As with many children of divorce my childhood Christmases were rushed and awkward. Every holiday season my parents haggled over how much time we spent in each dysfunctional home. The rules of math are suspended in divorce. Doubling the number of families did not double the love I received. Christmas time was stressful and difficult.
Each December my twin brother, my older brother and I left our youngest half-brother at home as soon as the Christmas break from school began. We headed down to San Diego by plane or by train from our home in North Orange County. We arrived at the home of our father, step-mother and two older step-brothers, abruptly inserted into their lives every holiday season.
My father was a man of anger and violence, but for some reason he loved Christmas. He had elaborate Christmas decorations on his house with a wood cut-out version of Santa and his reindeer that, to my recollection, approached actual size. He was extravagant in his giving and he showered us all with gifts every year. He felt it was important that we all join in the gift giving and I remember being forced to do chores around the house and in his office so I could earn money to purchase presents for my San Diego family.
The gift exchange occurred on Christmas Eve. My dad handed out the presents one by one and as the evening progressed each of our gift stacks increased in size. When our stacks reached maximum height the gifting was finished and we jumped in the car and hurried over to my grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner and a second gift exchange. My uncle was there with his family, cousins we only saw once a year, and we received presents from our grandparents after dinner. We loaded up the car and headed home to my father’s house, where we packed up and prepared the return home in the morning.
Looking back over the years it is amazing to me how little I remember of these holidays with my father. I remember one or two gifts, and very little else of the actual celebrations. I do remember feeling stressed and fearful, feelings that return even as I write these words. My father’s love of Christmas was not strong enough to cover his anger and the years were marked with explosions of temper at his wife and step-children. I vividly remember one year when he completely lost it. I can still picture his contorted face screaming at my step-brothers with white hot rage. What I do not remember is feeling any love or joy at Christmas time, any time at my father’s house where I felt embraced, wanted or safe.
This lack of love may be why one of my fondest Christmas memories comes not from the actual celebration but from a trip home from my father’s house one Christmas morning. I do not recall the year, but seem to remember being around 7-8 years old. My father took us to the airport for the flight home. We walked across the tarmac, up the stairs and into the plane, a brightly colored PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines) jet. We were welcomed by three beautiful stewardesses in brightly colored PSA mini-skirts. As it was Christmas morning and a very short flight we were the only passengers on the plane. For the next 45 minutes we were the center of attention. We were showered with smiles and affection as the stewardesses did their best to make our Christmas trip special. Looking back I wonder if they felt sorry for us, realizing that only children from a terribly broken family would be flying alone on Christmas morning.
Whatever their motivation was the end result was that I felt wonderful. In that short flight I received more love and personal attention than I had received in a week at my father’s house. That flight is a vivid reminder to me about what really matters when it comes to Christmas giving. The greatest gifts are not the ones we buy. The greatest gifts are the love and time we give to others.