Merry Heathen Christmas, If You Must.

It was Christmas morning at the Cheney house when I was three or four, the earliest one I remember.  I was the first to wake. I padded down the long hall out to the living room, socks drooping at my ankles, and stared, dumbstruck, at the gifts blinking and bright under the tree. I curled up on the sofa and waited. I had slept in a navy leotard that snapped at the crotch, a big red daisy on the front. My ponytails were in disparate stages of loosening themselves from their rubber bands. I just sat and stared and waited. An eternity.

1970xmasMy sister, Kathi, 11 years older, came out first in a blue flannel shirt over pajama bottoms. Her long, blonde hair fell smooth and shiny in her eyes. She laughed when she saw me, her blue eyes wide. “You’re just waiting here?  You haven’t opened anything?”  

At four years old I had the distinct sense there would have been a loss in opening a present alone. I wanted the tribal experience, the validation of those around me in the giving and the receiving. Well, at four, in the receiving. No one besides my nanny, Harvey, was teaching me manners, but I sensed the emptiness, the irreverence, of opening a gift alone.

Kathi took a huge box from under the tree and brought it to me on the sofa. Bright desert light poured in the eastern windows, setting the orange curtains aflame. We were alone in the sunlit room, the tree fat and bosomy, a big wrapped box between us. An electric blue Cookie Monster was in that box.

At 6, my dad gave me a wind-up jewelry box with a spinning ballerina. At At 7, a signed 8 x 10 of glossy Donny Osmond. I was madly in love with Donny Osmond. When I was 8, a yellow skateboard with red urethane wheels. My dad was a particular man, a sensitive man who spoke minimally and listened well— the qualities of a considerate gift giver.

“You love your father more because he has money,” my mother liked to say, mistaking thoughtfulness for bribery. She repeated it to her friends. I knew this because, when I was 9 or 10, the daughter of a family friend made the same accusation verbatim, “You just love your dad because he has money.” Those words wounded me, because they revealed how little she knew about my life with my mother.

The Christmas I was ten my father bought me an outfit, a tealight satin tunic with a mandarin collar, a peasant skirt the same color, a thin, stretchy gold belt that hooked together behind gold  buckle. Kathi worked at Lord Latigo Leather in Old Scottsdale, and gave me a tiny heart shaped purse on a long cord. My father took my picture in the outfit, as I stood in the carport in new roller skates. I was never beautifully dressed. It felt awkward. I put my fingers in my ears and made a face as he snapped the picture.

As I fell asleep Christmas night, every Christmas night that I remember, my father would sit on the edge of the bed to tuck me in and ask, “Did you have a good Christmas, Mis?”

“Yes, Dad,” I always said, embarrassed by the question. Did he mean the presents, or the day, or did I know he loved me? I was never sure. For my father, Christmas was the litmus test of his parenting, the yearly culmination of his thoughtfulness, his attention to detail, his joy in his children. He wanted to know if I noticed.

The leather purse, soft as rose petals and almost as small, was lost in the crinkly mountain of wrapping paper. After Christmas, the satin outfit was swallowed into the tall wicker baskets of laundry that stood sentry in corners at my mother’s—pillars of stale, sour clothes that were never sorted, never washed. That Christmas day was the only time I ever wore it.

                    -Excerpted from my memoir of childhood abuse, depression and spiritual awakening.

We were not a Christian family. My childhood theology of Christmas was built exclusively upon the lyrics to “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy”:  on a silent night, a boy showed up without a gift, so he played a drum solo for yon mother and child.

Now, as a Catholic, in the recollected, spiritual years, Christmas is about the Creator of the Universe assuming the vulnerability of an infant. Susceptible to all the sufferings of this earthly world, to quote the hymn from Cameroon, “he came down that we may have love.”

Some years, maybe this one, it’s about shopping and gift wrapping, worrying if there’s enough money for presents and then worrying if I needlessly overspent on presents. There is cookie baking which gives me the same pleasure as chewing broken glass.

Our son begrudgingly goes to Mass with us, because he’s a rule-following first born who loves his mother. Our daughter, a Pastafarian, won’t go. She stays home and sneaks the Flying Spaghetti Monster into the nativity scene. When I hide him, my daughter finds him and sneaks him back. This is our tradition.

In the movie, “The Nativity Story,” (which I like very much for its heretical portrayal of the Virgin Mary experiencing pain in childbirth—in the Catholic interpretation, we are taught that for Mary, labor and delivery was as much a strain as opening a jar of olives), anyway, in the film, a grizzled, old shepherd approaches Mary and the teeny, weeny, new baby Jesus. Weather beaten and grimy as the sheep he tends, the shepherd hesitates when he gets close. Mary lifts the baby towards the shepherd and assures him, “He came for all mankind.”

He came down for the shepherds, Jew and Gentile, tax collectors, prostitutes and Pastafarians. He came down even for the heathens, like our little family in 1973, sitting godless in the glow of an over-tinseled tree, presents surging out from under the branches like hot magma.

For my dad, listening, sympathizing, withholding judgment, sacrificing for his children and gift-saturated Christmases were all expressions of his paternal love and care. Teresa of Avila wrote, “It is love alone that gives worth to all things.” So, Merry Heathen Christmas if you must, so long as there is love.

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