How I Learned to Love the Holidays
How I Learned to Love the Holidays
I first tried to get sober during the months of autumn, with the holidays looming, Round about late November, digging my bitten fingernails into the bottom of a chair at yet another meeting, some old timer croaked, "Alcoholism is a three-fold disease." Smoke curled above his unshaven lip. Indeed, I reminded my newly-sober self, physical, mental, and spiritual. The guy then delivered his raspy punch line: "Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's." My feelings were mortally wounded.
The holidays had always been special to me, and I now felt a flush of shame over enjoying what these occasions signified: tradition, a sense of togetherness, of belonging to a family, of being loved. What a hopeless square. Worse still, a slight scratch at the surface with those same bitten fingernails revealed a degree of denial that I denied I was denying.
Let me roll it back. I grew up in a family that was as Catholic as any other Catholic family, meaning Mass most Sundays, First Communion, Confirmation, weddings and funerals in church. I didn’t hate it and I wasn’t scarred by it, but neither was I particularly awed. This was just what we did. But Christmas was a big deal.
My favorite aunt resided with my grandparents a few streets away from where I lived. By the time I was five, I was walking those blocks by myself, and I’d kick off Christmas Eve by toddling to their house for lunch. I would also harangue my aunt into giving up my Christmas present. I knew she had exactly what I wanted, whatever the hot toy was that season, or later, record albums we spun on her stereo console. The dining room table was decorated with Christmas cookies and breads, and I was denied nothing. At that northern latitude, darkness set in around 4 o’clock. These were the days of Christmas trees fashioned from aluminum branches that came out of a box, and the two of us would lie on the floor, admiring the tinted light and shadows a color wheel projected onto the ceiling. Does it sound like I was spoiled? I was.
New Year’s Eves were spent overnight at the home of that same grandma and grandpa, ringing out the old to the strains of Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra (that’s right, Guy Lombardo) while my parents, having by then capitulated to the suburbs, sneaked off to get wasted at somebody’s house party. The last one awake, I smuggled my transistor radio under the covers so I could get a dose of Lombardo antidote, a countdown of the Top 100 songs of the past twelve months. One year, Marvin Gaye finished on top of the pile with ‘What’s Going On?” I’m old.
By my teen years the scene shifted to the house of an aunt and uncle, beautiful, generous people who drew the family into themselves and spent days laboring over Thanksgiving and Christmas. They loved cooking, and this particular aunt was never afraid to fail with a recipe; she often did, to her own bemusement. A blaze roared from the fireplace, and their house was so full of guests that two tables couldn’t contain them, a couple of stragglers consigned to a couch, plates in their laps. My uncle owned a festive polka dot shirt he mothballed until November, when out it came to flatter him and insinuate itself into our holiday tradition. At some inevitable pause between pies and nuts, he revisited the shoe box containing snapshots from his army days and the stories that went along with the buddies in the pictures, a Norman Rockwell kind of experience, Italian-American subgenre.
Alas, the shift in our holiday gatherings wasn’t merely one of venue. I was undergoing an internal realignment into delinquency and alcoholism. I remember draining a bottle of my uncle’s cognac, getting into somebody’s car to bring back another one, crushing that, and then passing out. Feeling sheepish, I brought a fresh bottle to the next occasion, intended as a gift. I drank it all. I once showed up so drunk my holiday ended at the door, and I spent the evening out cold in an upstairs bed. By the time I came to, the party was over. On one of our last Christmases together, I arrived with not one girlfriend in tow, but two. What a classy guy. It wasn’t as if I didn’t love and respect these people; I absolutely did, I just didn’t know how to show it. That aunt and uncle died young, two grievous losses within the space of a year, and I can still feel their sting.
True desperation and darkness lived among the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come, when as an adult man beset by childish whims, I was surviving in New York City, awash on a sea of booze and drugs. I’d make it back to my diminished family if travel didn’t too terribly inconvenience my busy life, but that was so I could pick up some cash, from that favorite aunt for example. In the place of toys or record albums, it was now her opportunity to bankroll one of my holiday benders.
If I remained in town, it was with the best of holiday wishes. I muscled through a hungover and dopesick Christmas Eve to spend the day shopping and cooking, and then rendered the dish barely edible with some maniacal seasoning. The drunks I was cooking for were still picking at it politely when I slumped off to bed. Merry Christmas, boys.
Somewhere in existence there is a Polaroid shot of me in front of the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, dead drunk in the middle of the day, one eye pointed toward heaven, the other pin-wheeling the photographer into focus. I’m wearing somebody else’s coat, and thoughtfully sent the snapshot to that aunt, yes, that one, who remains to this day, perhaps not improbably, my staunchest ally.
The end of anything is hard, especially another lost year in which nothing happened, and so naturally, some of my grandest debacles occurred on New Year’s Eve. There are too many to recount here, but I can recall the utter numbness I experienced during the smallest hours of one brand new year, stupefied but not drunk, in a horrid dive off the Bowery. That precise moment is what I think of when I hear the jokey cliché about the Three-Fold Disease. I’m sorry to report that I was still years away from getting sober.
After that paralyzing New Year’s when I couldn’t get better and I couldn’t get worse, there were a handful of desultory Thanksgivings and depressing Christmases—the Rockefeller Center photo and the over-spiced dinner date from this era—and even after coming to a tenuous and brittle sobriety, the season when I first heard about The Three-Fold Disease, I was traveling back “home” for Thanksgiving to confront memories where there were once relatives. The fragmented family had its own issues and objectives, so I sat with four or five people at a table, carving up a supermarket turkey roll. Luckily, there were local AA meetings to dip into, where I could hear about Thanksgivings that were even bleaker.
I eventually made the decision—holiday travel becoming increasingly awful anyway-- to stay put and grind out the season in New York. I was graciously invited to a Christmas Eve open house that started early and ended late in an Upper West Side apartment that, New York being New York, was peppered with actresses and musicians and comedians. I wore a green shirt two sizes too big and a red tie that cost five dollars. The spirit of the thing, you know. Somebody read “A Visit from St Nicholas” while doing a Kirk Douglas impression. It was a big hit. A piano sat in the living room, and guests crowded round it to sing carols. It was like "Hannah and her Sisters" without Maureen O’Sullivan, and although I can’t be positive, she might’ve been there, too. This was traditional all right, but it was somebody else’s tradition. I didn’t belong to it, and it didn’t belong to me. In the middle of all this generosity and gaiety, there was something missing and I didn’t know what it was. I went home to my drafty studio and I cried.
And then one year soon after, while flipping TV channels, I stumbled across “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Bittersweet, quiet and unquiet down to the bluesy-jazz soundtrack, the tone of the program had always struck me, even in childhood, as pitch perfect. The season finds Charlie Brown in his usual, and given the circumstances, understandably downcast funk when Linus takes the spotlight and quoting from the gospel of Luke tells his pal, quietly again, what Christmas is all about.
And then I got lucky. At the last possible minute, I married a lovely woman, and with mere seconds left on the clock (for me, anyway) we were blessed with a baby girl. These two facts have everything to do with what I’m about to write. The hopeless square is back, and he’s not apologizing. While I feel compassion for those moody souls who dread the holiday season, it’s my favorite time of year.
I’ve left the Three-Fold Disease behind not by evading it, but by embracing it, like Charlie Brown getting straightened out by Linus. Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, and I’ve returned to the deepest roots of my own tradition through his essential message. To wit, and in the contemporary argot: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was cold and you gave me your coat, I was sick and you took care of me, I was locked up and you came to see me. I was lonely and you took me out for a cup of coffee. I was broke and you hit me off with a few bucks. I made up those last two. They didn’t have coffee shops in the time of Christ. They didn’t have coffee either.
You don’t have to be a Christian to reach out for those ideals. You don’t even have to believe in God. What the Teacher was talking about was the measure of our humanity, which does seem to emerge in sharper relief around the end of the year, when it’s only natural to be taking stock. I’m sure he wasn’t saying charity should be held off until December.
I’m no self-flagellating penitent. Neither do I float above the New York streets in a state of religious ecstasy. I get high on the commercial buzz of the holiday season, too. I gape at the store windows along Madison Avenue, lusting for possessions I will most likely never have. I ramp up my credit card balances on Christmas presents, then spend the next quarter of the year paying them down.
I invited so many people to Thanksgiving dinner that I had to borrow a table and some chairs in order to seat them. In front of the oven, and channeling my uncle in a festive polka dot shirt of my own, I wiped a bead of sweat from my temple and surveyed the hungry looks on the expectant faces of my guests, believers, non-believers, apostates, heretics. This, I thought, is exactly what’s it supposed to be. A Three-Fold Disease? Not around my house. Not any more.