Christmas in a household of professional Baptists has always been a time to think about the joys of giving. In my particular case this has proven to be a double-edged sword, the flip side being that it is not a time to think about “getting”. Devoting any neurons to the contemplation of what one might get for Christmas, you see, is unChristian; we are supposed to be concerned entirely with the selflessness of giving unto others, not whether you’re going to get that Captain Scarlet SPV dinky toy you covet. (I was never entirely sure how to reconcile this virtue of selflessness riff with the fact that the whole point of being charitable was to get into heaven while the Rosenbergs down the street ended up in The Other Place, but there you go.)
It was considered bad form in the Watts household to show any interest at all in whatever swag you might accumulate on the 25th. On the off-chance that someone asked you what you wanted for Christmas, you were honor-bound to keep silent — or at the very least to shrug off the question with a disclaimer along the lines of I haven’t thought about it, really. By the time I hit adolescence I’d figured out how to game this system (just give everyone a hand-made card telling them that “In honor of Christ’s birth I have made a donation to Unicef in your name” —nobody was ever crass enough to ask for a receipt). But even that conceptual breakthrough didn’t stop Christmas mornings from being generally grim affairs in which people sat around with fixed and glassy smiles, thanking each other for gifts they obviously hated, but which they could hardly complain about because after all, they’d never told anyone what they wanted. The gifts bestowed upon me during my childhood included pyjamas, an economy-sized roll of pink serrated hair tape, and a set of TV tables (which, as you all know, is the absolute fucking dream of every 11-year-old boy).
But the best gift I ever got was at the hands of my paternal grandmother, Avis Watts, may Ceiling Cat devour her soul.
Avis was an absolute master at economy. For example, since my birthday falls within a month of Christmas, she would frequently send me a single gift intended to cover both occasions. On the occasion of which I speak— my thirteenth birthday, I think it was — she even economised on the card. I didn’t notice that at first: I tore the wrapping off the box and extracted a flat leather billfold from within, and — thinking that perhaps there might be some money inside (what else would you put in a billfold, hmmm?) — I spread its flaps wide enough for a little card to fall out of the spot where a more generous soul might have stuck a twenty.
It was not a Christmas card. It was not a birthday card. It was an invitation to a cocktail party: at least, it was festooned with cartoon pink elephants and martini glasses beneath the cheery inscription
HOPE YOU CAN MAKE IT!
Immediately beneath this, Grandma had added in ball-point pen:
To Christmas and your birthday!
I opened the card and read the note within:
Somebody gave me this billfold, but I already have a billfold so I thought you might like it for Christmas and your birthday. Happy birthday!
P.S. Please tell your father that Uncle Ernie has died.
I had already learned a great deal about Christmas during the preceding twelve years. What Avis taught me was a valuable lesson about family, and it was this: they suck.
It was a lesson that has stood the test of time across all the decades between then and now. Many have been the relationships I’ve co-piloted from blast-off to burn-out; many the collateral families thrust upon me like disapproving and destabilizing ballast mid-flight, my coerced attendance at their interminable Christmas and Thanksgiving get-togethers only serving to reinforce my conviction to never have one of my own (and, doubtless, their own conviction that their daughter could do so much better). The lesson I learned at my grandmother’s knee has always stood me in good stead.
Now, oddly, I have encountered a family that actually, well, doesn’t exactly suck. In fact, it doesn’t suck at all. It took a while to figure that out. They had to patiently lure me close in small stages, as though bribing a feral and skittish cat with small helpings of tuna. Suddenly I was curled up at the hearth and there wasn’t a fundamentalist Catholic or a Burlington banker or a bipolar whack-job anywhere in sight. So, reluctantly, it is time to put my grandmother’s lesson away, to set it free, to bequeath it to others who might still find it useful.
I bequeath it to you. Treat it well. Heed its wisdom; it is right so much more often than wrong. In fact, it may truer now than ever, since I might just have snatched up the last available kick-ass family on the planet.
Most families suck. Especially this time of year. It is okay to admit that; it is okay to tell them to their faces. Have a couple of drinks first: that’ll make it easier.