I hope everyone reading my blog post enjoyed their holiday yesterday… those who celebrated, anyway. I know not everyone enjoys Christmas. There was a time in my past when it wasn’t such a fun holiday for me. I would say that for most of my 20s, I wasn’t a Christmas fan. I found it to be more of a burden than anything else. In those years, I was still single, and Christmas meant spending money I didn’t have on gifts for people I didn’t know that well anymore, and without fail, at least one dramatic or traumatic altercation with someone from my family of origin.
Christmas got dramatically better for me from about the year 2005. That was the first year after I resolutely decided that I would never again let someone else fuck up my holidays. I have stubbornly stuck to that resolution, and it works really well. It helps that we live in another country now, so no one expects us to take part in Christmas gatherings anymore. Our Christmases are just Bill and me and the dogs, with lots of wine, beer, music, and good food… and presents that don’t have any weird messages or symbols attached to them. There aren’t any arguments. There aren’t any manipulative ploys for attention. There’s nothing but us, enjoying each other and our very compatible and comfortable marriage. It’s peaceful and freeing, just the way I love it. We don’t even bother with church.
I know we’re beyond blessed. I’ve read more than a few angsty posts from people who find Christmas unbearably overwhelming and annoying. I’ve seen a few newspaper articles about how to handle Christmas with obnoxious relatives, which is even trickier this year, since vaccinations against COVID-19 are available and not everybody agrees with taking them. Christmas shouldn’t be something to endure… but for some people, it really is.
Unfortunately, COVID vaccines are just one more issue that divides people, which causes stress in family units. My own family of origin isn’t immune to it. My mom said that one of my sisters invited her to spend Christmas with her family, but this sister isn’t vaccinated and refuses to consider getting the shots. My mom is in her 80s and lives in an assisted living apartment. She doesn’t want to be around unvaccinated people, because she doesn’t want to get sick. My sister also lives in another state, and mom doesn’t want to drive there. So she decided to stay home… which is fine for her, since she’s a very independent person. I’ll probably call her later today to see how it went for her.
Bill talked to his daughter on Skype on Christmas Eve. They had a great chat. Younger daughter said she was very happy with the gifts that Bill and his mom sent to her. She said she was pleased with the gifts, because they were just gifts. There was no weird hidden meaning or guilt message attached. Bill sent toys for her kids, some German candy that isn’t available in the USA, a gift card for a restaurant so she and her husband can have a date night, and a big box of Lebkuchen, German gingerbread. Younger daughter said the Lebkuchen was a huge hit, since she’s pregnant, and the ginger is soothing to her stomach. She said that her mom would buy it in the past, but it was always stale. The box Bill sent was fresh, and much to our surprise, got to her very quickly.
She said that her mother also sent gifts… and then she asked Bill if he ever got gifts from Ex that had “hidden meanings”. Bill chuckled knowingly, because he remembered quite a few occasions when his ex wife sent gifts that weren’t bringing tidings of joy.
He told me about how, back when they first separated in 1999, Ex was letting #3 stay at the home that Bill was still paying the mortgage on. She told Bill not to come home. Instead, they would meet at my father-in-law’s house, and have Christmas there. Under the tree were presents for Bill from the kids… But they were items that Bill already owned. When he left their house to go back into the Army, he left a lot of his stuff there. And instead of sending the items to him, Ex simply wrapped them up and had the kids put their names on the packages. Then she put them under the tree, disguised as gifts. There he sat on Christmas morning 1999, unwrapping the Star Wars VCR tapes that he’d already owned and had watched with ex stepson.
At the time, Bill just blew it off. He figured she was just being a petty bitch. But then he realized that Ex was also doing all she could to eliminate his presence in the family. She threw out photos of him and even stole the one that younger daughter used to sleep with. She cut his image out of pictures. Older daughter once remarked that she had forgotten what he looked like, because Ex was doing her best to erase him… even as she demanded $2550 a month from him in child support, which she received on time, every month, in full, and with no complaint.
For years, I was so disgusted by the cruel things she did. But now, I know that this is the kind of treatment everyone eventually gets from her. She does the same thing to her own children. I don’t know what she sent younger daughter, but I can imagine that whatever it was, it was intended to make her feel shitty. Or, at least, GUILTY.
I have mentioned before that Ex has a habit of ruining treasured childhood relics, like storybooks and music. Bill used to read a book to his children when they were small. It was a book about forgiveness. Just before Bill went to Iraq, Ex sent him the book, with a really cryptic shitty message. She wouldn’t encourage the kids to speak to him. Instead, she had them write him letters disowning him, then she sent him a book to remind him of them… and just before he went to a place where he could have been killed. For weeks, I had to look at that book in our home. I finally told Bill to do something with it so I didn’t have to see it, or I would be throwing it out. He ended up sending it back to her with a note that read, “You need this more than I do.” BRAVO! That was the last time she ever sent him a poisonous package.
Unfortunately, it sounds like she’s still up to her old tricks. I feel sad for Bill’s daughters, and the three other kids Ex has had, but was apparently never satisfied with and just wants to torment. I don’t know what drives her to be the way she is. Some of it, I’m sure, is mental illness… but some of it is just plain mean and cruel. How sad it is that one of the things Bill can bond with his daughter over is the mental fuckery perpetrated by Ex.
Lest anyone think this is going to be another one of my Ex trashing posts… I will now move on to an anecdote about my own family. I’ve written the story many times about what happened in my own family, back in 2003. That was the year I swore off gatherings with my family of origin.
One of my sisters had asked for a ride to Gloucester with us. We obliged, but I told her that if there was a fight, we’d be leaving. Sure enough, hours after we arrived, there was a fight.
Besides the fight, which made the tension in the house unbearable, Bill and I were relegated to the very uncomfortable sleeper sofa in the freezing cold room which had once been a garage. It had been rebuilt into an office, but had poor insulation. I had started my period , and that room wasn’t near a bathroom. I just wanted to be in my own house.
Bill and I resolved to leave the next day. The sister who came with us didn’t want to go home early, and tried to manipulate us into staying. She wanted us to take her shopping. I refused, so she threw a huge tantrum… I mean HUGE! There was screaming, swearing, melting down, and it was like something I would have expected from a toddler.
However, instead of giving in, as I had in the past, I turned to Bill and said, “Come on, let’s just go.” And we did. We left her at my parents’ house. She had to find another way home, which I understand involved taking a bus. She was a woman in her 40s at the time. She and I have talked about that incident just once since it happened. In her version of the story, I was blaming her for our other sister’s fight with me.
I saw our spat from an entirely different perspective. I had told her ahead of time that I was not willing to stay at the house if there was any fighting. My sister had agreed to those conditions. Then, when there predictably was a fight, she tried to change the terms to ones that suited her, even though we had done her a favor by driving her down there, and she had agreed to our conditions.
When I refused to acquiesce to her demands, she had two choices– she could either come with us, or she could find her own way home. When she threw a tantrum, we determined that she’d rather stay in Gloucester… and I sure as hell didn’t need her in my car for hours, complaining non-stop as we drove back to northern Virginia. At the time, that was a very traumatic event, but it was a good thing it happened. Christmas 2003 was what gave me the courage to deal with Ex during Christmas of 2004, when she tried to ruin our holiday.
In 2004, Ex tried to manipulate me into attending Christmas at Bill’s dad’s house. She told us to get a hotel room, since she and the kids and #3 would be staying at the house. She refused to listen to Bill when he said it was a terrible idea. She expected me to show up, even though she never even asked me what I thought of it. It occurred to me that I LOVE my immediate family, but I didn’t even want to do Christmas with them again. I sure as hell didn’t want to do it with Ex, her husband, the kids, and my in-laws. I realized that if I went, it would be yet another disastrous holiday season.
I told Bill I would not be attending the gathering, but he should go and see his daughters. He went… and it was pretty dreadful, although not as dreadful as it would have been if I had gone, too. Bonus– we saved a lot of money because I stayed home with the dogs. I finally learned that obligatory, “forced family time is not always the best idea”…
What am I trying to say here? It’s that the holidays belong to everyone. You have the right to enjoy your holiday, just as much as anyone else does. And if family gatherings cause stress, strife, or cause you to go into unwanted debt, you have the right to opt out… to protect your own sanity. Christmas is optional.
I remember how, back in the days when I felt like I had to spend Christmas at home, it would always take some time to recover. Sometimes it took a few days. Sometimes, it was weeks. The year that we left my sister at my parents’ house, it was a year before she spoke to me again. But, she probably doesn’t realize that I rather enjoyed the silence. Nowadays, she mostly treats me with more respect, which is really all I ever could have hoped for in the first place.
But she did send me a private message with a little drama in it this year… she told me about how, a few years ago, our mom called her up and yelled at her, and brought my name into it. She said that mom was upset about how my sister refused to cooperate with the annual family tradition. My sister insinuated that it was because our brother-in-law had abused her cat when they came the year prior. Brother-in-law doesn’t think animals belong inside. He also enjoys watching us fight.
Anyway, I wasn’t there to see what happened, so I don’t know his side of the story. The bottom line is, because of what had happened during a previous holiday, she decided to stay home, and she claimed that our mom called her up and bitched. She was supposedly “shocked” that sister hadn’t wanted to celebrate, “Especially since Jenny…” then she stopped herself.
My comment was, “Because Jenny what? Because I don’t spend holidays at home anymore? I have DONE my time.” As the youngest, I went to all the graduations, while my graduations usually weren’t attended by my sisters. I used to be the one sister everyone could count on to be there. But that last Christmas in 2003 was the last straw. I refuse to let anyone mess up my holidays.
I stay in my house, sleep in my own comfortable bed, eat what I want, drink what I want, wear what I want, and listen to whatever music I want to… and there is NO fighting… and no stupid manipulative bullshit or guilt tripping or mean remarks about how I need to go on a diet, put on makeup, or fix my hair. There are no intrusive questions about how I can afford my lifestyle or critical, judgmental remarks about things I say, or the way I laugh, or anything else. I can simply be myself, and be appreciated for the person I am… and the person I am is really not so bad.
I am all for holidays without stress, guilt, tension, fighting, manipulation, crying jags, physical blows, temper tantrums, or lies. Ever since I decided that I’m an adult and I deserve these things, life has been better. Ever since we decided that the holidays are for us to enjoy, too, Bill and I have found Christmas to be a lot better… and much more fun! And I haven’t felt the need to read or write to an advice column, asking for help on how to deal with my relatives since…
Last night, the most stressful event was at the end of the evening, as Bill struggled to keep his eyes open. He just looked like a pissed off teddy bear, and it was absolutely ADORABLE. That’s the kind of thing I like to see on Christmas. Here’s hoping that’s how it will be from now on. Any friends or family members who are game for that kind of celebration are welcome. The rest can make drama among themselves and leave us out of it.