How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christmas

Photo by  Paula Borowska

Yesterday I learned how to shuck an oyster with a screwdriver. One thing is you have to wear gloves. Wear gloves, drape a towel over your hand, pick up and cradle the oyster, whisper down a few compliments. They can be simple. You look delicious. I am so excited to eat you. Next is to stab the screwdriver, flathead, small, into the valve/hinge. The words valve and hinge are misleading. It’s more a felt sense of vulnerability, The oyster’s reluctant secret. This is where I can be pierced.

The next step is to push it deep into that almost invisible achillean place. It’s sort of a dig and twist, and at a certain point it’s mostly about brute force. This is where the towel and gloves are crucial, because if that screwdriver slips (and because you don’t know what you’re doing, it will slip), so when it slips, it will not discriminate, it will plunge deep into one of the many places you can be pierced. And then your evening, which was supposed to be about oysters, will be about the emergency room, the hospital staff crowding into see the dumbass with the screwdriver sticking out of their hand.

Christmas is complicated. For some of us, maybe all of us, I can’t tell how many of you fuckers are pretending.  If you watch TV in December, it’s easy to absorb the idea you’re morally bankrupt if you’re not buying cars for your whole beautiful, huge, straight, white family. Their teeth are sharp and white and they all want cars for Christmas. This is a year-round insinuation, but during the holidays, the oily whisper screeches into something frenzied and sinister.

I try not to talk about how much I hate Christmas in front of my wife, because I think makes her sad. I’m not usually successful. Neither of us come from the families television tells us we should. We deal with it in different ways. Sometimes it feels like we’re sandpaper on the other’s open sores. Sometimes it feels like we’re the other’s life raft.

I went to a Lunch-n-Learn at my job that promised to teach me “How to Have a Mentally Healthy Holiday.” The woman leading it opened by telling us she had Googled “what is mental health” that morning in preparation for the presentation. One of the things she learned, she told us, was how important relationships are to good mental health. She then told us it was very hard to be happy if we weren’t in a relationship. I didn’t ask what this had to do with having a mentally healthy holiday. I am trying to avoid getting a reputation at this job. This way, maybe someday I’ll have enough money to buy a TV family and a fleet of luxury cars to put them in. I pulled out my phone and worked on beating the next level of Two Dots as the sweet grease of free Lunch-n-Learn pepperoni pizza filled my mouth.

Next, the Lunch-n-Learn Lady went around the room interrogating our negative feelings about the holidays. In particular, she wanted to know what we wished had been different about last year and why. She was careful never to say Christmas. I wanted to say my Christmas last year sucked because the whole thing is a capitalist nightmare, because I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, because Jesus wasn’t born in December, because shepherds don’t herd sheep in the winter. I couldn’t see a way to turn the truth (the nightly binge drinking, the long gray days of depression, the credit card bills still haunting us, the dead father born on Christmas day, the spiraling mother, the traumatized wife) into something safe and work appropriate. I couldn’t say Christmas, like death, always seems to know how to pull out the worst in us. I wasn’t ready to let this woman near my valve/hinge. When it was my turn I mumbled “family stress” and tried to arrange my face into an expression that discouraged follow up questions.

What surprised me was how ready my coworkers were to share the painful ghosts of their holidays past with a woman whose sole qualification seemed to be an ability to Google. People offered up dead grandmothers, Christmas Eve suicides. And I get it. We’re so hungry to talk about Christmas in a way that reflects our lived experience that any ear looks appetizing.

The Lunch-n-Learn Lady encouraged us to find new traditions, so this year, my wife and I did a Solstice thing instead of Christmas. I’ve been listening to a lot of early goth music and I thought Christmas’s darker, witchier cousin could be a holiday I could really get behind. “Just make sure you’re doing, like, punk occult witchy and not hippy nature witchy,” our friend Will counseled. “Hippy nature witchy is obnoxious.”

Celebrating the longest night made sense to me after the year I’ve had. The year we’ve all had. The life we’ve all had. The centuries. It seemed the right time to get quiet, to listen, to rest up for the fight ahead. Bree and I turned off all the lights and lit all the candles and told each other’s fortunes and chanted Annie Finch’s Winter Solstice Chant:

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,

now you are uncurled and cover our eyes

with the edge of winter sky

leaning over us in icy stars.

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,

come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

We grilled lamb shoulder chops over hardwood mesquite and burned things we wanted to let go of in the fire. Bree burned a letter to her internalized homophobia. I burned a line of Rachel Zucker’s: away from where the body of my mother is everywhere. We ate Bree’s bright jewel of a key lime pie, made with the cheap and plentiful key limes we get from the Food City down the street. I’m not sure, but I think I felt my small heart grow three sizes that day.

I proposed to my wife over a plate of oysters, less than a year after Obergefell. We were drunk on dirty martinis and the older lesbian couple at the table next to us leaned over to say how beautiful we could get engaged and then just...go get married. Like normal people. We married that New Year’s Eve, two years ago today, in a lovely, tiny ceremony we threw together in the two months after Trump was elected. We figured we’d better do it while we could. If I’m being honest, if I’m speaking from my hinge/valve, it hasn’t been easy to stay married. Television, the president, our own relatives, our own hearts keep interrupting to inform us this little family we’re building won’t count until we look and act like the people in the car commercials. That’s what I find hard about Christmas. It’s become the season of family evaluation, where the life you’ve managed to carve out for yourself is held up against an impossible standard of whiteness, affluence, cohesion.

But here’s a secret I’m learning. You don’t have to hate yourself just because television tells you to. It seems obvious, but if you live in the world, you know it’s not that obvious. And yet. If you can manage to let that truth in, you might be lucky enough to find yourself at the end of another year, still building a family and a life that doesn’t look anything like what it’s supposed to. Come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

EatingLela Scott MacNeil