Christmas was not much of a joyous occasion in my family. It was more like a chance to tally up transgressions. Particularly for my mother, who annually threatened to return all my Christmas gifts; and sometimes made good on that threat. But also for the rest of the family, who generally lavished love and gifts and attention on my sisters. To be fair, they were sweet tempered, and biddable creatures, and really, who wouldn't want to reward that? Where as I was difficult, argumentative, high energy and entirely too inquisitive. I was also pretty sure I knew every damn thing in the world. For the record, I didn't, I don't know - and every year the tally of what I realize I don't know grows far greater than what I do. So every year, Christmas was fraught with being judged, and it was a fine opportunity for my never-too-generous family to settle their hash with me in a passive-aggressive fashion.
But I wanted to love Christmas. I wanted to love God, and Jesus, and church, and the pageantry and kindness and love that was reflected in Christmas. I wanted to feel like ...like I mattered, and that I could make the people who mattered most to me realize how much I loved them, too.
Every year my grandfather sang a solo in the midnight candle-lit service at our church. This was a church of the old Presbyterian school - beautifully unadorned with any sort of decoration, every line and color carefully and tastefully not-gaudy. Utilitarian in the strictest since - where the utility here was the inner reflection of spirit, and not glorying in the beautiful works of man. It was a spare, elegant space of creaking ancient wood and lovingly kept up plaster walls, a church shaped like a Norman fort in the midst of a graveyard at the very gates of Valley Forge park. And every my grandfather, himself the son of a choir-master and the grandson of a choir-master, would deliver a song perfectly at ease with that church. Bare. Unadorned. Beautiful. His voice was a deep bass, his delivery and diction formal and clear. But he would himself get swept up in this music, and this would be one of the very few open displays of emotion he would make - sometimes getting slightly chocked up. Just ever so slightly. If you didn't know him, you wouldn't even notice. But if you did, it would seem like he had thrown himself on the ground, weeping at the glory and joy of the birth of Christ.
Of all the songs he sang, "O Holy Night" was absolutely his best. It was requested by the congregation, year after year, though of course he couldn't always oblige, since to do so would be to render it cheap and common. I mean, understand - we're talking about one song, performed once a year. But to my grandfather? If it was every year, it was still practically vaudevillian.
To this day, I can not hear that song without being reduced to tears.
My grandfather was the only father I had. He did not love me. He did not like me. He did not respect me. But I was so desperate for him to approve, and so angry when he didn't. That song is bundled up with so much baggage for me, and yet, every year,I have to hear it. I must hear it. It's torture. I'm six again, and being told there will be no presents for me this year, because I don't deserve them. I'm 12, and asking the choir director if I can sing with Grandpa this year, and being told "no." I'm eight, and racing down stairs before the break of dawn to behold the splendor that was our Christmas tree, surrounded by a model train, wreathed with wrapped gifts and sparkling with lights and tinsel.
That song reduces me to a creature of pure sentiment. I love it. I hate it.
Most of all, I just wish grandpa had loved me. His last living act was to disinherit me. I didn't find that out until after I'd delivered his eulogy, a Jeremiad of the sort that I hope someday someone can share about me. And then I found the 3x5 card clipped to his Will, clarifying that I was to get absolutely nothing.
So much baggage to unpack, every year, when I hear that song. It's simultaneously something which hearkens to a simple time when I thought God existed and loved us all, and people loved each other and the world was fair...and also something that brings into sharp, sudden focus the lack of regard with in my family held me, and their annual chance to make that clear.
So much has changed. But some things just never will. At least every year I'm feeling something acutely. Better that than just nothing, or no hope at all. I pledge this most solemnly, though - I will never, ever, ever use Christmas as a chance to punish any child of mine. Never.