Discover more from Slack Tide by Matt Labash
Home for the Holidays
The trials and tribulations of family
Author’s Note: From now until New Year’s, I will not be publishing new material. My wife and I are both recovering from COVID, after the dreaded and increasingly ubiquitous breakthrough infections, and so we’ll be celebrating Christmas (God willing) with our respective families next week, since we’re postponing it on the day proper. Though unless you’re one of my completist readers from way back, what I am publishing has about a 99 percent chance of being new to you.
In 2015, the good folks at Templeton Press put out a book called The Christmas Virtues, featuring a long roster of writers taking a chapter apiece on different holiday themes. While I can’t give you the entire line-up, it featured a cavalcade of stars, like living legends P.J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley. It also featured a murderer’s row of my old Weekly Standard colleagues. In alphabetical order: Sonny Bunch, Christopher Caldwell, Andy Ferguson, and Steve Hayes. These are not only some of the most talented men in the business, but they are friends. Or at least they were the last time I took any of their calls.
Brainstorming and overseeing the entire project was another of our Standard colleagues, Jonathan V. Last (the “V” is for “Visigoth”), one of the most dangerously gifted double threats in journalism as a writer and editor. A triple threat if you include podcaster. You probably now best know him as the man who runs The Bulwark, where he additionally (and daily) cranks out The Triad, one of the finest newsletters on Substack. When JVL, as both his friends and enemies call him, asked me to take on family dysfunction at Christmas, I asked him if I could first speak with my attorneys. After receiving legal clearance and a back-up foreign passport should I need to change citizenship while dodging irate relatives, I took the plunge. Below is the little something I came up with. Which, come to think of it, is not that little. It’s not just about Christmas, but about the people we love, the people we don’t, God, violence, loss, memory - you know, the small stuff. It ought to give you enough reading material through Christmas break. And if it doesn’t, I’ll likely be republishing another piece of writing just before New Year’s Day, with fresh Slack Tides to follow:
As the years tick by, Christmas has come to mean different things during various phases of my life. When I was a child, it was all enchantment and mystery. ‘Twas Jesus’ all-you-can-eat birthday party, guest-starring Santa, who’d show us the true Reason for the Season. Which happened to be one-upmanship, as I rode my spanking new Green Machine over to the house of my Jewish friends, the Rappaports, so they could suck on it, while trying to content themselves with their chess sets and dreidels and other sad little Hanukkah offerings. I’d learned in Vacation Bible School that they were God’s chosen people. But based on their holiday booty, I had my doubts.
In adulthood my Christmases took on a more mature hue, my toy-hoarding selfishness giving way to generosity and spreading peace on earth/goodwill toward men: Inviting friends over to sit around the Christmas tree, drinking “daddy’s medicine” (as my kids call it) until they can’t feel their pain. Wearing the mistletoe belt buckle to the office Christmas party. Staying up until the wee hours on Christmas Eve, assembling impossible children’s toys with missing bolts and directions in Mandarin, so that the fat phantom beardo in red pajamas can walk away with all the credit.
But when I consider the real connective tissue that binds most Christmases in the mind’s eye, for me it’s all about foibles and eccentricities, dysfunction, and passive aggression, with an outside chance of violence. In other words, it’s about the people we spend Christmas with: family, both near and extended. Or as Alexander Pope called them, “the commonwealth of malignants.” When I think of these people – my tribe – which doubled in number after marriage, I think of everything that is both wrong and righteous about this highest of holidays. The two poles sometimes being indistinguishable. Which leads me to my dear, saintly mother, and the time she tried to decapitate Uncle Carl with a King James Bible, in the name of the One whose birth we were celebrating.
It had been, before that, an uneventful Christmas. A family gathering, with the requisite overeating. Crosby, Como, and Andy Williams on the hi-fi. Uncles and aunts and cousins lazing on the couch in tryptophanic catatonia, waiting for death or dessert. Out of nowhere, a theological conversation broke out – a no-go zone as dangerous as politics or comparative salary discussions. At family gatherings there shouldn’t be any wading into heavy hermeneutics – no covenant theology versus dispensationalism – or any of that business.
But though they are brother and sister, good Italian kids who were both raised Catholic and then converted to evangelical Protestantism (or to Christianity, as we say when ribbing our Catholic friends), Uncle Carl was experiencing a temporary crisis of faith. Or more than likely, he just wanted to spin up my mom for sport. Like any good uncle, he was a professional ballbuster, habitually teasing us children in his Donald Duck voice about our big ears or lack of kickball prowess until we either cried or swung at him.
As he did his Richard Dawkins routine on my mom, a fervent, no-quarter believer, he took to asking amateur-hour questions: If there is a God, how can there be natural disasters, or child starvation, or a Jimmy Carter presidency? Mom gamely endured his Doubting Thomas shtick for a while. After all, since my military father had transported us to Germany on assignment, it had been three years since we’d last seen Uncle Carl, and he’d gotten remarried since then. His new wife was the portrait of graciousness – welcoming and pleasant. Everyone had put on their best getting-to-know-you face. But when my uncle started questioning the infallibility of God’s Word, he might as well have punched my mother in the chops.
Waving her Bible at him, she yelled, “Maybe if you’d ever crack the thing, you’d know some of this stuff already!” And that’s when she wound up from the stretch. Mom is only five-foot-one, with small hands, but somehow she wrapped one of them around her unwieldy King James and threw a perfect split-finger fastball. No one thought to put the radar gun on it, but she brought the high heat.
The Bible was hurled about two feet higher than where Uncle Carl was sitting, but then it dropped off the table, right where his head was. Or should have been. Uncle Carl was a star three-sport athlete in high school, and even with all the Christmas carb-loading, he still had the reflexes of a lynx. The Bible hit the wall, crashing to the floor. Mom takes her Bible seriously, so maybe she had Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in mind when he called God’s Word “the sword of the Spirit.” If Uncle Carl hadn’t ducked at the last second, he might have had his skull parted.
The door slammed behind her, Mom storming outside for a righteous walk-off like Jesus storming out of the temple after overturning the moneylenders’ tables. My worldly, older cousin Debbie, savvier than I was about matters such as religious warfare, whispered, “You’re going to have to go. Your mother threw a Bible at my dad’s head.” But we didn’t go. We all stayed together for the rest of the day. After all, it was Christmas, and we were family. Mom came back. Apologies were offered, tears shed, embraces exchanged. The kids were still shell-shocked, but all the adults laughed maniacally, recounting the highlights as if the story had happened years ago, instead of twenty minutes prior. “You’ve heard of Bible thumpers,” my dad deadpanned. “She’s a Bible thrower.”
I don’t pretend that my Christmas crazies are crazier than yours. As Tolstoy nearly said, all normal families are alike, but each nutcake family is nutty in its own way. (Though I’ve yet to meet a “normal” family.) Family pride, however, dictates I stipulate that my mother and uncle came by their Christmas craziness honestly, or at least genetically. Growing up in Pittsburgh, their father was a large-hearted, short-fused fireplug of a Sicilian whom they called “Magoo,” after Mr. Magoo, the oblivious cartoon character who is always narrowly averting disaster. Similarly, my grandfather was blind in one eye after sustaining an injury on his construction job, which didn’t keep him from driving lustily and erratically, while keeping his own set of books on traffic laws (chief among them being that no matter who or what was next to him, if he put on his turn signal, he automatically gained the right of way).
Christmas in the Magoo household resembled a multi-car collision. My grandfather had little patience for the niceties of buying a Christmas tree or fitting it snugly into the tree stand. One year, after buying an anemic little Charlie Brown number – on Christmas Eve – he couldn’t fit the tree into its holder due to obstructive lower limbs. So he took out a hacksaw. He cut the tree, then cut it some more, then yet again. In a Paul Bunyan-esque Yuletide fury, he kept cutting the tree, until only a half a tree was left. Now deep into mid-tree, where branches proliferate, the tree misfit its stand even worse than before. So he threw the tree to the floor, kicking it and cursing, “We’re not having a tree this year!” he declared as his children looked on, wailing. His cooler-headed sister prevailed, imploring him to go buy the kids a decent tree – it was Christmas after all. Though actually, by then it was late, late Christmas Eve. So dealing with the last-of-the-lot refuse – the bound-for-the-wood-chipper trees – he picked whatever orphan he could find, brought it home, sawed off the bottom half of the new tree, and tie-wired it to the top half of the old one. “All told,” my mom now says of the Franken-tree, “it wasn’t half bad – one of the better looking trees we had. A low bar, but still….and Magoo was happy, because we were happy.”
And therein, my friends, lies what we in the life-tidying trade call the moral of the story. Christmas with family isn’t always about heralding angels and jingling bells, Jack-nuts roasting over an open nose, and eating perfectly cooked reindeer loin with sugarplum chutney. No, sir. Sometimes, Christmas with family is just about making things work, brutishly and gracelessly. That’s what families do when they work right. They are our constant, our safety, our backstop. The thing we’re supposed to be able to count on when we can’t count on anything else.
But of course, families don’t always work right. Garrison Keillor once said, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” But now that Christmas season, due to retailer avarice, seems to start around Labor Day – before Jerry’s Kids have even been wheeled off the stage – it can feel to many like a four-month-long forced march to jollity and good cheer, with our extended family serving as our chain-gang wardens during the culminating Christmas month itself. We end up spending an ungodly amount of time with people we often spend the rest of the year avoiding, and all due to blood instead of choice. We are conscripts, not volunteers.
Consequently, an entire angst industry has arisen around the idea of Christmas with the family. For the last decade and a half, the Washington Post has run a “Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors” – many, if not most of the horrors being family-related. Social scientists tell us that Christmas is one of the deadliest, if not the deadliest days of the year for everything from respiratory ailments to heart-related deaths. (My own Uncle Robbie expired from a heart attack on Christmas morning.) Almost three-quarters of Americans, in a poll conducted by an online Japanese retailer, said they probably won’t like the gifts they receive (which, of course, mostly come from family members), but will still spend fourteen hours, on average, picking gifts out anyway. A Dead Squad homicide cop in Detroit once said that more people kill family members around Christmas than any other time of year, perhaps, he theorized, to avoid buying presents. A U.K. poll claims Christmas is up there with divorce, moving, and changing jobs on the list of stressful life events.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says there are more than 15,000 Christmas-related injuries per year – the result of everything from Christmas light fires to kids ingesting Christmas tree decorations. The Atlantic Monthly warns that three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us, due to what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” – meaning that it’s the tiny differences between people who are otherwise alike that create the basis of hostility. (Just as the English fought the Scots and the Spaniards fought the Portuguese, we always hate the people we partially resemble.) And it’s not just Americans. In the Peruvian Andes, they have a Christmas Day tradition called “Takanakuy,” which is a festival consisting of townsfolk (often extended family members – including women and children) beating each other bloody in bare-knuckle fistfights.
WikiHow – where I often send my kids when they need parental advice (“What am I, the Internet? Go look it up,” I tell them) – actually has a page on “How to Avoid Fights on Christmas.” It’s suggested that you “be polite and then move away,” or “excuse yourself and dash off to another room for a break. You can have a cry, write furiously on your Facebook page, or simply do some deep breathing.”
Writing “furiously” on your Facebook page? Have we really turned into a nation of thirteen-year-old girls? (The question answers itself.) What do I say to all this expert empirical evidence that cautions against the perils of spending Christmas with your extended family? I humbly submit that they’re looking at it all wrong.
Rather, spending compulsory time with our families – the ne’er-do-wells, the narcissists, the gold-plated eccentrics, people who are of us, but not like us (though they probably are more like us than we’d care to admit) – is perhaps the best Christmas gift we could receive. Because it’s an exercise in forced empathy: Not only are these the people who will theoretically take us as we are (due to familial obligation), they expect us to return the favor. Their personalities aren’t so much offered as inflicted, conditioning us for the human condition itself, which is messy and imperfect and often hard to tolerate. After all, if you can’t love the people who are unlike you, but of you, how can you love the people who are neither?
When Christ himself – the (Son of) Man who is supposedly what Christmas is all about – was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said there were two: To love thy God with all thine heart. And to love thy neighbor as thyself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” he said. And he didn’t sound like he was joking. So if we’re going to spend one-fourth of the year celebrating his birth with our dysfunctional uncles and judgmental parents, the least we can do is try to take his words semi-seriously.
Besides, once you surrender to the madness, families tend to be fun as hell. The weirder, the better. Some of the happiest days of my life have occurred around Christmas, courtesy of the strange birds I’m related to by blood or marriage.
There’s my father-in-law, Vic. He’s eighty going on fifteen and his favorite Christmas hobby is protesting Christmas. When he buys presents - if he buys presents – he tends to throw them under the tree in an unadorned paper bag. But he does care enough to grade us on our gifts to him. Once we gave him a hundred-dollar gift card to Ruth’s Chris Steak House. His response? “Great! This’ll buy me a salad and a half an appetizer.” Years ago, we went to an ornate local lights display, requiring us to spend half an hour idling in our car in a line of onlookers. When Vic didn’t feel like waiting, he commanded us – from the backseat – to get out of the line and head home. We refused, the Christmas spirit having seized us. He said, “Okay, have it your way. You were warned.” He then lifted his loafer’ed barges over the front seat, made a clicking sound like a gun turret, and let loose a terrible ripper, fumigating the whole car like a flatulent Orkin man. We returned home with the windows down, lights unseen, everybody coughing.
Then there’s Uncle Bill (my mom’s other brother). Once upon a time, he was a Reagan Republican. But somewhere along the way, the George W. Bush presidency radicalized him in the opposite direction. Truth be told, I could sort of relate. But Uncle Bill was more embittered than I was. He started keeping what he called his “Fox News notebook” – a holstered Steno pad he kept handy with facts and arguments to refute claims from Sean Hannity and company. He now occasionally breaks it out for discussion at family gatherings, if he can find it, since we’re not above hiding it under his chair.
There’s also my sister-in-law Laura, who’s a fairly straitlaced, respectable type most of the year. But come Christmas, she turns into Carrot Top, the prop comedienne. Every season, before receiving my real present from her, I endure a series of decoy gag gifts. Over the years, she’s given me a winning lotto ticket (which turned out to be fake) and a “butt face” towel – a towel that helpfully instructs the not very bright on which side to dry one’s butt and one’s face, respectively. There was the “Weener Cleaner” soap ring. (Actual packaging copy: “Large or small or in-betweener, nothing beats a cleaner weener!”) Perhaps most special of all was the leopard-print “Tuggie: The Fuzzy Sock That Warms Your…….” You get the idea.
As more Christmases accumulate behind us than lie ahead, you start thinking of your family life as a stage production, in which all the great character actors are dropping off, one by one, with no hope of replacement. On my Christmas memoriam honor roll is Uncle Phil, who’s been gone for two decades now. He was a slightly dangerous uncle – which is always the best kind. When I was a tyke, he’d pour me a third of his Blue Ribbon beer when no one was looking. When he built a bathroom in his garage, he wallpapered it with naked cartoon ladies, their breasts inflated like birthday balloons. He once ate a whole handful of Christmas-themed scent chips from a dish on our coffee table, being none the wiser, but confiding to me on the side, “That is some awful candy.” He loved to play me George Jones cheatin’ songs, and he smoked Kools like he was trying to break his lungs, which he eventually did.
My wife’s Uncle Dean could fix anything and often availed us of his talents. He’d come by the house, make a repair, and then sit down for a beer. He didn’t drink much, but when I offered him a midday Bud, it always seemed to delight him, as though he’d found money under the couch cushions. You’d tell him a story, he’d nod, then say, “That ain’t nuttin’.” Then he’d tell you his stories, which all began with the same dateline: “Oakmont, PA, 1943.” And he’d be off to the races, telling you a tale from his youth that you’d heard ten times before. But it didn’t matter. Because all was calm and bright. Uncle Dean was here, fixing things.
Once he almost fixed me for good when he hit me, full force, in the forehead with the backswing of his ball-peen hammer while trying to bang out my lawnmower deck after I’d run over a well cap. As I stood there, stars swirling, tweetie birds singing, trying not to go down like a sack of wet cement, he didn’t apologize, but said something I’ll never forget: “Ahhh, it happens.”
A workaday Catholic, but not a very pious one, Uncle Dean nevertheless had a supernatural sixth sense and could often tell when people were going to die. Their faces would grow cloudy to him, even as he looked them straight in the eye. Soon thereafter, they’d keel over from a blood clot or stroke or whatever show-stopper the Reaper had devised. Uncle Dean never knew what exactly it would be, but that it would be was a cat he always kept in the gunny sack, since he figured when your number is up, there’s no getting around it anyway. Why worry? And this life was just an on-deck circle for what comes after. We suspected his own face grew cloudy to him in the mirror, the last time he came by to check on a repair, before he dropped dead of a heart attack behind the wheel of his car in a casino parking lot. He wasn’t quite himself that day. As he was leaving, walking down the porch steps, he reached behind him for my wife’s hand and squeezed it hard. An uncharacteristic show of affection. Then he walked off to his Lincoln without looking back.
His sister, Aunt Natalie, always made Christmas an event before she took her leave fifteen years ago. She’d suffered childhood convulsions that had left her mentally impaired. But she’d put on a show every Christmas gathering: sneaking copious amounts of vino from a coffee cup and popping her dentures out like a cash-register drawer. Then, at some point in the evening, she’d disappear with a Food Lion shopping bag into the bathroom to change into her Christmas costume. One year, she was “Ms. Wreath” – her body encircled head to toe in homemade wreaths. Another time she was Santa, her beard riding up to her eyes, so that she was peeping out the mouth hole. But her crowning glory came when she transformed herself into “the Living Christmas Tree.” Natalie hung ornaments and tinsel on herself, then strung herself in lights and plugged herself into an electrical outlet. Since she’d forgotten an extension cord, she dutifully stood by the outlet, illuminated, for the rest of the night.
One Christmas, she admitted to us that it had been a hard, lonely year. “I’m praying for God to take me,” she said, with hope, rather than bitterness. He did, shortly thereafter. But not before Aunt Natalie put me in mind of John Cheever’s words: “The irony of Christmas is always upon the poor in heart; the mystery of the solstice is always upon the rest of us.”
Then there was one of my kids’ favorite uncles, Uncle Jon, my sister’s husband. He was so committed to making his own children appreciate their Christmas bounties that he only allowed them to open one present per hour, during which they had to play with it until they opened the next one. “What do they do when they open a desk calendar?” my sister protested, to no avail. (In his house, Christmas “morning” usually concluded around 9:00 p.m.) I have a photograph of Jon taken during the last Christmas Eve he spent at my house. In it, he is hauling one of my sons and one of his sons on his back at the same time, a huge grin on his face. He was always half uncle, half carnival ride to them. But somewhere along the way, a bipolar disorder crept up on him. His mind was no longer his own. He didn’t find anything funny anymore. He became darkness and menace, refusing all those who could help him – the opposite of the happy-go-lucky kid I’d known when he was an eighth-grade skate punk, eager for whatever the world might bring.
When life became too much for him, he elected to take his own, piling out of his brother’s moving car and jumping to his end off of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. He died, right in the sight line of Sandy Point Beach, where he’d often taken his kids to see the Lights on the Bay Christmas display. He did so with the urgency of a man who was on fire and needed putting out. When I tried to explain to my kids what happened, my then eight-year-old son, Luke, not quite grasping it, asked, “Did Uncle Jon do a forward flip or a pencil dive off the bridge?”
I thought about correcting him but decided against it. If Uncle Jon could’ve heard that, he’d have laughed, hard, for the first time in years.
When talking family, I don’t exempt myself from the discussion of Christmas quirks. My wife, who is not otherwise given to salty language, regularly calls me “the Christmas dick.” The unrelentingness of the season tends to bring out my petulant side. For one thing, I bark at her, since shortly after Halloween she starts playing Christmas music – usually of the execrable variety, like the otherwise great Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” a punishingly awful and overplayed song that sounds like a bad PsyOps experiment in which Christmas radio DJs are trying to make the Jews come out with their hands up.
For multiple years I played phone Santa to my nieces and nephews, calling them days before Christmas – from the North Pole! – to take their gift requests. But I did Santa in the voice of a hectoring, bellowing John McLaughlin shouting down Eleanor Clift. By the time I’d grilled them on whether they’d been naughty or nice (the former guaranteeing that they’d get skunked by my elves), the children were so intimidated that they couldn’t recall what they wanted. Which was fine in my book. We all knew they’d get those things anyway. And I thought it fair to portray Santa as a projection of God/McLaughlin – like a semi-stern, half-joking Jesuit flapping his flews, leaving you off balance, wondering if blessings would be given or taken away. The way I figure it, fear often inspires reverence.
But like most Christmas dicks, I am, at heart, a sentimentalist. Especially when it comes to the bizarre little garden I call my Christmas Tree Graveyard. Unlike most people around these parts, I don’t view the end of Christmas as a time to drive my tree to the county dump or to chop it up for the outdoor fire pit. Instead, at the conclusion of each season, I haul my Fraser fir out to the deck, then throw it over the railing into the backyard, where it might stay from anywhere for a week to four months, depending on my winter sedentariness and/or spring’s first lawn mowing.
But eventually, on the tree’s stump heel, I carve or paint the year that the tree faithfully stood sentry over our family room. Then I drag it out to the woods behind my house to its final resting place. I don’t walk the woods much in the summer, when they’re thick with poplar and beech and sweetgum, along with a heavy tangle of underbrush. But in the winter, especially after a light snow, I love to clear the head and lungs by crunching over dead branches down a steep ravine to a trickle of a stream where I look for magical totems like snowy owls or white-tail deer sheds. And the most magical of all is the Christmas Tree Graveyard.
For as I see those carved years on the Christmas tree stumps, now stacking up like cordwood, it brings everything back. Not just the Christmases, but the family who populated them. Some living, some dead, but all living in memory. The Bible chuckers and the scent-chip eaters, the car fumigators and the pencil divers. They’re all there, making life what it should be: weird and warm and raucous and loud.
It’s my hedge against the sound I dread more than any other – that of their silence.
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Your brother-in-law hates socks, and hates you for buying them for him every year. (He told me.) Why not give him what he’s dreamed of since he was a small child? A gift subscription to Slack Tide:
Bonus Christmas track: Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas. And here’s hoping yours goes smoother than the Pogues’ did in their Christmas epic, “Fairytale of New York”:
Double Christmas bonus track: Chuck Berry’s is my very favorite version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” the old R&B standard (originally played by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, with Charles Brown on vocals). That’s no easy thing for me to admit, since Ray Charles and Otis Redding sang it, too.