The Ghosts of Christmas Pasts

Even though I grew up in poverty with my severely handicapped mother and an alcoholic father who was rarely home, I loved everything about Christmas. 

I knew that Christmas was about Jesus bringing light and love to a weary world and sharing what you could with others. These were things I could have.  Besides, my Aunt Dot would always give me $10.00, which seemed like a fortune. 

The day after Thanksgiving, we would go up into the attic and bring down the advent wreath, some garland and my mom’s Christmas tapes. My mom would listen to her favorite Christmas music over and over all the way through Christmas Day. We kept trying to give her new ones, but Christmas wasn’t Christmas if she didn't hear her favorite songs.

She delighted in everything that my sister and I did to decorate the old dilapidated house.  We draped the living room with treasures that we found in huge bins at St. Vincent DePaul and lit up every corner with brightly colored lights. Even the ratty, pink, lace wreath had a special place over the fireplace.

Every Christmas was magical, UNTIL I got married.  Little by little my narcissistic husband choked the joyful spirit out of the season.  His birthday was on December 23rd, and he constantly reminded everyone that he had always been “ripped off” because of Christmas.  He would make up stories about how sad his birthdays were when he was growing up to get sympathy and to keep the focus on him.

Of course, I didn’t know that the stories were not true. So every year, I was determined to make his birthday so special that he would forget all the bad ones before.  Of course, that never worked.  No matter how elaborate the plans or how much everyone focused on him for the day, his birthday was never anything but a “rip off” And he never missed the opportunity to tell us so. He carried this chip on his shoulder from Thanksgiving through December 26th.  Now, I have only a handful of memories of past Christmases that don’t bring tears to my eyes.

Our daughter, Alexis was always wide-eyed and quiet.  She was confused about how everyone was happy about the holidays except her dad.  He was a stay at home and she had bonded closely to him.  Whatever her dad felt, she felt. Christmas was confusing for her.  By 4 or 5, she had figured out that her father would snap at her for just about anything during the Holiday Season, so it was best to stay out of the way.

Our younger son, Scotty was more wild-eyed than wide eyed.  I guess he inherited my genes of a love for Christmas.  Up until he was 6, Scotty loved Christmas too.  His eyes sparkled brighter than the lights on the tree.  He had no sense of time and everyday he would ask if it was Christmas yet. He was a list maker like me, and would write down every toy he saw on T.V. during December.  But, the most fun we had on those early family Christmases was when Scotty and I would mix oatmeal and brightly colored glittered together for Santa’s reindeer.  Scotty was worried that Santa wouldn’t find our house because we lived so far out in the country. We needed something to make our house visible to the reindeer from the sky.  On those cold, crisp, early Christmas Eves, Scotty and I sprinkled our special reindeer food all over the driveway before we hurried off to bed.

As Christmas morning rolled around, the kids would be jittery and giggly. They bounced on the bed, announcing that Santa had come and begged to dive under the Christmas tree.  I smiled and waited. Sometimes their dad would play with them for a little while and I would think for a moment that maybe this year would be different.  But narcissists can only tolerate seeing that others are happy for a short time; even when the “others” are their children.  It never took too long before he would get angry at them and demand military obedience.

First, the kids had to settle down and eat breakfast. Then, when much of the wind was taken out of their sails, we walked into the living room for the presents.  Opening Christmas presents was regimented and required the “proper” emotional control.

I did love to watch my children open the presents I had bought and wrapped with all my love. I also liked helping them pick out or make gifts for their dad.  After the presents were opened and everyone was busy playing, no one would notice me leave the room with nothing.  My husband never even looked up or thanked me for all the extra time I had put into decorating, cooking, baking, buying and wrapping presents, etc.  I always did these things alone.

As I cleaned up the paper, scissors and tape that I had left out from my late night wrappings, I cried softly, happy that there were at least a few hours of quiet and concentrated play.  I consoled myself by trying to focus on Jesus and thanking God that the holiday torment was over for another year. I didn’t need any presents, I was more concerned that my children had learned that Christmas was all about their dad. 

The longer I was married, the more my feelings of Christmas joy and wonder turned to work, disappointment and fear. Then came the year that we divorced and it got a lot worse.

It was 2009. My ex-husband had the kids on Christmas Eve and I was to have them Christmas Day.  About 10 am, my ex-husband galloped into my house with Alexis on his back.  He smiled at me.

I looked behind the both of them. Where’s Scotty? I questioned. “He didn’t want to come,” my ex said, as if it were no big deal.   I barely heard my ex-husband babbling explanations and telling me what I should and should not do. I grabbed my coat and headed out the back door.

“There is no way, I’m going to be without my son on Christmas!” My mind raced as fast as my car. “No way, he or they are going to start this; my son, my day, my Christmas.  Scotty, what are you doing? What are you thinking? You have no reason, no reason at all not to want to be with me on Christmas.” Who gave him a choice and why?  He is only 13!  He is my son too!”

I pulled into the driveway.  The house had absolutely no decorations, not even a Christmas tree.  It looked as bare and empty as my ex-husband's heart.  I rushed out of the car and I was through the door starring at my son before I knew it. “What?” Scotty asked. I paused. “Get your coat, it is Christmas and it is my time with you.” I said calmly but sternly. “I’ve let you stay with your dad a few extra days here and there, but I will not spend Christmas without you.”  Scotty didn’t move or didn’t argue. “This is not a choice young man, it is not your decision, it is not your father’s decision.  If your dad wants to change placement he has to go through the court, until then we follow the placement orders.”   Scotty and I locked eyes.  “No, I am not going with you to your house.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone. My ex-husband jogged into the room behind me and I heard him say, “You’re not going to call the police.”  Wow, was that a question or a command?  “I will if you don’t tell Scotty to get his coat and get in the car, now.” I said, never changing the tone of my voice or taking my eyes off of my son.  I dialed the number.

Officer Henzel arrived in minutes and assessed the situation.  He went into the living room and sat down next to Scotty.  My ex-husband and I backed into the kitchen ignoring each other. Scotty came out of the living room, got his coat and headed out the door in stony silence. When we got back to my house, he promptly locked himself in his room.

Christmas didn’t exist in 2010.  I didn’t put up a tree, declined invitations and tried to pretend that it was just another day.  Scotty now hated and rejected me and Alexis had learned that Christmas was about her dad and had become passively aggressive.

I would be alone and that was all I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold back the grief, loneliness and loss. Crying was the only way I knew to release the years of hurt and disappointment that had turned Christmas from a time of joy to the most dreaded time of the year.  I hated the entrepreneurs who would shove the illusions of happy families, decked halls, and shared laughter under your nose.  It only served to pry the gap between my dreams and reality farther and farther apart.

It’s now 2016. My children are 20 and 22.  I have not had a Christmas or a Thanksgiving with my children since 2009.  Some years have been easier than others, but there is no denying that every Christmas I am visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Pasts.