Delightfully Dysfunctional Holiday Traditions

We all have our Christmas traditions. Not so surprisingly, many of these family traditions — no matter where we come from, our ethnic backgrounds, or how old we may be — are the same for a lot of us: Tree-trimming. Fighting. Boozing. Sometimes all at the same time.

To bastardize Charles Dickens: “God help us. Every one.”

In our house, putting up the tree was put off until the very last minute. I remember a few years where Santa would leave the gifts on the couch and my parents would be putting up the tree Christmas morning while my brother and I unwrapped our gifts.

In all fairness, the last-minute procrastination fell more on Mom’s dainty shoulders than they did on Dad’s. Mom had some very strict guidelines about how the tree went up and needed to supervise its assemblage.

There was none of that cutesy, “Hey, kids! Wanna help Mommy put up the ornaments” mumbo jumbo in our house. Mom put the ornaments on what branch she thought they should go on and if you didn’t like it, you could shove a candy cane straight up your ass. The most interactive tree trimming experience my brother and I could hope for as kids would be to hand Mom a specifically colored ornament she requested… Or hand Mom a wrench or screwdriver to lob at Dad during the inevitable tree-trimming fight that would ensue.

It’s beginning to look a lot like our couch.

Mom was very particular about her ornaments. Whenever we would get a new parlour suit (once every 10 years), Mom would switch up the ornaments to match the furniture. When we had a gold couch that bore a striking resemblance to the one Peg Bundy spent so much time on on Married… With Children, the tree rocked alternating strands of fluffy gold and white garland and ornaments in traditional red, green, gold, and white hues.

When Mom got inspired by The Golden Girls to transform our Scranton, PA apartment into something straight out of Miami, FL; our tree also became a pastel-colored affair, draped in silver tinsel with pink, sky blue and white ornaments to compliment the white wicker endtables and couches adorned with a pastel palm frond pattern.

In all honesty, I am still in awe of the Martha Stewart-like care with which Mom approached color coordinating our tree with the decor.

I’m convinced our tree would have been most impressive if it didn’t resemble an adult version of Charlie Brown’s sad sack of a Christmas tree.

Growing up, we had a fake plastic Christmas tree — a fine tradition both my brother and I have continued well-into our adulthood in our respective homes. (I have also adopted Mom’s tradition of alternating colors of tinsel garland, as well.) However, we have learned from the mistakes of our parents and each invested in quality fake trees (mine is actually a Martha Stewart model) with lush, full branches.

Me, a stuffed fox, and my family’s grown-up version of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Mom’s Christmas tree was tall and skinny with sparse branches poked into what looked like a Festivus Pole barely camouflaged by scant “pine needle” wrappings around it. Some brightly colored twinkling lights draped across the branches could have gone a long way towards filling out the tree. Instead, Mom elected to wrap the lights around the Festivus Pole before she had Dad add the outer branches. This succeeded in making the thin pole look even thinner since the eye went directly to it, thanks to being decked with twinkling lights.

Mom would trim the tree herself, but she would recruit poor Dad as her lackey, directing him on how to assemble it — a fairly straightforward process, but one Mom felt she had to micro-manage.

This “supervision” usually involved Mom yelling at Dad that he was moving too slow in putting up our glorified Festivus Pole, adhering it to its shiny red base. When Dad moved too slow throughout the process, Mom would chuck some of the non-breakable ornaments at him.

As her impatience grew, so did the heft of the objects she’d fling at Dad.

Gradually, Mom would work her way up from throwing satin-wrapped styrofoam ornaments to our old stuffed friend Alfie the Christmas Elf who sat in the tree’s topmost branches.

Once Mom threw poor Alphie, that was a sign shit was about to get real and she would soon graduate to hurling the gold star tree topper at Dad like it was some sort of glitzy ninja shurikin.

When Mom ran out of ornaments to throw, that’s when you knew you were really in for a Yuletide treat — unless you happened to be Dad. One year, she chucked a socket wrench at him that hit him square in the back.

Another year, Mom rolled up the dog’s bedding, came up behind Dad as he worked on putting the tree together, and whacked him in the back of the head with it declaring: “Your bald spot was bothering me.”

Fortunately, Dad was a pretty mild-mannered dude. He never raised his fists and rarely raised his voice at Mom when she started her festive freak-outs. He’d head to the kitchen, mumble “bitch is schizophrenic” under his breath, and make himself a Jim Beam n’ Ginger Ale before going back to work on the tree.

Dad’s means of mellowing is pretty typical for a number of folks forced to cope with all of the holiday hijinx.

Booze was a pretty big staple of our Christmases for as long as I can remember. It played a chief role in the very first Christmas I can remember. I was two, almost three years old when we went to Grandma’s house for the big family dinner.

Dad gave me a nice plate of shrimp, tails removed, for me to eat.

I loved shrimp.

Grandma (Mom’s mother) freaked out, screaming with her vague hint of an Eastern European accent: “Nah! Don’t give that to her! She’ll choke!” Taking the plate of shrimp away, Grandma handed me a tiny glass of what looked like grape juice. “Here. Have some of this instead. It’s nice.”

The “nice” purple beverage turned out to be sherry or port wine. It was tasty and sweet. And when you’re almost three, anything sweet most certainly is “nice.”

It was so nice I drank it twice. And then I drank it thrice.

Grandma kept plying me with more and more sherry until … It happened.

I remember entertaining my elders by singing some Christmas carols, which probably went over huge. I don’t remember clearly — and who could blame me, being not only two-and-a-half, but also stinking drunk. You can get away with anything when you’re young and cute with curly locks and a green velvet pinafore dress.

I also remembered feeling really dizzy and having to sit down. No sooner than my green velvet-clad keister hit the seat than I vomited all over the table.

From what I understand, it wasn’t just a piddling puddle of kiddie puke. I blew chow everywhere: Chunks of homemade pierogies. Barely-digested turkey in brown gravy. Some of the aforementioned shrimp. And just about all of the sherry Grandma had kept pouring down my toddler-sized gullet.

Yeah. That shrimp would have been a real killer.

To this day, even the mere mention of sherry sends me running for the nearest bathroom. I attempted to give the desert wine a second chance a few years ago, imbibing it with pasta and garlic bread. I was fine for an hour, after which time I was struck by Dionysian madness and had to run to the john to heave a quart of vom.

This looked a lot like me after Grandma got me tanked on sherry at 3-years-old

The year Grandma turned me into The Littlest Drunk wouldn’t be the first time I’d indulge in some good ol’ fashioned underage drinking during the holidays. The second time around, however, I held my liquor a lot better. (Drew Barrymore would have been proud!)

Around Christmas, my parents would have seasonal liqueurs around the house in addition to the usual beer, wine, and whiskey. A Christmas booze staple was Rock n’ Rye. For those unfamiliar, Rock n’ Rye is a delicious rye whiskey with rock sugar and pieces of fruit soaking in the bottle.

Every now and then, my parents used to let me and my brother have a tiny sip of beer or wine. At Christmas, we’d get to sample Rock n’ Rye (a concoction I still savor to this day. In fact, the last Valentine’s Day present Mom ever got me was a big bottle of Rock n’ Rye).

My parents figured that the best way to keep my brother and I from getting hammered behind their backs would be to let us sample the goods before we were 21 in monitored quantity, removing the whole “forbidden fruit” stigma. We’d get a tiny — and I mean tiny — glass to have with our dinner, European style.

Obviously, my folks didn’t want either of their kids getting shitfaced.

My little brother, however, thought it would be funny if I got shitfaced.

Even though I was the eldest by three years, I was a bit gullible. If my then-nine-year-old brother told me that Mom and Dad had said something, no matter how stupid that supposed “something” might have been, I almost always believed him.

Which was what he had in mind when he knocked on the door to my room a few days before Christmas, bearing a gigantic glass of Rock n’ Rye.

“Hey,” he said. “Mom and Dad said you could have some Rock n’ Rye, but only if you chug this whole glass in one sitting.”

Now, most people — even if they happened to be 12-years-old — would exercise some common sense and think “There’s no way in hell my parents would say I could have a gigantic glass of hard liquor, let alone would they tell me to chug it.”

Me being the genius that I was, replied: “Really? Okay!” I then proceeded to pound back the entire glass like Oliver Reed in his boozy prime.

Which 12-year-old can pound back the Rock n’ Rye?! THIS kid!! (This kid is also standing by her family’s Floridian / Golden Girls-inspired living room decor.)

My brother looked at me with a horrified expression on his face.

“Damn,” he said solemnly. “I didn’t think you were going to down the whole thing.”

I shrugged. Fortunately, my tolerance was as high as the level of trust I had misplaced in my brother. Even I can’t explain it myself. A simpering sherry with roughly 17% alcohol (per volume) got me loaded, but give me a couple 40-proofers and I’m ready to rock! I wonder if perhaps Grandma getting me baby-blotto on sherry years before had helped bolster my tolerance for booze.

I later found out that Mom had asked my brother to bring me a little glass of Rock N’ Rye but ran out of the small-sized glasses she’d usually mete out our occasional bits of alcohol.

Mom accidentally poured too much into the larger glass and my brother went to take it to me in my room before Mom stopped him.

“Ohhh, no!” she laughed. “You can’t give Lana that much. She’ll get drunk off of that.” Mom took the glass back and emptied half of it back into the bottle.

Hearing the words “she’ll get drunk off of that” kicked the gears in my brother’s brain into motion. En route to my room, he promptly dumped the contents of his glass into mine, doubling the amount of alcohol I was about to ingest. For him, the prospect of him seeing a real shit show was much more fun than actually drinking himself.

He ended up sorely disappointed.

Although my brother and I are now the best of friends, that year, my Christmas came early, seeing his plot foiled.

While I got my own brand of tolerance-based revenge on my brother, it would take several months before Dad got his serving of schadenfreude in dealing with Mom.

A post-holiday tradition for our family dictated that while the tree would go up last minute, it would stay up long past winter’s thaw. It wasn’t that Mom would purposefully leave the tree up all year (although, considering how well-matched to our decor it was, that seems like more than a coincidence). Rather, she was as equally meticulous about how the tree would come down as she was about it going up. Unless she was there to micro-manage how the ornaments came off and were packed into the box, the tree could not come down until she said so and made the time to do it.

One year, Mom left the tree up until Easter. I remember the smell of ham and kielbasi baking in the oven while Dad set about drawing a masterpiece he adhered to both the front and back of the tree — which was quite visible to anyone walking past the enormous glass sliding door in our parlour.

Dad borrowed a few sheets of loose leaf paper from me and a black Magic Marker. He wrote a sign that said “Hurray! We’re the first on our block! It’s THE EASTER TREE!!!” At the bottom of the sign, he drew a tiny, fluffy cartoon bunny with tiny turds escaping from behind his little cotton tail.

Dad grinned with perverse glee as he replicated the sign for the other side of the tree that anyone walking past the front of our apartment could see.

Dad’s assessment of our Christmas tree as an Easter tree was pretty spot-on, considering this incarnation of the tree was during our Golden Girls / Floridian pastel period of living room decor. The soft pinks and baby blues really did lend themselves to Easter egg colors.

Then, in an act of taking things too far (a trait I have subsequently inherited from my father), Dad picked out one of the numerous stuffed bunnies from my collection and set him on the faux-snow tree skirt along with a handful of raisins scattered around him like little rabbit turds.

It was precious.

When Mom saw the display Dad had set up, she angrily declared that, after nearly four months, the Christmas / Easter Tree would be coming down that hour. Dad had successfully shamed Mom into taking the tree down. While Mom supervised. So shamed was she that Mom didn’t even have the heart to tell Dad to “hurry up” or hurl so much as a chocolatey Raisinette rabbit turd at him while he worked.

It was one of the few holidays I remember passing without a fight.

So, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, Festivus or nothing at all; may your season be merry and you cherish the moments with your loved ones (and the people you tolerate for whatever reason). Even the holiday fights. They’re all memories you’ll some day look back on fondly, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

Happy Holidays from one Delightfully Dysfunctional home to yours!

1 Comment
  • Thomas Pierce
    November 19, 2014

    Your essays remind me so much of Jean Shepard.

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