I celebrate Christmas, as well as several other holidays. If Facebook had the option, my religious affiliation would say, “it’s complicated”. Because how else could “pagan pantheist with sprinkles of Buddhism and Hinduism, a dollop of esoteric Christianity, and dashes of New Age Hippie” fit onto one line? 😉
I’ve long celebrated Christmas, Yule/Winter Solstice, and just about everything else I’m remotely familiar with. I was raised with the celebration of Christmas, for which, in itself, the “it’s complicated” tag could bob its head up once again.
My brain’s Aspie operating system came with the “Long Memory” App pre-installed, and it gets updated fairly frequently. My Aspie-brain also came with a spankin’ version of the “Systemizing” App. So, naturally, said brain has divided the archive of memories, its analysis of current status, and its predictions for the future into three categories that are, on their surface, nice and neat. And because I loved (Disney’s version of) “A Christmas Carol” back in the day (and still do), I’ll use the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future for my framework 🙂
The Ghost of Christmas Past:
Christmas Past is a two-sided coin, one shiny and new, the other tarnished almost beyond readability. It felt like riding a rollercoaster while wearing a blindfold. The recipe consisted of equal parts joy, uncertainty, and trauma.
The joyful parts were many. I loved the Christmas preparation ritual, for what is a ritual but a socially-acceptable routine that nobody questions or thinks twice about? Growing up Old Skool, we celebrated one holiday at a time, which means that we did not begin this preparation until at least the Saturday that occurs two days after Thanksgiving.
This preparation consisted of digging out all of the Christmas decorations (ours rocked! My parents really went all-out), untangling all of the Christmas lights (which had real bulbs in them, albeit not full-size, per se), and trying to figure out which light in the string had gone flaky, resulting in the entire string failing to turn on when plugged in.
In the earlier years, we lived literally next-door to an honest-to-glory Christmas Tree Farm, so we’d go cut down our tree every year and haul it back in the pickup truck. I wasn’t particularly fond of the tree-hunting part; it was cold, it took a long time, and most of all, I knew that trees were living things, and my Aspie-heart couldn’t live with the idea that we were taking a tree’s life for maybe–what? A month?–of simple indoor decoration.
And ooooh, there were the pine needles! Yeah, those things (the trees) shed! And those things (the needles) hurt when they rudely poke right through your sock and stab the bottom of your foot, or your toe, or whatever they decide to take their best shot at. Well, I just chocked it up to the tree getting its revenge and, well, I guess we had that coming.
Once the lights were untangled, some went up inside, and some went up outside. The inside ones landed on the Christmas tree itself and along the edges of the window sills. It made for beautiful ambiance. The outside ones, well, they were strung around low bushes, or perhaps, trees…that weren’t quite so low. One of the trees we’d had in our northern, damn-near-polar climate was this humungous, towering pine tree (for botany buffs, I’m thinking it was a type of spruce tree?), and this sucker stretched another story (storey) above our two-story house. Usually, it never crossed my dad’s mind to put lights on that tree because, well, it was too dang tall. But, one year, he got a wild hair up his arse and attempted exactly that.
On the night of this attempt, my mother was making dinner in the kitchen, and my dad came in from the arctic outdoors with a shite-eating grin on his face that gave away his mischief, and chuckling to himself to boot, like a three-year-old with a secret.
My mom cracked a half-smile and asked him, “what’s so funny?” He simply said, “I think we’ll get the arrow back, but it might be about three or four properties over.” Although my mom was plenty used to my dad’s whimsical, humorous, Mad Scientist wild arse-hairs by now, her expression begged an explanation that she was ultimately unprepared for. He went on to explain how he had wrapped the string of lights around an arrow, grabbed my mom’s bow, and attempted to shoot the string of lights into the pine/spruce tree.
Except that he had missed, and the arrow–and light string–went sailing through the air. And this was in the inner-ring suburbs of a city, mind you, with an average lot-size of about half an acre to an acre (I confess, I don’t know what that would be in hectares for my international peeps).
Yes, this actually happened. But only that year. After all, my mom only had a set of 12 arrows and we never did find the lost one (or maybe we did? I think I vaguely remember something about it being stuck in a tree).
The preparation didn’t stop there, not by any stretch. There was lots of shopping. Not the same kind of over-produced, too-slick, too-greedy, sickly-sweet-make-your-teeth-hurt commercialism and materialism that exists today. Nope, this was genuine shopping. We would collect Christmas ornaments by different artists, who released a new one (one!) every year in his or her personal series. (Yay, collections!!) We would also go shopping for the much-promoted charity project, Toys For Tots, and my mom would drop about a thousand dollars a year on new toys for kids who otherwise had nothing. (And actually, even back then, that was actually more fun than any shopping we did for ourselves. My mom is a generous, genuine, kind, loving, and giving soul, an old and wise soul with a deceptively-young-looking face, and she genuinely (there’s that word again) loved every single minute. She didn’t do it for attention, appreciation, or fame; she did it because she absolutely loved doing it.)
And then there was the baking, the wrapping presents for relatives, the mistletoe hung from the rafters, the tinsel wrapped in a twist around the railing/banister of the stairs.
There was a slightly dark side, too…
For a pivotal time period in my life, from the time I was two until I was seven, my father had been an active alcoholic, and even though he’d sought–and completed–treatment programs (without a single relapse, no less), he still had the behaviors of a dry drunk. He had also grown up in a highly dysfunctional family that was run much like a military brigade, with drill sergeants for parents, who had impossible expectations, expectations that were required to be met, regardless of ability and realistic-ness.
These expectations and the pressure he felt to please them ultimately transferred to us, in natural-and-unfortunate progression, as we were required to look, speak, and behave perfectly. If we talked too much, we were barked at to tone it down; if we talked too little, we were accused of sulking or mistaken to have a bad attitude. The hair had to be curled and pinned back in tight barrettes (which of course, never stayed put in my thick nest of hair), and that facial blush crap (makeup) had to be layered on, practically smothering the skin. Don’t get me started on the dresses and their scratchy material, impossible tags, the uncomfortable and movement-restricting tights, the slip that always showed, and the shiny dress shoes that killed our feet along with any chance of being able to keep up with our cousins on the off-chance that we ended up running outside. And holy god, in a climate like that, you barely dared run, and those dresses got COLD, after which it was really tough to warm back up.
The expectations surrounding our behavior clearly existed (we were sharply reprimanded if we breached them), but they weren’t clearly laid out. We had no clue we were crossing the line into Unacceptable Behavior Territory until we had actually done so, and then it was a snap back onto the correct side of that line. I resented my dad a lot as a child, because my cousins’ parents let them play as they liked, but mine did not. I got in trouble for things that the other kids were doing, too, and their parents let them do it! That phenomenon was a dreadful, recurring theme, and it only widened the already-ever-present divide between myself (an Aspie) and everyone else (NONE of whom were on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum at all), drawing unwanted attention to me every time.
I understand that there was a lot of pressure on my dad from his own parents for everything to be perfect, and that was hand-me-downed to us. My mom tried her best to play the referee, in which she’d get my dad to soften up and get us to try to understand my father and his erratic and unreasonable behavior. With part of my brain being a miniature adult, I did have a surprisingly competent understanding of the dynamics involved. With the other part of my brain still childlike and innocent, my understanding doesn’t mean I liked it.
The Ghost of Christmas Present:
My father is much more mellow now. Of course, it helps to realize you’re Celiac (which both he and I are) and calm down the fire in one’s brain by eliminating gluten (which we both have). It also helps to add a few more years of experience, wisdom, and maturity (which we all have) and to become more seasoned and discriminate in picking our battles (which we all have as well).
These past few years, I’ve headed back up to that dim, frigid northern place, to visit some of the family and a couple of my best friends. I’ve stayed no more than nine days before coming home and reinstalling myself back into my present life. The week-plus stretch in the extreme cold provides a good reset button for my body, keeping my physiology on its toes and guessing.
Gift-giving is more simple now, the expectations lesser but the meaning greater.
Decorating may or may not happen; if anything, we decorate our professional office, in which we provide the decorations left over from our house in North Texas, and ask our assistant for, well, her assistance in putting them up.
Christmas is a time of joy, and it’s also a time of mourning. We lost my grandfather on 5 December 1988, my brother on 21 December 1998, and we’re probably going to lose my aunt and grandmother fairly soon. But it still is indeed a time of joy. Getting together and laughing and playing games has always been a mainstay, and that tradition continues to this day.
I have a few reservations or apprehensions about Christmas this year. It’s my “first” one as a known Aspie/autistic person, so it will remain to be seen how that is received. I don’t plan to make a grand announcement or anything, nor do I plan to bring it up in conversation. If it comes up, I’ll do my best to keep my answers short and sweet, providing them with the information they want without info-dumping on them or compromising my own boundaries or comfort. Since today is Packing Day (I leave tomorrow), I’m not entirely sure what kind of “stim” toys to bring. I might have to default to what had unknowingly been my fall-back in previous years: hit the wine. Not too much, but definitely enough to take the edge off. Not enough to start yakking away obnoxiously, but just enough to break down the wall of petrification and not feel like a nervous wreck.
Another reservation I have is that the get-together this year is at a house that is not familiar, the map to which I’ve never driven and haven’t “burned” into my mind, hosted by someone I barely know, who has no food sensitivities/reactivities like I do, and may not consider any such thing. Thus, not only is there the unfamiliarity and deviation from previous routine options, but there’s also the very real possibility that there may not be anything there I can actually eat. And the plans, although established and confirmed among the rest of the family, haven’t been passed to me in any sufficient detail, so I can’t even contact this person ahead of time and obtain the information. So there is also the mild resentment that comes with having been outcast and forgotten. I don’t want attention. I don’t want the spotlight. I don’t want any drama. It would simply be nice if my existence was acknowledged once in a while.
In recent years, our Christmas traditions have also included…
1 – Watching the following movies:
- Sword & the Stone
- Drop Dead Gorgeous (whenever I go to MN)
- Home Alone (original only, no sequels)
- A Christmas Story (my partner’s favorite)
- Rick Steves, through wintery climates like Northern Europe, Scandinavia, the Alps, etc.
- Ice Age (1 and 2)
- Grinch (cartoon version)
- Peanuts (Christmas show)
2 – Celebrating primarily on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day; the “vibe” is much richer and more mystical
3 – Occasionally, attending a Unitarian/Universalist church service – very open, accepting, and educational!
4 – Putting together packages of little gifts in which each gift is a component of a single common theme (a tradition shared only between my partner and me)
5 – Saving one small gift to be opened the day after Christmas (to soften that post-holiday anti-climactic “letdown”)
6 – Lighting candles for the whole week, in the evening
7 – Music that includes Transiberian Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, or other hip, contemporary easy-listening Christmas-themed music that isn’t too traditional/boring (wait…did I just use “hip” and “easy-listening” in the same sentence??)
8 – Traveling to bitter-cold winter wonderlands to hang out with my closest friends and one wing of my not-so-closest extended family; the bulk of the days are spent with the former, after satisfying obligations with the latter
The Ghost of Christmas Future:
This chapter, by its nature, is not written yet. But I have a few clues in hand that give me hints about what to expect. Christmas has always been full of expectations, whether they were my childhood expectations of the holiday and its tidings, or other peoples’ expectations of me. But now, a lot of that has faded a little, like being bleached by the sun. It has been replaced with a longer retrospective scope, which can be used for anticipating future patterns. This is what I see…
I see thinner populations, small gatherings of nuclear families who opt not to make the pilgrimage to the Great White North to see Gramma (after all, that’s half the reason everybody congregates where we do; we may not be as close to each other, but everybody’s close to Gramma (my dad’s mum)). After Gramma passes away, I think we’ll see the extended family splinter apart a bit more, which, in earlier years, I thought would sadden me, but I’ve come to realize that it probably won’t, if I’m honest with myself. And of course, my mom’s mum and sister are on Final Approach.
I see differing holiday destinations instead. I see my parents finally bathing in their due limelight; after years of dutifully journeying to grandparents’ houses, they’ll finally be able to have holiday celebrations at their own house. I also see future travels to see my sister on the Canadian side of the border. And other brothers and sisters may be there, too. And the wine will probably make an encore appearance, only this time, not as a survival strategy, but like proverbial icing on the cake that is being with my wise-and-witty sister, who seems to “get” me, although not completely, more than the rest of the family. 🙂 ❤
(Image Credit: Shawna Erback)