 hours of commercial-free Christmas music thanks to the generosity of … I still want to say Cal Worthington. I mean, I can just say it was Cal Worthington, right? Who’s going to check my work? Let’s just go with that. Cal Worthington. So he thanks Cal Worthington, then he says something about keeping an eye out for Rudolph’s bright red nose, before he drops the needle on Run Rudolph Run.
I lean my head against the window and look up into the dark sky. I like how cool the glass feels against my cheek. I like that I can kind of hear the tires on the road. My mind drifts. I’m nine, and I’m starting to have my doubts about the whole Santa thing. I really want to believe, but parts of the story don’t add up. And my older cousin insists that not only does Santa not bring you presents, he doesn’t even exist. It’s all your parents. My older cousin is kind of a dick, is the thing, and he’s making an extraordinary claim that flies in the face of an entire lifetime of firsthand experience. Surely, if this were true, I would have heard it from a more credible source than my idiot cousin. Still, at the very least, I have some questions, and I am pondering them.
There’s too much light pollution in Los Angeles to see many stars, but helicopters, commercial and private planes criss-cross the sky above us. I’m thinking about the whole Santa Question when I see this lone red spot of light in the sky. My rational brain knows that it’s just a light on an airplane, but it’s the only light I can see, I just heard the guy on the radio tell us to look for Rudolph, and the enormous part of me that wants so desperately to believe that this magical thing is real blurts out, “Dad! I just saw Rudolph’s nose!”
“Really?” He says. There’s something familiar in his tone that tells me I’m stupid.
My heart sinks. “Well, I think so,” I say.
“Maybe it’s your imagination getting caught up in the Christmas spirit,” my mother offers, helpfully.
“Maybe,” I reply. Of course it isn’t Rudolph. First of all, it’s way too early. Everyone knows that Santa doesn’t fly around while you’re awake. This was such a stupid thing to say. Dad’s right. I’m stupid.
“I can use my imagination, too,” my dad says. He points to the stream of oncoming headlights on the other side of the freeway, flowing down the north side of the Sepulveda Pass. There are hundreds, maybe a thousand, cars coming toward us. They create an unbroken streak of bright lights. “That’s a giant snake.”
I look at my brother. He doesn’t get it, either. Then I catch my dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. There is no kindness in them.
“What?” I ask.
“If you can use your imagination, so can I,” he says. “That’s a giant snake.”
It’s so mean, the way he says it. It’s dismissive. It’s condescending. He says it like he can not believe how stupid I am. I don’t know what contempt is, but remembering this moment now (and though I try not to, I’ve remembered it every Christmas for forty years), that’s what it was.
I look at my brother again. He’s like five, and even he feels it. The whole family feels it. We are all silent as Run Rudolph Run finishes. “Did any of you kids see Rudolph?” The DJ asks. I close my eyes and hold my breath. Dad’s going to say something really mean. I know it.
But nobody says anything. In fact, nobody says anything for the fifteen or so minutes it takes us to get to my great aunt and uncle’s neighborhood. As an adult remembering this, there is something really sad about a family sitting in uncomfortable silence in the van together, while the Christmas music we’d typically sing along with played on the radio. As a kid who was experiencing it, it sucked, but I was also relieved that this appeared to be a one-shot from my dad. He wasn’t going to make it a whole thing until I cried, like he usually did.
A Christmas miracle.
We exit the freeway in Toluca Lake and after two quick turns, we are in the middle of extravagant wealth. The houses are HUGE. Their yard displays are EPIC. While we drive slowly through the neighborhood, my mother breaks the uncomfortable silence to excitedly point out the wooden cutouts of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, wearing Santa hats, in someone’s yard. My brother and sister pick up her excitement and run with it. Soon, they are also pointing at yard displays. I remember my brother saying “That one’s my favorite,” several times.
I know now, as an adult myself, that she wasn’t equipped to deal with the shitty thing my father did to me. I suspect that he was just as shitty to her. I mean, he’s just a shitty person. I know now, as an adult, that his parents and most of his family treated her the way he treated me. She wasn’t good enough for them, and she spent our entire childhoods trying to prove them wrong. I know now that as we got closer to his family, they both must have felt so much stress and anxiety, and I have a lot of empathy and compassion for the people they were then. It doesn’t excuse how shitty he was to me, or that she just sat there and let it happen, but I’m willing to stipulate that maybe they weren’t their best selves in that moment.
But all of that reflection and this pain is in my future. In my present, I can’t deny that my great aunt and uncle’s neighborhood is amazing. I don’t feel great in their house, but I love their neighborhood. It’s like where the Main Street Electrical parade goes to live when Disneyland closes. Every house, which looks like it could easily hold two or three of my houses, is covered with constellations of colored lights. Some yards have been transformed into animated scenes of Santa’s workshop. One house has a working roller coaster in the front yard, stuffed animals riding around it in an endless loop. There are nativities everywhere. JOY and NOEL and PEACE ON EARTH are spelled out in lights on rooftops. Every single house is a Griswold house. It is amazing.
We park the van. Mom reminds us again to be on our best behavior. All three of us climb out and wait next to the van while mom fusses with our hair, our collars, my sister’s dress. Mom reminds us not to touch anything, to stay out of the many forbidden rooms, to be polite and to only speak when spoken to. It’s a lot, but we’ve done it several times a year, at every major holiday, for my whole life. I know the drill.
My great aunt answers the door. She greets us with loud enthusiasm. It probably isn’t, but it feels fake. I’m terrified of my dad’s family, and I never feel comfortable or relaxed or safe around them. She’s always nice to me, or at least to the version of me my mother has ensured I present whenever we go to their house, but I never let my guard down. I haven’t really put it all together, yet, but I sort of vaguely know that this is the family that produced my father, and my father is the meanest bully I know, so it stands to reason that if they produced him, maybe they aren’t the kindest people in the world. So, to be safe, I am extremely on guard. Also I’m nine and what the fuck. Why does a nine year-old feel any of these things.
They have an enormous Christmas tree, surrounded by what must be five hundred presents. I know there won’t be anything for us under their tree. There never is. It’s always for my dad’s cousins who I barely know. It’s always a little disappointing. These people can CLEARLY afford to give Atari or Colecovision, but I don’t take it personally. I don’t feel close to them the way I do to my Aunt Val, and that part of my family. I will never feel accepted and loved by my father’s family (with the notable exception of my Godmother) the way I do when I’m with her.
We’re probably there for half an hour, but I’m a kid on Christmas Eve, and it feels much longer. In a way that only makes sense to my tiny mind, time spent here passes more slowly than time in my own house. The very act of being here ensures Christmas will take that much longer to arrive. I do my best to be patient, but I still fidget. My great uncle notices, and takes me and my siblings into his office where we get to see the bearskin he has on his wall. It is a family legend that he shot this bear himself, while it was trying to break into his cabin in Kern county. I believed it then, and I believe it now. He was just that kind of dude, all about the outdoors and hunting and all that stuff. He tells us the story, like he always does, and then he lets us pet it, like he always does. It’s objectively cool, talking to this guy who stared down a bear and won, but I am so afraid I’m going to say or do something wrong, I am laser focused on maintaining my best behavior. And I’m also keeping an eye on my brother and sister, because I’m going to get in double trouble if they do something wrong.
We rejoin the family in the wood-paneled den where the adults are visiting. My great uncle sits in one of those big leather chairs. My siblings and I stand quietly and awkwardly next to our parents for what feels like an eternity.
Eventually, we are allowed to leave. I mean, I’m sure our parents had a lovely visit or whatever, but for us kids, other than the petting of the bearskin, this whole thing is an obligation that can’t end fast enough.
We get into the van. Our mother praises us for being so good. If my dad said anything, I don’t remember it. We drive home, and I lean my head against the window again. This time, when I see a red light in the sky, I keep it to myself. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s just an airplane.
It is late December 1988. Probably the week before Christmas. Dad has a small business. I think he has like eight employees. My parents decide to have a company Christmas party, and all the employees come over to our house. So does my mom’s brother, who we rarely see. Mom has made it clear my whole life that her brother, who I think is great, is a total fuck up. I will eventually learn that he’s bipolar, and when he is off his meds, he’s wildly unpredictable. She also insinuates that he does a lot of drugs, which is probably something I didn’t need to know. He’s always kind to me, but it’s clear from my earliest memories that they have a strained relationship.
My bedroom is downstairs in our split level house. While the adults have their party upstairs, I sit in my bedroom with the door closed, listen to music, and play Dark Tower on my Mac II. I love this computer. I disappear into it for entire days playing Defender of the Crown, DeJa Vu, Uninvited, MacVegas. I write stories on it that I will never publish or even show to anyone. It’s a safe place for me to be. My CD changer has five Depeche Mode CDs in it. It is currently playing 1984’s compilation album, People Are People, which is in my collection only because Some Great Reward isn’t available on CD. For the rest of my life, I will associate “Get The Balance Right” with the following moment.
There is a knock on my door and before I can say anything it swings open, revealing my mom. She has a glass of wine in one hand. She’s definitely buzzed, maybe a little drunk.
“Come up and visit with your dad’s employees,” she says.
“I don’t want to,” I say. “I don’t know any of them.”
“How are you going to know them if you don’t meet them?” She says.
“Mom! I don’t want to. It’s not my party!”
A cloud passes over her face and everything changes in an instant. “You will come upstairs and you will be polite to your father’s guests. End of discussion.”
I do quick math in my head, and conclude that this fight is just not worth having.
“Fine.” I say. She stops me at the door and fusses with my hair, smooths the shoulders of my T-shirt. “Thank you,” she says, without gratitude.
I walk upstairs, into a room of adults I do not know, except for my uncle who is wrecked and sloppy. He is sitting on the couch with one of my dad’s employees who is equally wrecked and sloppy. They are inappropriately close to each other. They are aggressively flirting. It’s super obvious. It’s super gross. In the coming days, mom will complain about all the champagne they drank. I don’t see my siblings, and I presume that they are in my brother’s room, playing NES. I wonder why they aren’t required to appear at dad’s holiday party. I am about to find out.
Mom introduces me to all of the employees, and I realize I am being showed off. By her. To impress him, and them. I’m not Rick’s son. I’m Debbie’s Thing, the famous actor who she relentlessly reminds me was made famous through her great sacrifice and her hard work. It’s horrible. I hold my breath and wait for my dad to make a joke at my expense.
But he’s on his best behavior, maintaining the illusion of loving father. His employees don’t care that I’m Debbie’s Thing. Not a single one of them watches Star Trek. If any of them saw Stand By Me, nobody says anything about it. I make awkward small talk before I am allowed to return to my bedroom. The feeling won’t last, but for the rest of the evening, I feel like I have scored a huge victory in the long war to get my mother to see me as a person and not a thing. It will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, but I’ll take whatever I can get.
It is the middle of December, 1989. We have completed production on Next Generation for the year, and it’s the day of our cast and crew Christmas party. I am barely seventeen, and I am desperate for the cast and crew to see me as a peer, as an adult. In pursuit of this goal, I tell my parents that I’m going to the cast and crew party alone. I don’t tell them that I have this outrageous fantasy that there will be some girl at the party who will want to hang out with me. Maybe we’ll go make out somewhere. This will not happen. In fact, this will never happen.
Dad doesn’t care about me, my job, or this particular party, but my mother loses her shit when I tell her I don’t want her to go with me. She goes on and on about how I’m excluding her, how I’m embarrassed of her, how I don’t appreciate her. She reminds me, like she has since I was seven, that she gave up her career so I could have mine. She uses every tool in her manipulative arsenal, but I don’t budge. I’m growing immune to these techniques she uses to control me. I’ve worked on TNG for two years, and she never comes to the set. She doesn’t know any of my coworkers. She has no reason to be there, as far as I am concerned. This is not a party for her. This is a party for me. I won’t be able to vocalize this for another twenty years, but I don’t want her there because she is constantly taking credit for my work. She’s constantly making my acting career – that I don’t want, that she forced on me – all about her. It feels weird. It feels bad. I don’t want to experience any of that when I’m at the cast and crew party. I don’t want to be responsible for her feelings at a time I should just be having fun. I want, as I’ve been telling her since she put me to work at age seven, to just be a kid.
The whole day, she pouts. I mean, she makes a huge production of how upset she is. It’s all passive aggressive, and the thing is, she uses this move on me so much, it’s lost almost all of its effectiveness. It’s like my dad yelling at me for no reason. It’s happened so consistently, for so long, it’s part of the background radiation of my existence.
And yet, I still feel guilty. So after I get dressed for the party, and about fifteen minutes before I’m supposed to leave, I tell her that I guess it would be okay for her to go with me. I’m counting on fifteen minutes not being enough time for her to get ready. It’s a calculated risk to assuage my guilt for something she never should have put onto my shoulders in the first place, but I can see her running it over in her head. She’s going to find a way to get ready in fifteen minutes. I panic.
She shares a look with my dad, who is as irritated that I exist as he always is. Before either of them can say anything, I grab my keys.
“I guess there isn’t enough time,” I say. Then I add, “sorry,” though I am not sorry at all. I practically run down the driveway to my car. I listen to Oingo Boingo all the way to Paramount. I walk across the liminal space of the Paramount lot at night on a weekend to the soundstage where we are having our party.
Okay so there are the accepted conditions that make something “cool”, then there is the entire mass of everything in the known universe, and on the other side of that, as far away from cool as you can get, we have the 1989 TNG cast and crew Christmas party. We are in an empty soundstage with some banquet tables in it. If there are decorations, I don’t remember them. The band they have on a small stage is terrible. Four pieces of light jazz. Just light jazz garbage from a bad wedding scene in a bad movie of the week. There is no energy in the soundstage, which feels way too big for the party that’s supposed to be happening in it. But it’s early. I’m sure it’ll warm up.
One of my friends, a stand-in who is in his late twenties, asks me if I want something from the bar. I ask him for some orange juice. He comes back with it and I take a pretty big gulp, that I instantly spit back into the glass.
“Dude, there’s vodka in this!”
He chuckles. “I got you a screwdriver. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“No! I just wanted orange juice!” I have been drunk several times with my friends on the weekends. Dumb teenage drinking that we really shouldn’t do, but I’ll get through it without any permanent damage. I do stupid things, but I honestly don’t think I did anything stupid while drunk that I wouldn’t have done while sober. I just felt less anxious about it. But I don’t want to drink alcohol at this party. I know that I can, but I’m still around people who are basically my family, and I feel like I shouldn’t. I want them to respect me, and I’m reasonably sure that drinking alcohol and being stupid is not the best choice. So I go to the bar and get a Pepsi. For the record, I don’t have a side in the cola wars. They both taste the same to me, and they are both inferior to Dr. Pepper.
It comes with a lime, which I guess makes it fancy. While I’m sipping it, Frakes and his wife, Genie, come over to me. We chat for a few minutes. “This band is terrible, isn’t it?” He says.
“The worst, ever,” I agree.
Over the next forty minutes or so, the rest of the cast arrives. Most of them have their partners with them, including Marina. I don’t think she was married to Michael, yet, but he was with her. I just adored him. He was so kind and so cool, so easy to be around. He was a real California surfer, he played the hell out of the guitar, and I knew that if he was the dude Marina wanted to be with, he must be the most amazing dude in the universe.
We all end up together at a table, and very quickly, conversation turns to just how awful this band is. Marina tells Michael that he needs to get up there and play something that rocks.
The entire cast assents. We implore Michael to save us from this light jazz musical nightmare.
So Michael finishes his beer, and goes to the stage. I watch him talk to someone from the band. I see them reach an agreement. Michael walks onto the stage, stands behind the microphone in the center. The entire cast and crew knows him. He’s Marina’s boyfriend! We love him. We know he plays guitar. I think he may even play in a band, but I’m not sure. He leans toward the microphone and says something about how it’s time to rock. Someone from the band gives him their guitar. The drummer counts them in, and they play Johnny B. Goode, but Michael changes the lyric to “Gene-y be good” in deference to our Great Bird of the Galaxy.
The dance floor fills up. The whole room is rocking. Everyone is having a great time. Michael just kills it. I think he just played the one song, but it’s all we needed. The way I remember it, he saved Christmas. Or at least he saved that party.
Soon after he finishes, someone from production, probably Rick Berman or maybe even Gene himself, takes the stage, wishes us all a happy holiday season, and then rolls the blooper reel of our mistakes and outtakes from the year.
I think it is hilarious and brilliant. They’ve cut together some bits from two different episodes that make it look like Picard and Troi are having real freaky sex, and there are all the usual outtakes of us flubbing lines (there’s a supercut of me swearing angrily at myself when I mess up. It’s a lot, it’s embarrassing to me to see it all in context, and someone will pull me aside before the night is over, to encourage me to give myself a break when I blow a line). Patrick is PISSED that this thing has been cut together. He doesn’t think it’s funny at all to be portrayed that way, and as a result, it will be the last blooper reel we get for a couple seasons. I adore that man, but holy fuck did he need to lighten up in those early seasons.
A couple hours go by. I visit with my coworkers. I hang out with my cast. The party starts to thin out, and I’m thinking about heading home. But some of my castmates are going to walk over to the Cheers party, so I ask if I can go with them. I won’t tell you who, but one of them makes it explicitly clear to me that I am absolutely not allowed to go with them. “That party is going to be full of drugs and not a place for a teenager at all,” they say. I will eventually learn that those Cheers Christmas parties were legendary for their cocaine-fueled debauchery. The part of me who likes to read Hunter S. Thompson and listen to Joe Frank thinks it would have been really cool to witness that. The entire rest of me is like “buddy, you really do not need to be around Woody Harrelson and Kelsey Grammar when they are neck deep in blow at the tail end of the eighties.” I think that part of me is probably right.
I do not talk to any girls. In fact, there were no girls there for teenage me to talk to. And let’s be honest, if there had been, I wouldn’t have had the courage to introduce myself. But I have a great time, anyway. I stay as late as I can, because I just don’t want to go home. But eventually it’s just me, the worst band in the world, and some extremely drunk grips. So I take myself home, where my mother is waiting up and demands a full recounting of the party. I clock the empty wine glass and know how to get out of this. I tell her the music was terrible, but the blooper reel was funny. I tell her she didn’t miss anything. I tell her it wasn’t that great a party. Basically, I tell her what I know she will need to believe to let it go. I don’t tell her about Michael’s incredible performance. She takes so much from me, I keep that to myself. She goes on and on about how she’s glad I had so much fun by myself. Then she goes upstairs, and I go to bed. I try as hard as I can not to, but I still feel a little guilty. I fall asleep listening to disc 2 of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
It’s 1997. The week of Christmas. About a year after we started dating, my girlfriend and her kids have moved in with me. We are so excited to share our first Christmas together in what is now our house.
I have wrapped production for the year on Flubber, and driven nine hours down the coast in a torrential Pacific storm to get from San Francisco where we are filming to Los Angeles where I live. I don’t have a cell phone, so I’ve only talked to Anne a couple times when I’ve used a payphone at a gas station. By the time I pull into my driveway, it’s almost midnight and it’s been hours since we talked. She opens the front door, and I can see this warm glow behind her in our house. She has this kind, loving smile that matches a glint in her eye.
“I have a surprise!” She says. She steps aside and I walk into our very small house. When it was built, it was essentially a cabin, so it’s one large room, a very small kitchen, and a hallway that leads to a couple tiny bedrooms.
The warm glow I saw behind her is from fifty feet of garland she’s wrapped with white twinkle lights and hung around the perimeter of the main room. It’s beautiful.
“I love this,” I say.
“I did it for us, because we live together,” she tells me. She kisses me and I kiss her back. Then, I walk down the hallway to the bedroom where Ryan and Nolan are sleeping. I kiss them on their foreheads.
Christmas day 1999. Anne and I have been married for just under two months. It’s our first Christmas as a married couple. We get a lot of Mr and Mrs things, and we love them all. Ryan, age ten, is a hardcore Santa doubter. We’ve done our best to balance the joy a kid feels at the idea of the Santa myth with our commitment to being honest with our kids. “Santa brings gifts, we bring gifts, we help each other out and work together. It’s all kind of a big blur,” I remember saying, like the guy in A Christmas Story who says, “No, that’s them balsams.”
“So if I asked Santa to draw me a self-portrait, do you think he’d do that?” Ryan asks me. I don’t know what he’s getting at, but I can see wheels turning.
“You don’t know if you don’t ask,” I tell him.
When he writes his letter to Santa. It includes a request for a self-portrait. He’s pretty sure he has Anne and me dead to rights. There’s no way we can make this happen. He knows neither one of us can draw. He’s gonna blow this whole Santa thing wide open.
What he doesn’t think about, bless his heart, is that our friend Kevin is an artist and he will not let us pay him when he draws the most amazing self-portrait of Santa Claus you’ve ever seen.
When Ryan opens it, his eyes pop out of his head and he looks at both of us, incredulous. “How did you do this?” He asks, astonished, all pretenses dropped.
“Us? What are you talking about? Santa did that,” Anne tells him.
We got him. Dead to rights. The old switcheroo. What’s his next move?
He scrambles across the floor and throws his arms around us. “I love you guys.” He will take that picture with him when he moves into his own house, and as far as I know, he puts it out every year.
Christmas Eve 2002. For a couple years, we have had this tacit, unspoken agreement with the kids where we all talk about Santa Claus as if he is a person who exists in this world and not a myth given form by parents who are up way too late putting together a bike that comes with instructions you’re pretty sure are not even for a bike, much less this one. We all have a lot of fun with it.
Over the previous few years, at great emotional cost to all of us, and great financial cost to me and Anne, a custody agreement has been reached with the boys’ biodad. There’s an alternating Christmas thing that means they are with him tonight and come home to us at noon tomorrow. Next year, it will flip. It’s not great, but we don’t complain about it in front of the kids. It’s probably not great for them, either.
Anne and I don’t have to wait for the kids to go to sleep before we make Christmas happen, so we make dinner, open a bottle of wine, and take our time during the evening getting everything together. It’s just the two of us, and our dogs, Ferris and Riley. We listen to Christmas music, open another bottle of wine, and play that old tabletop game, Sorry! I love having our kids around, but I’m not going to lie. Having these moments together when it’s just the two of us means a lot to me. We didn’t have that part of the relationship when it’s just the two of us. We’ve been a family since day one. But we’ve made a commitment to each other to put our marriage, and our relationship at the center of everything, because that’s the thing that will be here no matter how we’re doing financially, if the kids are with us or not, or when we are three years into a global pandemic for example. It’s not great that we aren’t tucking our kids who are too big to be tucked into bed into bed, but having some wine and playing a game in front of the fireplace isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Christmas Day 2004. The Basketball Hoop Year. It’s early afternoon, and I’m on the driveway assembling this fucking thing all day WITH HELP and I can’t believe Anne honestly thought I could do this last night by myself in the dark.
It’s 2005. We are at my parents’ house for Christmas dinner. I’m in the kitchen with my sister, helping cut stuff up or whatever, and she asks me what I think about this thing that’s been in the news lately. A guy is about to be executed, and there’s a death penalty debate happening in the media and in our state capitol. I tell her that I think he should spend his life in prison, but I don’t support the death penalty. It’s racist, it’s immoral, and it isn’t an effective deterrent.
Our father, who has not been part of this conversation at all, storms into the room, shoves me away from what I’m doing, and starts jabbing me in the sternum while he screams in my face “AN EYE FOR AN EYE! AN EYE FOR AN EYE! YOU LIBERALS ARE ALL THE SAME! AN EYE FOR AN EYE!”
I am shocked and scared, and I’m embarrassed for him and for me. He did this in front of my kids. He did this in front of my wife. He did this in front of the entire family, now that I think of it, and then he stormed away before I could say anything.
My sister and I look at each other like “What the fuck was that?” But before either of us can say anything, our mom does the distraction deflection thing. I want to say it’s something about a pickle. It’s really kind of pathetic. My dad does not say another word to me for the rest of the evening, not even goodbye when we leave. Dinner is uncomfortable and sad. My mother and brother act like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I spend the entire meal wishing I’d just gathered my family together and walked out after he yelled at me.
The next day, I write about it. I frame it as part of the nascent War on Christmas narrative. I write honestly about what happened. When it is published, and gains some traction online, my father freaks out. But he doesn’t speak to me directly. He complains to my mother who does the manipulation thing on me. “Your Aunt Val always said there’s nothing more important than family,” she says. It works. She invokes the memory of the most beloved person in my childhood, and fueled by a lifetime of conditioning, I write a big retraction. It’s humiliating. It undermines my entire truth. I lie and lie and lie, to satisfy my parents. It’s not enough. She makes me apologize to him. I do. He shrugs it off.
My father does not, and never will, apologize for how he treated me in front of my family, my wife, and my children, at Christmas.
Christmas Day, 2015. Ryan and his wife make tamales to feed the entire family. They are phenomenal. They spent most of two days preparing them, and knowing that they put all that love into them makes them the best tamales I have ever had, or ever will have.
Christmas 2020. Fucking Covid. We don’t see our kids at all, for the first time in their lives. I am grateful for all those memories we made together, instead of giving them stuff they wouldn’t even have now. I spend a lot of time looking through my photo roll, missing them. Anne and I can’t even have our chosen family around, because there’s no vaccine and it isn’t safe. She and I make the best out of it, just the two of us, together. Next year, we’ll be back to normal. Thank god.
Christmas Eve 2021. WELP. Turns out that stupid, selfish people are determined to make this pandemic last … just a little longer, probably until an election. Sure, let’s just pretend it’s all over, because we’re tired of the inconvenience. We can just wish ourselves out of this, because FREEDOM or whatever. I am so tired.
It’s been a really hard year for all of us. And not just the Anne and me us, who endured a pretty awful summer with my seizure and her back surgery, either. The all of us … us, I mean. Imagine I’m making that big hugging motion with my arms to indicate that we are all in this together. When I say us, I mean you and me and Anne and your partner and your kids and all the people you love who love you back. All of us. If there were a little more us in the world right now, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a hard year.
For the longest time, Christmas has not been about stuff for me. It isn’t about supernatural religious myths. It isn’t about all the crap advertisers work hard to make it about. It’s about the other things, the joyful things that flow through these memories around the painful bits, the moments with my children, the late nights Anne and I stayed up to make Christmas happen for them. It’s about having our chosen family over for dinner. It’s about the people who bring the joy and magic of the holiday season into my life every day of the year.
It’s mostly about my kids, though. They are adult men with wives who have their own lives, and that is awesome. I’m not going to burden them with the same kind of responsibility that I carried when I was a kid. But I miss them so much, I feel like I’m on the verge of tears from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, even when I’m happy. At the same time, I’m so grateful to be spending my 25th Christmas with Anne, because we live together.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past haven’t visited me in a long, long time, but they are everywhere I look this year. Starting about a week ago, they showed up slowly, one at a time, then all at once until the room was just filled up with memories, happy and sad, insisting I do something with them.
I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with all this. I love the happy memories. I love that Anne and I still have the box the garland lives in, and I love that we wrote “Xmas 1997. Garland and lights for our house because we live together” on it. I love to look at that every year, whether we put the garland out or not. I love that we’ll be looking at it for the rest of our lives together.
The sad memories are extra sad, especially in comparison to the good ones. I’m sure there are good memories I don’t have, that I can’t recall, that a trip through a photo album would dislodge. The year we got all the WWF toys, including the Sling Em Fling Em Wrestling Ring, for example, and stockings filled with MUSCLE figures. I don’t have that photo album, or access to it, though, so I’m left with the memories that made the greatest impressions on me, good and bad.
And that reality, in itself, is sad. And because of the whole BUT IT’S CHRISTMAS of it all, that reality is especially painful this year.
It’s not a contest. Everyone is going through something. This is what I’m going through. Maybe writing these things down will allow me to heal from the painful stuff, so I can happily and joyfully remember the good stuff.
I hope that your holidays are wonderful. I hope you are making wonderful memories with people you love. Whatever winter festival you choose to celebrate, I hope you get to celebrate it with people you love who love you back. I hope that, this time next year, all of us are able to safely gather with people we love who love us back.