As a child and adolescent, I despised the holiday season. I know there are thousands of members of the same subculture from which I came that currently feel the same way. These feelings are not because of lack of money to buy presents or memories of losing a loved one on a holiday, but because of how the family dynamic deteriorates on every holiday, and probably every weekend as well.
Both my parents were alcoholics. I learned to survive on my own at a young age. I invented the pork and bean sandwich, and by the age of seven, it became a staple in my diet. Weekends were nightmares, but the holidays brought a particular degree of hell unmatched at any other time of the year. My childhood memories are ones that I cannot erase completely, a legacy of despair and misery which I will not and have not passed onto my own children. Christmas Eve would start out with us decorating a near lifeless tree as a “family,” with my sister and I providing the labor, mom and dad providing the criticism, first offered matter of factly, then slowly deteriorating into a sarcastic, caustic tone. The evening would end with our parents fighting one another, decorated presents spattered abstractly with cheap wine, and one or more snoring, sagging, bloated parent passed out on the floor or couch with sis and I patrolling the area for lit cigarettes to snuff out.
Christmas morning would ring in the gift giving with an asynchrony in parental moods. Dad was cheerful and would have a cup of coffee and a cigarette in his hand as he watched us open up gifts (never imaginative or thoughtful gifts, normally clothes and necessities). Mom would come out with a scowl, vying to corrall all of dad’s attention, then becoming whiny and self pitying if he paid her no mind. We each opened our pile of gifts separately as the other family members looked on.
Sis and I had to be wildly enthusiastic and appreciative, with abundant ooohs, aaahs, and thanks offered after each gift; otherwise we faced an even uglier mood in our mom, or worse yet, a blast of foul language (and breath) delivered two inches from our face. The most awful part was sitting around as mom opened her gifts from us. I remember vividly being five years old, extremely proud of the gift I had picked out for her (a cheap necklace, which in my childish eye, was beautiful). Her thanks was offered in the form of a rough cuff to my face, with her screeching that I had not spent enough money on her. That memory stayed with me to such a degree that every year afterward I agonized over a gift, not wanting a repeat of the hurt and humiliation I felt in 1956.
A similar scenario plays out even today, in thousands of homes here in the U.S. I would have grasped at any lifeline offered me—if a friend had invited me over to share Christmas with her and her family—and I’m sure there are children now who wish the same. Sometimes the most unlovable child, the most unapproachable, reticent, and unkempt child, is simply a child in an alcoholic home. Drugs were not much of an issue in the 1950s, but the same can be said for children of drug addicts as well. The parents love for the substance appears to exceed the parents love for the child, in the child’s mind.
If you know a child who needs an extra hug, a warm meal, or a small gesture of a thoughtful gift, I urge you to reach out to that child. I can assure you it will make a big difference.