DECEMBER 17, 2010 7:51AM

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It's coming on Christmas

 They're cutting down trees

 They're putting up reindeer

 And singing songs of joy and peace

 Oh I wish I had a river

 I could skate away on

 -Joni Mitchell


 My father loved Christmas. From the time I was very small in the days after Thanksgiving I remember him towering over me with a huge smile and gleaming eyes, proclaiming, “It’s less than a month ‘til Christmas!” It was the most excited he got about anything. He always believed this Christmas would be the best, the answer to all his hopes and dreams, delivering joy to his world. 

 He never went to church, never spoke of God. But he turned Christmas into his own religious rite.  He played carols loudly on the stereo.. Every Christmas Eve he read the same three things. “O little tree,” by his favorite poet, e.e. cummings, from the same tattered volume he’d carried through the trenches of Okinawa. “The Night Before Christmas.” He ended with the gospel according to St. Luke. As he read he infused the words with the drama of a one-time actor. He finished on such a note of reverence that this phrase is the only thing I can quote from the bible, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

 My father’s passion infected me. I too came to believe Christmas would bring miracles. I believed so much that when my father came to me one December with a long look on his face, bearing the terrible news that there was no Santa, I just smiled, nodded my head and kept believing anyway. The next year my father had to come explain it again. Finally I got it, but I wasn’t happy about it.

The promise of Christmas grew in me each year until it became too large.  The biggest stack of presents under the tree with “John – from Santa” on them, all of Mom and Dad’s beaming looks, even the many candy canes on the tree, most of which I chewed up one year, couldn’t hope to fill the yawning cavern of hope and need I’d attached to Christmas.


I found myself late one Christmas morning sitting on the floor surrounded by the scattered remains of present opening, feeling forlorn, as torn as the wrapping paper, as empty as the boxes my sisters and I had grabbed toys from.

Yet instead of seeing that feeling as a warning to back off from my crazy hopes, I upped the ante.  The next Christmas Eve I woke in the night, violently ill with anticipation. And again I found myself on the floor, alone and despairing, this time with a bellyache.


I never let on that Christmas had become an ordeal. I smiled for my father’s camera. After opening each present I crowed, “Just what I always wanted!” until it became a family joke. 

 By Christmas of 1966 I had learned to stow away my wildest hopes for Christmas.  Those hopes were about to start attaching themselves to the gifts of my time of life and the times I lived in – sex, drugs and rock and roll – the rites of a pagan religion.


That Christmas of 1966 my father’s epic battle with Jackie Kennedy over the publication of The Death of a President had reached its frenzied peak. Jackie sued my father in December. The story was international news. I came home from boarding school to find our house in a small Connecticut college town surrounded by TV trucks. The effect of months of stress had my sensitive father sick with the flu. Though he had a fever he insisted on buying a tree and leading us in trimming it, as he did every year. He was reaching for his beloved Christmas like a lifeline in that impossible time.


 His face grey and haggard, he climbed up to place the star on the top of the tree. Howls of agony clashed with the Mormon Tabernacle’s rendition of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and he staggered from the room with his hands over his face. He had scratched the cornea of an eye. He would wear a patch through the rest of the battle with Kennedys. The day after Christmas his flu turned to pneumonia and he was hospitalized.


 He survived that Christmas. He settled with Jackie Kennedy that January and his book was published.  The controversy had made him world famous. 


 Christmases after that awful one in 1966 I no longer suffered sick anticipation, but dread. My father’s fame had ruined my parent’s marriage, and with it any sense of well-being in our family. Yet they somehow stayed married, and my two sisters and I continued to come home for Christmas.  The tension in that house was excruciating all year round. At Christmas it became unbearable. My body manufactured an escape, much as my father’s body had become sick during the height of the Kennedy Controversy.  Every Christmas like clockwork I would come down with the flu and retreat to a couch in another room so I didn’t have to sit by the tree and endure all the smoldering looks and hissed conversation.


 But there was no avoiding those readings on Christmas Eve. Though my mother daily tortured my father with a torrent of verbal abuse until he mostly sat silent, she couldn’t stop him from his readings. Each year they became a little harder to endure, until I sat there wanting to jump out of my skin, waiting for those last words from Luke so that I could slink off. Why were those readings so terrible? It was my father’s insistence on maintaining a jovial façade over our disintegrating family. I’ll never know, but I hope he got something from his Christmas illusion.


 In the spring of his last year, when he knew the end was near, he grabbed for that old lifeline,  briefly considering extraordinary measures in order to “see one more Christmas.” Then he realized that even if medicine could force his body to survive that long he would be in no shape to enjoy it.


 Now that he’s gone and our boys are grown and have left home, Judy and I have happily abandoned Christmas rituals. We don’t have a tree. We only give presents if we feel like it. It’s nice to light a few candles to celebrate the return of the light.  This December 25th we’re trying something new. We’re going to join some Jewish friends in their Christmas tradition – a movie followed by Chinese food.


I wish you a Merry Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it.









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You've captured so much here~ the hope and disappointment of the holiday we pin so much on. The picture of your father here is, whether intentional or not, very empathetic (at least to me), as you look back with grown wisdom and perspective. Yet you maintain your voice and are fully owning the experiences, even as you share them with your family ghosts. And, thankfully, with us. (r)
It's always interesting reading how different families celebrate Christmas in their different ways. It's also remarkable how one's body can summon up something like flu to spare itself from something worse. Aside from that, what dirdl said. Thanks for the post Luminous.
This was great... and I am the same as you.. once a huge joy is now just another day.
It is hard to explain to people why.
Rated with hugs
I understand here Muse.
Yes I do.
I gather with a group of friends without family and we have the Christmas Day we all wished for a children. We all came from unhappy families for one reason or another and discovered we had all escaped to the refuge of books about orphaned children, perhaps because we thought living without adults or few of them was preferable. Books like Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, and the the books about the Boxcar Children. So now we have our Boxcar christmas -- a day when we can do whatever we like which usually means staying in our pajamas, and eating chocolate and sipping champagne all day while watching Bad Santa. It is lovely because we are with each other. Gift money is distributed to local charities. Wish you the very best holiday.
Thank you all for your thoughtful comments, and wishing you a very merry whatever. 

Aintonette -Thank you for reminding me of Bad Santa. It's our favorite Christmas movie, especially the scene in the pickup truck....
Yeah for the movie and Chinese food! 
I totally hear you here, my Dad wore a wreath on the front of the car, a Christmas lapel on his coat, and a said a Merry Christmas from the day after Thanksgiving to the First day of Happy New Year. Was about the tree and the fun and the joy of Christmas.
Very, very moving piece, Luminous. I never had Christmas in my life - maybe in my dreams as a young teen when I saw it all around. That too is long behind now. After life's many unplanned scenarios, for me, it's another day I acknowledge being alive - just like all others.
This story is so strangely touching. How I know that weird feeling of despising sentimental traditions while also feeling the obligation to respect them. I'm glad that you're doing your own thing. It sounds wonderful.
Excellent story. I have hated Christmas for many years now and even boycotted it several times, mostly due to my own personal issues. Still, somehow I always hold out hope that somehow this Christmas will be the one I have always hoped for. I can feel butterflies in my stomach just writing this...

Than you, Luminous.
LuminousMuse, great piece. Isn't it funny how becoming famous isn't always what it's cracked up to be. That your father scratched his cornea on his beloved Christmas tree is such an ironic twist. Real life is always stranger than fiction. ~r
Thanks for this fascinating insight into the turmoil your family went through back in the day. I can't imagine what it must have been like to live it; what you've expressed is bad enough.

I read The Death not long after it came out (and also The Arms of Krupp). I could not believe the detail and research that went into it. Nor, having refreshed my memory on the controversy, can I believe the intransigence and downright nastiness of the Kennedy clan.
Luminous, Yes it is funny (not funny ha-ha) the way the holidays manifest within families. I too, wish you all the best of the season however you spend it.
"Anticipation is greater than realization," my father always reminded us. Loved this.
Very moving. I like your current approach.
Christmas was always a terrifying day for me when I was young. Like you, I would literally become ill on Christmas Eve, dreading the time I would have to get up and face opening presents. Naturally, this meant that I would get everyone up by 6:00 a.m., so I could get it over with and disappear with a book for the rest of the day. 

It took me a very long time to get over that horrible feeling. I still have bad dreams from about the 20th to the 24 of December, but they don't affect me any more. 

Now it's all about The Boy and I . I insist on a real tree, just because I like them. We stuff Christmas "stockings" for each other, eat a beautiful meal, and spend the day doing exactly nothing. Read. Watch a movie. Talk to a couple of people. Nap.
LuminousMuse: Love the name. My family's Christmas was always tense. Loveless marriage, a father who did not like kids at all, and a mother whose whole identity was religion and children. And, there was no disaster planning for the impending disaster...children who needed attention, not criticism and hell.

So, our Christmas tradition was tenseness. Now, with both parents at their 90's, there is still tenseness.

I live 3000 miles away. I have my own tradition. Get in car, travel to a 5 star hotel, eat, drink, and be merry.
JM, (for you and Joni), the VF piece was riveting, I appreciate the link, very much. Of course, there is so much more to tell than what is written here, but the words you've offered in this well crafted Christmas story just swell with feeling and carry the burden, and the weight, of the lost hope you described. A pleasure to read you here.

I would imagine your father probably knew Stephanie Tames father? I see she commented here as well. If you haven't had a chance to read her posted DC stories from those years, I can recommend them. You both had a front row view into one of the most fascinating times in modern US history. I really appreciate your sharing them with us this season. I love a movie and sushi, or the Oyster Bar on Christmas ~ a peaceful holiday to you and Judy.
What an ordeal your family went through, too often the children absorb it all suffer the most, get noticed the least-- the flu is a common coping skill I'd guess. Friends and Chinese food sound pretty good...we eat lasagne and go to a movie : )
Yes Christmas can be a tragedy too. Thanks for your POV.
As a native Washingtonian, I spent a better part of the morning with this piece and the other links to it with great interest and remain utterly stunned. Will write you a PM later when I have had to time to think everything over.
It is sad to see that so many others have had painful Christmas experiences. Seems the "War on Christmas" is actually often waged within families.
This is the first I've known who your father was. This post weighs heavily on my heart for reasons I'll have to sort out later. Perhaps it is the proximity, however virtual, to you, an indirect, yet close, victim of the JFK assissination. Perhaps it is the familiarity of the charade you suffered through every Christmas, the pretending that all is well and magical because it is December 25th. Thanks for the link to the Vanity Fair piece. I went and read part of it (will go back now) and was transported to 1962, my senior year in high school and my first year in college. Beautifully written post, Luminous.

Enjoyed both your post and the Vanity Fair link. Thanks for sharing your feelings and your part in history with us.
This was a great post. It kind of brought up some of the terrific anxiety that can be a part of the holidays for so many people. I think you made us feel some of your discomfort, pain even. Chinese is always a good option, especially if you really like Chinese....Holidays begin to morph into many different things. I have been through some difficult ones. I now prefer to view each as their own unit of measure, I cannot measure up to the ones of my youth. I don't know why it all works for some people and for others it does not. Please accept my best wishes for a wonderful evening with friends, a stellar movie and some good General Tsao's Chicken...a few egg rolls and some sweet and sour soup or Chow Foon Beef. You have it your own way, that is the best way.
I was squirming with you at the vision of the last readings. I find this time to be hallow myself and I too remember the Christmas materialism orgies of too many presents and the feelings of some discomfort about the entire scene. I like your new plan.
Such a sad journey, from joy to despair to resolution. Our Christmas was so different, but also a mixture of sadness and joy as I suspect many family's are.
i don't like traditions
I read this over on big Salon (congrats btw). 
What an interesting and well told personal account. I can only imagine the pressure your father was under that Christmas of '66. It somehow sad, yet perfectly reasonable, that the holidays became the casualty--the loss of innocence. 
Well done.

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