When I was very young, Santa Claus used to make an appearance at my house every few years.
One year, he would rumble through our front door, in full belly laugh and beard, carrying a sack stuffed with presents.
And then --- with very little fanfare and in the days before we could order an Amber Alert --- he would simply go missing.
When I got old enough, I began to understand this wasn’t the way the real Santa operated. I mean, I saw the cartoon Christmas specials. Santa was supposed to come every year. He wasn’t a solar eclipse.
So I finally gathered the nerve to ask my father one Christmas why Santa didn’t come to our house more often, fearing, perhaps, that our Ozarks home was too isolated for his reindeer to find, or, worse, that I had been naughty instead of nice.
Instead, I remember my father looking directly at me --- as he dribbled some blood-colored wine out of a box --- and saying, “Santa’s preoccupied right now. Nixon needs a little extra help.”
And then all the adults sitting in front of the fireplace laughed, and said, “Ain’t that the fuckin’truth.”
I was still a tiny boy who lived in the middle of nowhere, a boy who had a fondness for ascots and Robbie Benson. I still believed I might receive an Easy Bake Oven or Barbie instead of a Daisy BB gun and fishing lures. I still believed my parents might move to New York City on a whim, and I would become a Rockette.
Mostly, however, I just needed something --- anything --- in which to believe so I could survive another year in the Ozarks.
And if it was the fact that Santa would visit me when he wasn’t busy helping the president, then so be it: I would instead laser my attention on the Easter Bunny.
Finally one Christmas, after a few no-show years, Santa came rushing through our door, carrying a sack of toys and a case of Hamm’s.
“Santa?” I asked.
“Damn, my jingle balls are hot!” Santa exclaimed, rather than the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” I was expecting. And then he yanked down his beard to chug a beer and lifted the low-hanging pillow I thought was his bowl full of jelly to air out his chestnuts, and said, “I could be winning some big money right now playing craps instead of doing this gig. I can’t believe I didn’t win the company bonus this year. Damn that Joe Reynolds!”
The realization that the fat man in the red suit was actually my great uncle came to me with shocking clarity, like Moses from the Mountain.
And then my great aunt --- obviously a touch tipsy and turned on by the unexpected peek at Santa’s bag of goodies --- proceeded to ask Kris Kringle when he was going to fill her stocking.
“It’s getting itchy, Santa,” she said, slurring slightly.
My ears were quickly covered by adult palms, but the damage had already been done.
My holidays had been obliterated forever.
That precious Christmas memory and now-famous morsel of family lore, however, led me to a number of profound conclusions:
-There was no Santa.
-The reason behind my aunt’s itchy stocking was not because it was made of polyester.
-Joe Reynolds was bound to have a good year after a string of bad ones.
-Nixon, indeed, needed all the help he could get.
-And no family holiday --- no holiday, period --- is ever as perfect as we dream it will be.
I should know.
My family always had the best of intentions with our holiday celebrations --- be it Valentine’s, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving or New Year’s --- but it was the follow-through that was disastrous. We were like the Ricardo’s-Mertzes.
What mother would dress her son as a Ubangi tribesman --- sending him out in black face, with a ’fro, giant lip, and pillowcase --- for Halloween in the Ozarks? Mine.
What father would bury his children’s Easter eggs because --- as an engineer and former military man --- the fun was in the “hunt”? Mine.
What partner would dress as Oscar --- his head wrapped in gold lamé --- just to prove his love of the Academy Awards and of me? Mine.
Who in their right mind would dress as a leprechaun on St. Patty’s Day just to get free drinks? OK, that was me, but the point is this: Looking back today, that Santa epiphany may have been the best Christmas gift that could have ever been given to me. For, I received the gift of clarity; I received the gift that kept on giving.
The Jingle Balls incident made me understand that holidays were not --- and did not have to be --- perfect in order to be beautiful. It made me realize that all families are dysfunctional, especially during the holidays, and that while most celebrations are well-intended they are also usually diarrhea-inducing.
But, above all else, I understood that my family loved me. Why else would my great aunt and uncle forego the slots and free whiskey in Las Vegas just to spend it dressed as Mr. And Mrs. Kringle with me in the Ozarks?
I was deeply loved.
Which is a pretty good tradeoff in my holiday book.
Growing up in rural America, my family often didn’t have much more than each other. We weren’t poor, exactly, but we were far from well off. What we were was a new-age family: My parents were the first generation to graduate from college, the first to work their whole lives with their minds and not their hands.
My mother’s parents worked as a laborer and a seamstress, and they toiled in mines and fields and factories. They spent their lives hunting for food to keep the family fed. And yet, their Christmas tree --- in photo albums and in my childhood memories --- was suffocated in gifts. There was always one great gift --- a bike, a game, a toy --- underneath the tree, but many of the presents I received were ones my grandparents had made themselves.
My grandfather worked leather, creating hand-tooled boots and belts, wallets and purses. My grandmother sewed me ascots and vests, pants and shirts.
I despised those handmade gifts as a kid: The hand-tooled belt that featured my nickname, “Wee-Pooh,” on the back; the change purse, with a scrawling “W”, that held my milk money; the little ascot with threaded embellishment at the end. They were an endless source of embarrassment. When I opened gifts as a kid, I would often flinch, as if there were a rattlesnake hidden inside.
I knew the horror it contained.
And yet, ironically, the gifts I remember --- and the few that I kept --- were those my grandparents made for me: That little change purse still holds my toll change; those quilts made from suit scraps and feed sacks continue to warm me.
My grandma used to tell me: “I may not be able to give you material things, but I can always let you know how much you are loved. And that will make you a very rich man.”
And yet --- after my grandparents died --- I forgot the lessons I was taught, and became obsessed with the materialism of the holidays, believing I was loved, or showing love, only if I purchased or received the greatest, latest and most expensive trend. I believed a Christmas was not Christmas without a $700 Burberry peacoat; that Thanksgiving was not Thanksgiving if a turkey was not presented on a Williams-Sonoma platter; that a birthday was not a birthday without being showered in gifts.
The presents were the reason for the season.
I was not alone, it seems.
Americans continuously try to fool themselves and everyone else into believing that their lives, families and holidays are as golden as a Martha Stewart turkey by throwing cash at them. We send Xeroxed Christmas letters filled with blasphemous lies and spend weeks attempting to secure that one perfect gift, all the while knowing, deep down, it is just a ruse: While we love our families, dearly and deeply, that doesn’t mean money will transform them into different people, or make our holidays perfect.
Even in a down economy, we remain a country obsessed with painting our holidays green: Be it birthdays, or Halloween, or Valentines, we lavish gifts and food and attention on one another for a select few hours on a select few days, and then pretty much ignore each other the rest of the year.
According to the National Retail Federation Americans recently spent a whopping $457.4 billion on Christmas gifts. That's approximately $1,052 for every American.
The National Retail Federation figures that Americans recently spent $13.7 billion to prove their love to their loved ones on Valentine’s, an average of over $100 per consumer on anything sweet or heart-shaped.
Americans spend an average of $1.9 billion on Easter candy every year, second only to the $2 billion we spend on Halloween.
And, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, American households collectively spend more than $420 million a year on fireworks.
At least if we can’t buy love, or give it a cavity, it seems, we can blow the crap out of it.
Because we are, too often, a people scared. We crawl through life doubly defined by a fear of expressing our emotions, and by a gnawing lack of self-esteem: We have trouble saying “I love you!” because we feel it’s both wrong and not good enough. What we possess, what we do, what we have, who we wear and know mask our insecurities, make us seem worthwhile and loved, when, really, we are all united by one basic fact: We are someone’s child, someone’s brother or sister, someone’s parent, part of someone’s family. In truth, we are one big family. What we need is love and acceptance.
This dawned on me in my 30s, when I met my partner, Gary, and we began to alternate our holidays with our families. Like any newly married couple, we gleefully but silently welcomed each other into our family’s mad houses, neither revealing the dark secrets that awaited until it was too late to escape. Perhaps we were scared the other might run. Perhaps we were scared our families weren’t “good enough.”
What I learned was that, yes, our families were nuts, but, more importantly, that I was unconditionally loved and accepted. I belonged to something greater than myself.
What I learned, after our first, dual Thanksgiving, was that holidays are typically how we introduce and bring those we love into our families.
It is tradition.
It is sadism.
My mother was the Erma Bombeck of our family, the female Mark Twain of the Rouse House. In the years when our family no longer worried about money, my mom returned to her roots, and reinstated the traditions of my grandparents while also initiating a new tradition of her own.
In addition to a Banana Republic shirt, or Kenneth Cole gift card, my mom would gift me and Gary with something she had created: A hand-painted ornament for our own tree, or a birdhouse wrapped in bittersweet she had foraged from her woods.
And she also celebrated each holiday with a story, a tale about our family.
“These are the gifts you will keep, the ones you will remember,” she told us, “because they are the ones that mean the most.”
And damn if I didn’t shrink that shirt, or grow tired of a shoe style, but I always kept her little presents, remembered her stories.
Each year at Christmas, Gary and I still hang those treasured ornaments from my mom (and his), pulling their delicate, round bodies from individual boxes, and we re-tell the story of how each came to be, or the four-hour family tale my mom had told the year she gave us that ornament.
I share these holiday tales with you because I believe that nothing defines the love, dysfunction and evolution of American families more than its holidays: Each family not only comes together as one a few times a year --- despite typically cavernous distances in geography, personality and opinion --- but each family also celebrates every holiday in its own unique way. But it is the simple fact that we gather, that we come together a few times a year --- despite these differences --- that is magical, memorable, life-changing and life-affirming.
This is what calls us home.
Holidays are --- like Campbell’s soup --- life condensed.
They are a time capsule.
It is when we notice the aging of our mother’s face in the reflection off the tree lights, how much our nieces and nephews have grown when a birthday is celebrated, how much we miss those we have lost when the Thanksgiving table is arranged with one less place setting.
Yes, my family was, and still is, largely nuts.
But I remember to this day how much I was loved. And that will always carry me through the holidays.
My family’s stories --- no matter how unique, bizarre, beautiful --- are my gift.
And, like a fruitcake, I am pleased to pass them along to you. May these tales help you remember what is truly important as you celebrate with family, no matter the holiday. And, most importantly, may these stories make you laugh when you want to cry, or cry when you want to laugh.
So, Happy Hellidays, from my family to yours.
And may your jingle balls never be itchy!
It's All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine: A Memoir