Everything I Needed to Know About Christmas I Learned From My Grandma

Baptists are never supposed to think about this.

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


Immediately beneath this, Grandma had added in ball-point pen:

To Christmas and your birthday!

I opened the card and read the note within:

Dear Peter,

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!

Love, Grandma

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.

Until now.

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.

Merry Christmas.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday December 25 2011at 02:12 pm , filed under misc, rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

20 Responses to “Everything I Needed to Know About Christmas I Learned From My Grandma”

  1. I love both of you very, very much, and I’m happy to have heard these particular tidings of good cheer from you. I’m happy *for* you: happy that Granny’s lesson no longer applies to you, happy you have found your home, happy that your family has found you at last. You’ve landed and colonized and reported back to mission control, and as your friend I couldn’t be more pleased.

  2. Good to know that now you can experience the real meaning of the season, regardless of which holiday is celebrated: love and renewal for the coming year. May you have many such experiences.

  3. Glad you’re doing well with that new kick-ass family. Those are hard to come by these days, but when you find them(or they find you) it’s a lucky gift. Nice to see the scrambler in merry spirits, too.

  4. Just got back from my yearly family gathering, so I’ll just say this: you aren’t the only one Pete. 🙂

    Merry Christmas to all of you.

  5. yay for nonsuckness!

    here’s to many happy repeats : )

  6. Merry giftgiving, Peter 😉

    And, just so you know, my family has at least one spook in every generation, starting from at least 1850-something and onwards.
    Whether that sucks or rocks is best left as an exercise to the reader 🙂

  7. Merry Christmas, man. I’m happy that you found a good family!

    For all it’s weirdness, my family is non-sucky. In fact, I genuinely feel good having them here in the house for holidays, even with the kids wrecking the place, plugging up the toilet, etc. We sing spontaneously – you’re talking and someone will starting singing lyrics that pertain, like musical accompaniment, or they filk something so it fits the topic. I feel very lucky that my siblings turned out to be great human beings as adults.

    Happy Holidays all you mugs reading this blog!

  8. This is very good news. Excellent, in fact! So glad the reports are full of squee.

    I’m out west with the awesome parts of family, wherein the puppies shall join me in a few days. It could be much, much worse.

  9. Merry Christmas Dr. Watts! Its nice to see the Scrambler I made is still holding together; I’ve managed to start making stuffed animals semi-professionally, so I’ve learned a few tricks in case I decide to make another one.

    P.S. How did you decide where to place the hat? I didn’t know they had a “head”!

  10. They don’t. I curled up one of the tentacles real tight and jammed the hat over it.

  11. You get no say in the family you are born with, but the family you select to be a part of is one of your own making.

    I was extremely lucky to be born into a good family, and even luckier to be raised in a neighbourhood where I essentially had two additional sets of parents. The additional parenting was in the good sense, well, except for the time one of them caught me smoking dope.

    And I made an extremly good choice in a spouse, or an extremely lucky one, or maybe i was even manipulated in to it. But regardless of the case, we have been married 30 years and i have had no regrets.

    I am glad to see that you have finally achieved something that far too many of us take for granted.

  12. I guess your christmas must have really sucked. Memories tend to soften with time and while half of my parental units have a PD, my memories are mostly pleasant. Maybe it has something to do with me having always recieved some lego, books and a little cash. And being used to temper tantrums ..as depicted in the rather okay czech film Pelisky. It’s non-sucky, about christmas and august of 1968. . In that respect, dialectical materialists beat baptists 😀 Strangely enough stalinists in my family tree were more generous than christians. Must be the materialism again..

    Btw, if vanilla humanity were not headed for obsolescence in a couple of generations, wouldn’t you, as a physically and mentally outstanding specimen feel slightly bad about not procreating, thus slightly iconveniencing future generations?

  13. I keep seeing all these remarks to to the effect of Oh, isn’t it nice you’ve finally found happiness in the season and not a single remark to the effect that Jeez, your grandmother was a complete douchebag. Which is really what I was angling for.

    I just want to state on the record that I’m not angry at you all. Just very, very disappointed.

  14. Well, we’re just trying to be cheerful and draw discussion in the direction that we have calculated to be emotionally pleasant to our kind host 😉

    Have we miscalculated your feelings, Peter ?


  15. It’s sad that Avis did not leave you with loving boyhood memories. I donate my mother’s mother to you in Avis’ stead – short, fat, giggly. Look, she’ll make you an apple cake and sing with you and give you a warm soft hug. Imagine you are cold, and she’ll come over unbidden and tuck a blanket around you. Hope you can see her, or at least, feel the blanket around your chin.

    I wasn’t sure the proper response to the Avis part of the posting was, and I wasn’t sure how painful the memory was, so I left it alone. For the outside observer, your recreation of her note is downright funny, and I just was not sure it was kind to be amused. So I didn’t mention it.

    On balance, though, your posting is kind of joyful?

  16. Well, frankly, I would not be eager to contribute to the Avis branch of discussion too.
    I am profoundly afraid to get myself into a “how should one respond when a woman tells you that she was raped by a clown at her birthday party as a kid” kind of situation.

  17. O, yeah, fuckin’ christmas… For my friends, as a season postcard, I send Eric Idle “Fuck Christmas” lyrics. X-M sucks, like elektrolux…
    By the way, I just re-read your “Blindsight”, my favourite book for now, in that disgusting holiday time and, about Necker cube-not only vampires can see both aspects, there’s a trick for me, just you have to see one aspect, then other, and after that see between them and then you see both simultanously (sorry for misprints, english is my secondary language & I don”t have many proper education) or whatever.
    Or whatever.
    I enjoy your essays in “Nowa Fantastyka” ( yeah, for the last, Ilya Ivanow experiments in creating human-ape hybrid, many of them on the street right now…) very much, thank you for that.
    So Fuck Xmas&have the best New Year(write something new, please),
    Fuck all, enjoy something
    my very best for you

  18. Hey Peter. I totally thought your grandmother was a douchebag. And family happiness is way over-rated. But have a happy new year is a worthy wish, and goal. So, there’s that, done and anticipated. Mike


  20. Reminded me of “What if the Thing starred the beloved claymation penguin Pingu”