I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing. I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself. Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day. But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it. Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano -- shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens. But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It's a Wonderful Life was based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.) Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix. Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over. My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life. Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”. Because that’s what you do. One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever. One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realise I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it. So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout. I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that. Image: Flickr user forayinto35mm
When I was a child my best friend suffered from what was then called M.E. It’s called chronic fatigue syndrome now which describes it well. She slept a lot. Thankfully I was never one of those children that liked strenuous activity or any activity really if it involved organized fun and other people. I liked books and animals and food. A day spent with a good book, a dog on my lap and a bag of chips by my side was a good day, if it wasn’t for my mother and sister nagging me to come outside. My best friend moved away when I was nine. This was not a good time for me I wanted to tell her parents. I’m about to go through a very awkward stage that will in fact not be a stage but my way of life from here on in and I’m going to need your daughter by my side to hold my hair when I’m drunk and sick and embarrassed over some boy and not just that but everyone else here is stupid and doesn’t get why we play at being witches or warriors at lunch instead of reading their sisters’ magazines or playing kiss chase. Please don’t take her from me. But they did. And we dispelled that myth that long distance relationships don’t work because we are still friends today. In those first few years she was gone we spoke on the phone daily and wrote to each other weekly. We visited each other every school holiday, taking turns, only I always wanted to go there obviously and escape this hell she left me in and vice versa. But like I said she had M.E. So she didn’t go to school. She didn’t go anywhere really. She mostly slept. And before she got sick she was actually quite fond of the outdoors and was the best tree climber I ever met. She was more robust than me, bolder. She entered a beauty pageant once for a laugh and told them she wanted to be an astronaut which was true. When I visited her she mostly slept. I didn’t mind though. When you love someone you’re just happy to be near them and she was usually so far that I just liked knowing I could prod her if I wanted to, which I did not because you do not prod a sleeping bear and when she woke up that was what she was, and a grumpy bear, for a good few hours, until it was all too tiring for her and she needed to sleep again. I think then I thought it was quite romantic, this disease that showed how exhausting it was being human. I know that’s not what it is, that it’s an autoimmune thing, but to me, her loyal subject, who would sit by her bed side, just waiting for her to honor me with her presence, just long enough to watch an episode of the X-Files, it felt like something out of a fairy tale. It was in those hours that I waited that I learnt real patience and fell in love with marathon reading sessions. I had always read a lot and was never without a book, something my parents did right, but it was in those hours spent sat by her bedside that I devoured entire authors. One in particular was Francine Pascal and her Sweet Valley nonsense and I think, no, I know, they’re partly to blame for my life of disordered eating and body image issues. I mean each book starts by describing these perfect blue eyed blond twins that are living the American dream. My sleeping friend beside me did not approve of these sorts of books so it was a good job she was asleep. She would never read such trash and as a result always had a healthy relationship with food and her body. But in my defense there were a lot of them and I had a lot of time to kill. They served a purpose. I think or hope girls today are too smart to read these books but mostly worry those twins they found to play them in the TV show have had to go into permanent hiding, what with standing for everything that’s wrong in the world. Don’t worry I had already read Judy Blume but it was Paula Danziger's books I loved the most. The Cat Ate My Gym Suit and There’s a Bat in Bunk Five introduced me to Marcy Lewis. A girl who was awkward but feisty. She thinks if she loses weight she will feel better, fit in, but instead she finds a real cause and comes out of her shell. She was my hero. My favorite was the The Pistachio Prescription about a girl who seemed to be in a constant battle with her mother, mostly over her love of pistachios which was just not fitting for a young lady apparently but it was her thing and it got her through. Remember Me to Harold Square was about a girl whose parents sent her on a scavenger hunt round New York and from the moment I read it I was in love with New York and knew I wanted to be a writer and someday live there. All her books were about incredible girls who were struggling with their bodies and families and life in general but they always came out on top. No one else seemed to be reading them, well not in my tiny English town, so they were just mine. People weren’t shouting about the rude pages all over school is what I’m saying. I’d never been on a scavenger hunt or to summer camp and my parents weren’t divorcing and I didn’t have a pistachio problem like the characters in Paula Danziger's book did but I did have my own weird shit going on. Namely my devotion to a girl currently auditioning for a part in sleeping beauty when I knew full well she would always want to play the prince. When she was awake we would read each other Roald Dahl's twisted tales and drink hot chocolate then it was bedtime again. I guess a lot of the time I felt like her suitor in an odd fairy tale which begs the question when was she near spindles and witches without me? Not fair. My sleeping beauty mostly read choose your own adventure books which is understandable when the only choices you’re making in life are what PJs to wear. You will be glad to know she was one of the lucky ones and made a full recovery. She now lives a full and active life in Sydney with her growing family. She still likes her sleep though. And likes to rib me for my bad reading choices. Bad meaning not Game of Thrones. I don’t tell her that I would happily read them or anything if I could just sit beside her again now for a while, slow the world down, watch her sleep, that would be creepy.