Holiday Memories: Chris shares his story

To say my family is a little dysfunctional would be like saying the Hindenburg had a minor overheating problem.

I do wish the metaphor was an overstatement, but most family functions, when we still had them, ended in things blowing up and bystanders crying “Oh the humanity!”

Maybe I should back up and explain a little. I had an unusual upbringing as someone who hung in limbo between being an only child and the youngest. My brother and sister are 14 and 12 years older than me, so we never really had a close bond. Since my single mom worked seconds, they really were more of parental figures than siblings. My brother got the heck out of the house as soon as he was 18, so I never really knew him well as a kid. I got closer to him later when I would summer at his house with his wife and kids, but his son and daughter are closer to my age, so the whole big brother/little brother dynamic wasn’t there.

My sister once said that he and she were like oil and water. I think gasoline and fire is more appropriate, but that’s kinda how she is with most people. Many things have transpired to cause a rift between me and her.

I do owe mom more than I can ever repay. She did everything she could to provide for all of us and we rarely were left wanting for anything, but she also could wield guilt like an emotional ninja. But don’t think I’m letting myself off the hook either. I am a product of my environment, my flawed and sometimes toxic environment.

Despite it all, we tried our best to come together as a family for holidays. We tried. Really. It usually lasted a couple of days before the family turned into a kind of passive-aggressive Voltron, each of us combining our most unsavory traits until my brother and sister-in-law mysteriously left for her family’s house. The 12-year-old me could never figure out what is horribly obvious to the adult me: he couldn’t take it. Couldn’t deal with the constant arguing and one-upsmanship.

As an adult I hear my wife and friends talk about how they and their siblings would spend Christmas mornings huddled together, bursting with excitement, wondering when it would be OK to wake up the parents. I had that too, but it was more solitary. My friends talk about spending grown up holiday evenings sipping cocktails and playing poker with their families.

I kind of envy that and their childhood experiences.

I also know something that I can only cherish as much as I do because of my childhood: sometimes the family you choose can be just as good, better even, than the family you were born into.

Friends have always been closer than family. That’s just how it’s been for me, good, bad or otherwise. I fondly recall helping mom get the house decorated for Christmas, and going waayyy overboard with miniature lights is one family tradition I’ve definitely kept going, but meeting my friends at a pool hall after Thanksgiving dinner my junior year of high school is more memorable. Maybe because we got into a low-speed chase and vehicular cat and mouse game trying to get away from people who we pissed off somehow. Probably by being our grating teenage selves.

The urge to get home from Florida for holiday break my freshman year of college was strong, but I don’t remember anything better from that year than having an impromptu Christmas party in my dorm room with some of the guys from the hall drinking, ahem, hot chocolate and watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The best memories, however, have come in the past several years; some from being pulled into my wife’s family’s traditions and others we have created on our own. Shuffling around the large downtown park and looking at the same light displays year after year may sound boring to some, but the conversations about it being so cold that extremities are falling off and making irreverent comments in front of the Nativity scene never gets old.

Constantly seeking out luminarias does. I’ve never understood the draw of looking at flaming paper bags, but, as I am well aware, not all family rituals are perfect.

December always gets filled up too quickly with family obligations, but we’ve made a point of setting aside one weekend to get together with two or three other couples to have dinner at each other’s houses on a rotating basis every year. The Holiday Feast consists of the group deciding on a theme dinner to cook together, eating to the point of discomfort, and usually ends with one or more of us rocking back and forth and swinging our glasses to the dulcet tones of The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. You’ve never really experienced the holiday season until you’ve held a snifter of port like a beer mug and swayed it in time to Shane McGowan’s utterly depressing and nearly unintelligible singing. Very punk rock.

Then there was the year we did shots out of the Jones Soda holiday pack. I’ve never really understood drinking games, as they use liquor consumption as a penalty. I can drink without being forced, even enjoy it, thank you very much! Choking down brussel sprout or turkey and gravy soda is abhorrent enough to merit a drinking game, however.

That was before we had kids though.

They all have families of their own, and Jenn and I have our first on the way, due just about a month after Christmas. Things definitely have settled down, but we’ve made a point of staying close so that we can commiserate about the craziness of our respective families and so all the kids can see the value in having both types of family.

Hopefully our daughter will enjoy the time she spends with the family she’s born into and equally loves complaining about us to the one she chooses. 

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