Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany

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I went through a long period in my 20’s and early 30’s where I absolutely hated Christmas. I ended up marrying “Mrs Claus” so choose what you hate carefully. Karma is a bitch. I don’t know why I hated Christmas. My parents and especially my grandparents always went all out for Christmas. We’d go to bed and they’d drink and set up toys. I remember waking up one Christmas morning and excitedly coming down to the tree to find that “Santa” had brought my brother an I an army set of Union and Confederate soldiers. Not only did Santa bring us this awesome gift but the tiny plastic soldiers were actually arrayed in a mock battle scene in front of the tree. There were dozens of these tiny blue and grey soldiers and my drunken relatives had stayed up late, setting them up in this wildlly elaborate battle scene. Hats off to my relatives. We’d set out cookies and milk and once we went to bed my grandfather dutifully ate them. I always thought this was proof positive that Santa existed and oddly never suspected my parents of subterfuge.

Maybe that was my problem with Christmas. After years of huge spectacle it became a rather quiet and staid affair. I’d go over to mom and dad’s, my sainted grandparents having long since passed, and we’d eat and quietly exchange gifts. It was always just my parents and my brother and I. My brother and I were both single at the time and my brother remains so to this day.

My family is extremely hard to buy for. It probably didn’t help that I was somewhat distant if not estranged from my family for a long time. The 20’s are tough years for some of us. My brother remains a mystery to me to this day, although we’re a lot closer than we used to be. We finally made the effort to connect but that’s another story. I never know what to buy my brother for Christmas. The only thing I can think of to get him, that he’d truly enjoy, would probably violate the United Nations ban on human trafficking. Ahem. “Made in China” are his favorite words.

My mother and father have everything they’ve ever wanted. They literally are the human embodiment of “the man who has everything”. For years I spent money buying my father every garment you could think of with a KC Chiefs’ logo on it but quickly ran out of hats, coats and sweatshirts to buy for him. My sainted mother actually eschews us buying her anything at all, like she feels guilty accepting gifts from her children. One year she asked for a breadbasket. Why not just ask me to stop by the grocery store and pick up some rolls. I ask for a Christmas list every year and she turns into the Sphinx. All I get back is a riddle. “Oh, Kenny, you don’t have to get me anything, just come by the house once in a while.” Sigh.

There was no one in my life back then. Or more correctly, there was a revolving door of people in my life back then. This may have also been a factor in the “hating of Christmas”. My high school girlfriend and I should have broken up at Christmas my freshman year in college, but she waited to do me that favor until April Fool’s Day, which was actually very fitting. Oddly I went through a series of breakups after that and generally they always occurred before the holidays or during them. That always puts a damper on the festivities. I never bought a tree nor made any effort to decorate my apartment in any way. I lived on Kansas City’s famous Country Club Plaza and every year the buildings are outlined in luminous Christmas lights. They turn the lights on every year in a big celebration on Thanksgiving night. I figured that was enough Christmas decoration for anybody. My mother, to mock my holiday despair, bought me my lone Christmas ornament, a stuffed Grinch hanging by a Christmas wreath. My wife hangs in my entry way every year to this day.

One year, as usually happened, I broke up with someone right before Christmas. December 20th was the date, and oddly I remember it. More accurately, the Rock Chick broke up with me but again, that’s another story for another time. We ended up married, so you never know. So, as usual, I was to go to my parents on Christmas Eve, spend the night and then drive home at some point Christmas day. My brother was in town. It was a carbon copy of the prior year and the year before that and so on, and so on. Before I headed to my folks house I stopped in O’Dowd’s my local haunt and started ordering martini’s. “Bring one of these every 15 minutes until I look ready for Christmas…” After about an hour and a half in the bar I felt I’d steeled myself for the impending holiday and headed to my folks. It was my intention to sit in my parent’s darkened basement and stare at the secondary tree they kept down there. Yes, my parents have two Christmas trees… they literally have everything.

Everyone except my father had gone to bed and I was sitting in the basement, clutching my wine glass to keep myself centered. Christmas I hated, Holiday Drinking I loved. My father came down to sit in front of the tree with me, when his cell phone rang. I thought something was wrong, who would call at 11pm on Christmas Eve? “Come with me, I need your help” my father exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. I followed him up to the garage where he quickly opened up the garage door letting in the cold. There were two brand new, shiny, kiddy bicycles sitting in the garage. “Gee dad, you shouldn’t have…I think Craig and I are a little big for these.” My father, as usual, was not amused, “They’re not for you smart ass, I’m storing these for the neighbor. He bought them for his kids and since there is a foot of snow on the ground, you’re going to help take them to his house while I stay here in the warm house.”

At that exact moment, a guy about my age came shuffling through the snow and up the driveway. Only moments before I’d been sitting alone, lamenting the fact I’d always be alone. Now a guy my age appears as if to underscore the point, to grab two bikes for his kids. He thanked my father profusely and I grabbed one bike, and he grabbed the other and we set off down the road to his house. His excitement at playing Santa for his kids and giving them their bikes was palpable. As I pushed that bike through the snow, I look up at a the stars and the snow flurries in the air and his excitement began to stir something inside of me. I suddenly felt connected to Christmas again. I remember looking at the guy and thinking, this could be me. I could own a home and have a family. It’s not too late for me. This guy not only gave his kids bikes that year, he gave me something too. He gave me the key to Christmas.

We rolled the bikes into his living room and the place reminded me of my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. I was like the Grinch… I felt my heart, which had been three times smaller than everybody else, suddenly swell to three times bigger than normal. I felt the despair and dread of Christmas fall away. I walked back to my dad’s house slowly but oddly for me, joyfully. I finally realized what I’d been missing. It’s the giving and the doing for others. There are so many people who as Bill Murray says in “Scrooged” that are having “trouble making their miracle happen” that we can all help. (No wonder I always weep during that final scene in that movie, I was that guy.) The day after Christmas I sought out a couple of charitable organizations and I started volunteering. I donated some money, even though I really didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have my own family so I started giving to my community. This may have been fundamental for most folks but somehow I’d lost touch with that.

If you’re alone, if you have a big family, whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, don’t forget what I forgot – the Holidays are for helping those less fortunate than you. And believe me, there is always someone less fortunate than you are. Even small acts like dropping some change in the Salvation Army’s bucket can help. And the giving and the doing for others feels great… Again, as Bill Murray said in “Scrooged” you start to “want that feeling, you get hungry for it” and that spirit of Christmas can stay with you, year round.

Every year my wife hangs the Grinch ornament up. For me it serves as that little reminder of that night, years ago, when I pushed a couple of bicycles through the snow, the year I got to play Santa for the first time…. and I smile.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!

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