Pat Conroy wrote an article for Southern living about his Christmas memories, and about his father The great Santini. It really struck me how similar a view we have looking back on Christmas's past. Like Conroy, in my childhood home it was as if time stopped just for Christmas. It was like the rules of reality changed just for a moment. For the most part is was like nothing bad could enter this time capsule, like it was sacred ground and all fighting ceased because everyone shared this feeling of sacredness.
The times this sacredness came into question and things were a little rocky was because we all put so much emphasis on its importance. We had differing views of what elements had to be there for this picture perfect Christmas, and if anyone deviated it was like invoking a curse and there was this incredible superstitious feeling that the Christmas spell would then be broken. Sometimes one of us would occasionally want to do something different and re-define what Christmas looked like, but it usually created chaos and animosity. Sometimes the dynamics of the abusive family would creep in, but for my part I would just try harder to cling to the sacredness of Christmas and block out everything else. It was a hyper focus, like I was clutching to it for deal life and survival. Often it really was about survival, the magic of the Holiday's was something to keep you going through the rest of the year, something good to look forward to and focus on so you could wear blinders to everything else.
The way in which Conroy describes his father, The Great Santini and his ritual at Christmas actually reminds me of one of my parents who did things almost in a similar way "Dad would take his chair of honor and say "I won't even wake up until I have had my first cup of coffee" (...) Dad would moan and stretch and take his time as he sipped his coffee with infuriating slowness (...) finally, he would grab a present. He would study the tag as though it were written in the language of Cherokees and say on his one terrific day of the year, "To Tom, from Satan Claus," and a shout of joy would go up from the children of The Great Santini."
I always favored sitting on the arm ends of the couch, while Other Parent took a center place by our Christmas tree. A tree which we had all gone to get together, another sacred family ritual. We would get it in the truck and on the way home, as they did every year; Other Parent declared "This is the best tree we have ever had". There was also the sneaky ritual Other Parent, Other child and I would do together; trying to get the largest tallest tree we could without Vaarsuvius realizing it. This actually worked because a tree doesn't always look that big surrounded by other trees and with no ceiling to measure its height by. Other Parent would stand by our tree on Christmas eve and hand out presents that we were only allowed to pile at our feet until everyone had all of their gifts. They always threatened that we would have to wait to open them Christmas day or that we could only open one. Everyone could pick one gift from their pile and we would all open it at the same time. At the end, like every year Other Parent would fuss and systematically clean up all the wrapping paper like a garbage collector cleaning up holiday chaos. It was a funny compulsion they had.
I was thinking about how it seems so strange that in an abusive family you could have anything good, warm and hopeful like Christmas. For instance how is it that someone like Pat Conroy could have had an intimidating, dominating father figure, The great Santini, and still look back on any part of his life with fondness? It's because life is complicated, and people are complicated. You will often find some bespattering of good things in a bad situation or individual. Sometimes I think people are tempted to think that maybe situations like Conroy's or my own were not that bad at all because of those occasional good things, but that's not true. Especially when you begin to look at cycles of abuse, those good elements are often part of the cycle, sometimes referred to as the honeymoon phase. If it was all bad all the time an abuser(s) might have a hard time keeping those close to them in the fold. So the cycle starts out all warm and fuzzy, then slowly like a frog in a pot of water, the temperature is ever so slowly raised so that the frog doesn't realize it is being boiled. If there comes a point of awareness that one is in an abusive cycle, the abuser will switch back to the warm and fuzzy honeymoon phase and the cycle goes on like this on repeat. Now in some cases people will stay in situations that are all bad, all the time because of threats on their life and things like Stockholm syndrome. But the classic cycle of abuse is as I have said.
Those good elements are made to be confusing, you are not supposed to be able to tell up from down or how bad it really is, and you are made to think it is all in your head. Citing all the good times as reasons for the situation not being so bad is an abuser favorite. I have had this lobbed at me more times than I care to mention. They try to argue that the sacredness of those good things outweighs anything bad, and is a sign that there is nothing really wrong in the relationship. It is hard to argue when they ply you with all the warm and fuzzy things, and you can feel defenseless because they are arguing from a point of truth. I have had to come back every time with the counter argument that is the most solid; yes there were good times, beautiful times, fun times. There were also bad times. And no matter how many good times the behaviors that create the bad times have not been addressed and have not been changed. Good things don't change the fact that there needs to be responsibility for the abusive behaviors in the relationship. Good times are not a substitute for a real healthy relationship dynamic where abusive behavior is not excused, or better yet does not occur at all.
Christmas being perfect so you could survive the rest of the year is a lot of pressure to put into one day. It's why almost every year I would end up so tied up in knots that I felt unwell. In addition to Christmas being a cease fire time in the family dynamic, it was also one of the few times a year where I could feel love in a way that reflected my own primary love language; gift giving. I also felt a lot of trepidation and anxiety in giving gifts because I wanted to receive love and attention from my family members. I thought if I could give the perfect gift with all my personal feelings of love that I would get love back. Nowhere was this more hopelessly directed then at Vaarsuvius. Even after being crushed numerous times by their rejection or dissatisfaction with gifts I gave them I continued to hope for many years, and each year would tell myself that this year would be the year that I got them the perfect thing, and on an unconscious level I hoped it would equate to their expressing love for me. It's never happened, never will. I did slowly start to feel more and more numb about giving them anything. But this anxiety created in trying to give them things manifested in how I felt about giving gifts to anyone.
This year I am desperately trying to shift away from Christmas having to be perfect, or having the perfect gift. I am trying to change how I perceive the whole holiday. While I do love those few warm and fuzzy Christmas memories, and that our world seemed to stop just for Christmas I no longer need to clutch to it in order to survive. The last few years I have still been clutching tightly, not to survive the same abuse but survive Christmas without family. It was still a hyper focus on the Holiday to survive pain and distract myself, and I hoped that if re-created all the warm and fuzzy feelings everything would be okay. But everything is not okay. I don't have my family with me for the holidays anymore and that is a huge loss. But I also acknowledge that if I were to be with them I would be sacrificing huge parts of myself and my health. This year I am trying to be kind to myself while not ignoring the pain. I also don't want to feel like I am in survival mode anymore and that if I give someone the wrong gift they will not love me anymore.
"His quavering voice was weak, but its memory ran past thirty Christmases to hat irretrievable time when our father seemed prince-like and generous with his love of us. The Great Santini at Christmas-the best of times, the best of times, our best days as a family on earth." Pat Conroy
You can read Pat Conroy's essay in the Southern Living Magazine, December issue 2014.