Christmas was a time of terrible expectation, during which, for one week prior to the fateful day, our family was confined to the claustrophobia of our winterized home, forced to “spend time together”. For a family who mixed like vinegar and baking soda, this was a cosmic blooper. My siblings and I were out of school for two weeks, but, unlike summer vacation, (with the various distractions of summer camp and summer jobs), during Christmas break, we were snowed in on all sides, cooped up in small, poorly insulated rooms, and forced, by our father, into the manual labor of household chores: hauling wood, sweeping the stairs, picking fleas from our dog Sarah. This was his version of Family Time.
My father survived the holidays through work, taking on multiple jobs, double shifts, or implementing odd, complicated, time-consuming chores around the house, such as shoveling two-lane walkways in the snow in the yard, and an escape route to the creek out back, in case of an emergency. He joined civic clubs, became a volunteer fireman, attended multiple self-help groups, anything to keep his mind away from the notion that his family was, in fact, a messy, fussy, dysfunctional menagerie of misfits. As for his children, confined inside, breathing recycled air – we fought all day. My sisters, having more prep time in the bathroom in the mornings, hissed and yelled over hair gels and curing irons. “Did you eat my lipstick?” “Did you break my nail file?” My older brother and I would find ourselves writhing, biting, and wrestling under the Christmas tree, overturning bookcases, TV stands and sofa chairs. My father would jump in, separate us, give us a slap on the face and ask: “What are you fighting about?” We could never remember.
Each year, our mother carried the impossible burden of making Christmas “spectacular”, and this often threw her into a psychological state of mind one could describe, in medical terms, as temporary insanity. She spent money she didn’t have, lots of money, imaginary money, money based on speculation, future jobs, hopes and dreams, the kind of money promised by lottery tickets and Amway. Her motives, perhaps, were good: who could blame a mother’s desire to make Christmas perfect for an otherwise imperfect family. But the results, over time, were incriminating. Credit cards engorged and then ignored, bounced checks, money borrowed from distant relatives, great grandfathers, next-door neighbors, train sets and suit coats and wool vests from J. C. Penney put on lay-away, sometimes for years. She brought home elaborate Christmas wreaths, scented candle sets, music boxes, decorative Christmas plates with Elvis, Gene Kelly, and Winona Ryder, designer snow suits, a family toboggan, a Saint Bernard, a Jeep Cherokee. Each item brought home, whether big or small, ignited, between our parents, complicated, colossal disputes as epic as the battles of the Odyssey or the Iliad, Often resulting in egg salad smeared all over the bay window or pots and pans thrown about the kitchen with the pageantry of a Texas high school marching band. In the most heated of arguments, our mother would run to the tree, grab an inconsequential gift (breath mints, a paper kite, a gift certificate), and throw it in the wood stove – an impulsive, spiteful, and (most likely) cathartic gesture. She would stand over the flames like a high priest making a sacrifice, counting down backwards, from ten to one, breathing deeply between each number, ruminating on the incineration of an unopened present. It must have been metaphor for something deeper. But what?
And this is where I began to really hate Christmas. One year, when it snowed 72 inches in two days, and my sister started her period, and my mother brought home sixteen pounds of discount jumbo shrimp from Wal-Mart, and my father reminded her that he was allergic to shellfish and his face would swell up, and our dog chewed up the Encyclopedia Britannica, and our cousin called and said that Aunt Josie had died in her sleep and my mother started to cry and declared Christmas was cancelled. Then she stomped over to the tree, grabbed the first gift she could find and threw it in the wood stove with a quick flick of her wrist, like swatting a fly.
“There, it’s done,” she said. “I feel much better.” But the gift she chose happened to be a six-pack of ordinary tube socks, wrapped in plastic. Which I had bought as a peace offering for my brother. (The week before, I’d cut the toes to all of his socks – using my mother’s good sewing scissors – after he’d told all my friends at school that I still sucked my thumb and slept with a Care Bear.)
“I paid good money for those!” I told her.
“Oh dear,” my mother said, stepping back from the stove. But it was too late. They were cheap, acrylic, dollar-store tube socks, manufactured in China, spun out of pliable man-made materials, synthetic fibers, which, when burned, began to melt, ooze, liquefy, and bubble over, triggered, perhaps, by some extraordinary and complicated chemical reaction. The smell was harrowing – a dense, bold, toxic aroma, the Smell of Death (as we later called it) which, when metabolized in the gloomy atmosphere of our home, spread from room to room in a noxious smoky haze, lilting under doorways and air vents with the speed and agility of hot lava. We were being suffocated in our own house. My mother ran out the front door; I found the nearest window.
“What is that smell?” My sister screamed from her bedroom. “The Smell of Death!”
It forced everyone else in the house to immediately abandon his or her particular private tasks (for my sister, it was nail polish remover, for my brother, a home-made fire bomb he’d been building under his bed) and seek immediate egress outdoors. We met in the winter maze of the driveway, feet stamping, shoulders shuddering, tsk tsking each other, inhaling the icy air of a blizzard, watching our father leap around inside, leveraging windows, propping doors, fanning the smoke and fumes with a folded newspaper.
“Good going!” my sister rolled her eyes.
“Next time, buy cotton,” my mother suggested.
“Why is this my fault?” I wondered.
“Because you’re a cheap-o,” my brother said, jabbing my collarbone. I kicked snow in his face and he punched my ear and my sister screamed because she lost an earring and my mother started counting backwards from ten to one, mumbling prayers under her breath.
It took forty-five minutes for the air to clear, and even then, after we’d returned to the chilly reaches of our rooms, there was the faint smell of burnt tube socks lurking between the walls, behind doors, nestled in the window curtains and in the bath towels and in the hair on our heads. It stuck around for weeks, months, years; perhaps it never left us. Even today, whether I’m at home in Brooklyn or in some distant East Asian country, Christmas still leaves a plastic taste in my mouth, a toxic residue that reminds me of tube socks.
Is it any wonder then, that after years of enduring the Stevens Family Christmas Crisis, I grew to despise the Holidays with the kind of deep antipathy one usually reserves for things like racism and terrorism and corporate fraud? The sight of Santa Claus at shopping malls, the scent of candy canes, the insipid singing of carols – these things roused in me a silent, sardonic, patronizing judgment against all of Western Civilization. At some point, perhaps my second year in college, Philosophy 101, I decided that Christmas was a social construct, along with dating, fast food, and the Super Bowl. I made a point of not coming home for the Holidays. I would have Christmas on my own, entrenched in my reading: Rumi poems, Descartes, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Ayn Rand. My first Christmas alone was in a dorm room. My second Christmas alone was at a Holiday Inn. My third Christmas alone was spent in a dirty little apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a turkey pot pie in the microwave, Jeopardy re-runs on TV, Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo. I am a Rock. I am an Island.
My sister called to say, “Why aren’t you coming home anymore?”
Because, I told her, our mother is a Christmas Pirate and our father puts duct tape on his slippers, and the Siamese cat throwing up pine needles all over Grandma’s gingerbread house is not my idea of a family tradition. Because if I have to carry another load of wood up those stairs I will file a child labor lawsuit. Because Christmas is for sentimental psychopaths and if we continue celebrating it we will all spend our golden years in a mental hospital eating canned peas with a spork.
My sister told me I was irrational and deluded, but very imaginative and perhaps I should write a novel. That was a good idea, I told her. So I tried. And failed. And tried and failed. “Revenge of the Christmas Pirate,” by Sufjan Stevens. “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever,” by Sufjan Stevens. I read some of it out loud to my sister, over the phone.
“I like the part about the dead squirrel wrapped in tissue paper that Dad gave as a stocking stuffer,” she said. “But you know that never actually happened.”
“Yes it did,” I insisted. “Everything’s one-hundred percent accurate.”
“You need therapy,” my sister said. “Or a girlfriend.”
But what I really needed was time – the slow, immeasurable convalescence that comes with getting older, wiser, more mature, and to withstand the intellectual conditioning of college and graduate, the automation of office jobs, numerous cubicles, desk-top publishing, the morning commute, failed romantic relationships, a nervous breakdown, a death in the family, a root canal, unemployment, a recurring cold sore, weekends slouched over the classifieds, wondering how I would pay off my credit card debt. Over time, in the midst of everyday life, I completely forgot all about Christmas and how I hated it.
And this is how I came to love Christmas. Through the regular household task of making pancakes. It was a time in my life in which all extraordinary privileges had been rigorously swept away, leaving behind nothing more than the naked underlay of loneliness. I was unemployed, unshaven, living in a closet in a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, delinquent on my student loans, eating day-old potato bread, Ramen noodles, and on this particularly apathetic morning in dearly December, I was ruminating on the dietary constituents of Aunt Jemima pancakes – the cheapest of morning breakfasts (you just add water!). I had accidentally left a spatula on the stove with the burner on high, and, within seconds, the whole thing went up in flames with a dripping, oozing, pungent, chemical eruption like a bad high school science project. I hustled to the rescue, dousing the flames with a nearby glass of milk, suffocating what was left of the spatula with a dirty dishrag (oh the trials of bachelorhood). But the residual smell (a plastic, toxic, peppery aftertaste) was irrefutable and all too familiar – the smell of burnt tube socks. And, for some odd reason, this singular smell sent me into a tragic-comic-sentimental shock that was simultaneously mundane and supernatural. I was having an epiphany.
I did not jump up in with ecstatic salutations, shout “Eureka!” or levitate like a phantom ghost. But I was overcome with what I can only describe as That Creepy Christmas Feeling. This pertains to that prolonged, numbing, out-of-body experience you often encounter after weeks consuming egg nog, mild chocolate candies, fruit salad, cranberry sauce, entertaining family and friends, attending Christmas mass, trailblazing superstores for discount appliances, regurgitating small talk to second cousins, deconstructing the rhyme schemes on holiday greeting cards, cutting out coupons, watching animated Christmas cartoons on TV, having an allergic reaction to pine cones, breaking out in hives, and spending New Years Day in the emergency room with everyone too hung over to visit you. The muddy plastic malodor from a melted spatula (prompting that consequential memory of tube socks) induced all of this at once – like a drug overdose. They say that smells persuade memory more vividly than pictures or sound, that our olfactory system carries with it a catalog of sensory data that can, when stimulated, call to mind entire memories, histories, events, all kinds of valuable information once thought forgotten. What came over me was not just the inconsequential stench of footwear thrown in the fire, but a complete recollection of important events in my life, the good and the bad, the blessings and misfortunes, and inventory of calamities and a register of lucky breaks, fist fights, bear hugs, overturned Advent candles, digital wrist watches, chimney fires, ruby earrings, blue jeans, tennis shoes, mistletoe, my first kiss. And with all these things I came to comprehend the formation of genealogies, family histories, a genetic superstructure that could be used describe – in microcosmic terms – the order of the universe.
And at the very center of the universe I saw the Christ Child, an infant baby, helplessly crying, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger, trembling and suckling and cooing and burping and crying and laughing and giggling and spitting up breast milk all over the place. This was the mysterious incarnation of God, who came to Planet Earth not as a Divine Warrior or a Supernatural Sorcerer or an Army of Alien Androids, but as a helpless newborn baby, probably not much bigger than a six pack of acrylic tube socks. Or maybe a twelve pack.