“The Best Christmas Movies for People Who Hate Christmas,” “10 Holiday Movies for People Who Hate Holiday Movies,” “Christmas Movies for People Who Hate Traditional Holiday Films,” “10 Movies on Netflix for Anyone Who Hates Christmas,” “13 Holiday Movies You’ll Enjoy Even if You’re Cynical AF,” I mean, the list goes on, and this is all just in relation to movies. Type into Google “I hate C …,” and one of the first suggestions that pops up is “Christmas.” I get it. The holidays sort of encourage the dislike. Late fall/early winter is probably the only time when the terminally/chronically ill, the victimized, the lonely, the hungry, the homeless – all who are not #blessed – are able to experience a vague species of normalcy, when people are nice to one another just because and volunteer their time for similar reasons, which only ends up becoming a reminder that the other 10 months of the year are brutal. I understand. A long time ago, I was one these folks. I still never really stopped enjoying what the holidays have always represented to me: sharing, togetherness, and, perhaps most importantly, an extended, slow-burning break from day-to-day drudgery. It’s a perfect excuse to do and say nice things without feeling self-serving and to just celebrate being nice. And for people like me, who somehow manage to conveniently lose the proverbial “Christmas spirit” come Spring Break, starting fresh on January 1 is here. I’d lost loved ones before. I’d lost loved ones around the holidays – my family and I buried my 61-year-old father 25 years ago this past Christmas Eve – but I’ve never been so emotionally crippled by the season than I am now. It’s not the pain that has me down, the constant reminders that my otherwise healthy older brother took his life a little over a year ago. For me, it’s the joy that’s unbearable.
I love Christmas. Privately. Sort of. I am 48 years old, a stereotypically lefty writer, cynical to the core, and I haven’t been to church in years. I pray but mostly out of the fear alone that my wondrous, kind, smart 8-year-old son is going to be kicked out of second grade because he can’t keep his hands to himself and won’t sit still or that he’s going to be attacked by his bully. When my wife and I adopted Apollo (birthname: Kweku) from West Africa as a terribly ill orphaned infant, we knew the darkness he had experienced had imprinted itself on his DNA. Sometimes the darkness wins. “Please, Jesus, watch over everyone who’s homeless or hungry and please watch over our sweet Apollo. Guide him, help him to make good decisions, give him the strength to regulate his emotions, and, most importantly, keep him safe.” That’s what I mutter to myself every morning driving back home or to work after dropping him off at elementary school for the day. That and one “Our Father” and precisely 10 “Hail Mary”s. I also solicit watchfulness from the spirit of my father, a generationally hewn racist who died long before our African son was born but who also, I imagine, would have grown to love him, and now the spirit of my brother Adam, who loved Apollo openly and truly. And while I have been to church on Christmas Day as an adult, it’s been years, and it doesn’t look like that streak’s going to be ending soon. My congenital cynical leftiness won’t allow it.
My wife is another Christmas lover, so we are good together for decorating the house every Thanksgiving and listening to Christmas music and watching Christmas movies nonstop. N-O-N-S-T-O-P. The other night, the three of us queued up The Christmas Chronicles. Starring a burly, heavily gray-bearded Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the Netflix original from last year is family-friendly but softly edgy in a Lifetime-movie kind of way – the wayward teenage son, still deeply scarred by the loss of his firefighting father on duty just a couple of years earlier, is stealing cars for recreation. I can’t explain why at least five times during the flick I had to excuse myself to go blow my nose and dry my eyes.
I’m a sucker for schmaltz, and it doesn’t get any schmaltzier than Christmas movies and music. Now the joy – however propped up, however ersatz –– only reminds me of all the goodness in the world that my brother willfully turned his back on, and that’s a form of pain that I just can’t handle yet, if I ever will be able to. A closeted Christian, I’m also left wondering, “OK, but where was this all-powerful, all-loving god when my brother needed him most?” That also haunts me.
I hate to feel I’m having something I love taken away from me, when there’s not much I love or even ask for. A couple of beers after work, some reading time, and watching my favorite teams on TV occasionally make for the extent of my worldly pleasures. Being able to celebrate the joy, togetherness, and sharing that comes with the season –– either by being with family, volunteering, or just remembering to be less cynical and jerky –– keeps me going year-round. I know my wife and son appreciate my less cynical, less jerky disposition come this time of year. If just for them, I need to keep schmaltzing my schmaltzy schmaltz.
Naturally, I feel I have to apologize for my devotion to what is at its heart a Christian holiday. The “liberal media” (of which, I suppose, I am a member) and the cultural intelligentsia will tell me this is the perfect time for me to grow up. They hate Christmas anyway. To them, it’s just avarice unbound, and that doesn’t even include Santa Claus, whom they see as nothing but a sinister device to keep mediocre-or-worse parents from having to do any actual parenting. As handy as Santa may be in our household for reminding the little dude that every action has a consequence, my wife and I never exploit the jolly elf. To us, Santa is just this great, magical spirit who believes that every good little boy and girl deserves a reward for listening to their parents and not talking back throughout the year and who, yeah, breaks into your house while you’re sleeping every December 24. We don’t care. We want Apollo to continue believing in the magic for as long as possible. There’s only so much mystery and wonder left in his childhood, in every childhood. I want the little fella to enjoy every ounce of it.
I guess most of my friends and coworkers probably get a kick out of their buddy Anthony, the Christmas-loving idiot, but by the time December rolls around, I am completely exhausted with being cynical and jerky and actually want to chill and be more understanding, more empathetic. All day long I carry around in my heart the image of Albert Finney as the titular character in Leslie Bricusse’s 1970 movie musical Scrooge when he is confronted by the toy store owner after buying nearly ever doll, game, and cricket bat on the shelves to hand out to the town children.
“Mr. Scrooge,” the shopkeeper asks, his face slack, his eyes bulging. “What has happened?”
“Well,” Scrooge says. “It’s very simple, Pringle. I’ve discovered that I like life.”
I miss Scrooge. And all my other movies. The only thing I can watch without tearing up is A Christmas Story, which is problematic because it’s the only movie in our library that we can’t watch with our son – it’s way too violent and the themes too adult-oriented. I’ve tried a couple of times to watch my faves. More than a couple. Just the other night, after Apollo had gone to bed, my wife and I put in It’s a Wonderful Life, whose ending I couldn’t even handle before my brother’s suicide and that I know I definitely can’t bear now. I can make it as far as when Mr. Gower starts hugging and kissing young George after slapping his ears back before I start crying. That’s approximately 10 minutes into the film. It all brings me back to the few weeks following Adam’s death, when dozens of family members and friends expressed their sympathy to me. Some of their notes were so beautiful, they crushed me. Indeed, the thought has occurred to me that maybe I am broken. For good.
I’m not a very good Christian, if I can even be called that. Along with looking for spiritual help for my son every day, I also pray because I grew up praying. I was raised Roman Catholic and had a happy childhood with lots of happy Christmases. I remember lots of get-togethers with tons of loving faces, lots of family time in the warm embrace of home, and lots of presents. I wanted for next to nothing. A knockoff Les Paul with effects built in from Sears? Sure. An Atari 2600 three years after they came out? No problem. Whatever I did to deserve such bounty, I’ll never know. While I wasn’t necessarily a problem –– I did my homework most of the time and loved sports to the point of religiosity –– I was certainly no angel. Remember those chronically missing Miller Ponys from the fridge, Dad? Yeah, that was your youngest child and his buddies in eighth grade.
Prayer brings me back to that metaphorical place where my parents and three siblings are all together and getting along, the Soviets are floundering, and my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers are winning every Super Bowl. Though church is still a nonstarter, I still love the thought of a god – a listening god, a forgiving god, a saving god – whose mere love alone can make all the hurt go away. I love the god in the old churchy hymns most of all, especially the Christmas ones.
The good news, for me at least, is that self-preservation has started to kick in. I don’t cry every day anymore out of pure sadness. I also have stopped carrying around a photo of Adam everywhere I go. My wife bought me a large picture frame strung with wires and clips for my three best photos of him to hang. That’s where my favorite one is now. There’s also a printout of it hanging on my computer at work. I say, “Hey, bro” and “Later, Adam” to it every day. It’s the photo that we chose to enlarge and display at his memorial service back home in Pittsburgh last October. I bet my friends thought I had lost my mind when they first saw me outside the church. I wasn’t presenting myself as someone who had just suddenly and tragically lost his best friend. I was smiling and talking casually. It wasn’t until near the end of my eulogy that friends and family members might have realized that I had been faking it. The whole point was for me to be able to make it through the eulogy without collapsing into a mound of tears and snot on the altar. For Adam’s sake. Because that’s what he would have wanted – his strong-willed younger brother being a leader. I credit 30 milligrams of Buspar and the thought of a cold Bud Light afterward with carrying me through to the end.
The Buspar doesn’t appear to be helping now. Or is it? Maybe I would be crying at the mere suggestion of Santa Kurt if not for the medicine. For months after Adam’s death, I avoided talking to my old friends from home. I texted with them when they checked in on me, but I wouldn’t talk. I didn’t want to lose my shit in front of them. I was too proud to be seen, or heard, breaking down in public. Again. The first time was last year while I was waiting in the drive-thru at the pharmacy. I was listening to one of the two local radio stations playing Christmas music nonstop through December 25 because of course I was. The Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” medley had come on, and it was right at the part that has been getting me – when Sarah sings “Hallelujah, hallelujah” – when I had to roll down the window to say, “Pick up. Mariani, Anthony.” Thankfully, there was a pair of sunglasses in my console that I was able to throw on at the last minute to keep the clerk from seeing my bloodshot, tear-filled eyes.
I always thought the song was beautiful but had never cried to it until last Christmas. Now I’ve cried to it four times after it hearing it precisely four times since then. I have been in the car by myself each time. If it comes on when I’m with my family, I will simply change the station. Of all people, my son can’t see me crying. It’s not that he’ll think I’m weak, though maybe that’s how kids’ brains work. It’s that he may take on my sorrow, and for a special boy like him, he needs all of the positivity and hope he can get and that my wife and I can muster.
He’s a sweet soul, our son. With no prodding from anyone last year before Adam’s memorial, he made me a sympathy card. On green construction paper, Apollo wrote in blue marker, “I’m sorry Adam died. I hope you feel better soon, Dad. I love you, Dad.”
This poor young kid is worried that his father is going to be sad forever.
I’m sort of worried, too.
I’m already prone to serious bouts of sobbing. It’s just different this time. This time, in a weird, strange, powerful way, is new. This time I’ve been rattled, and I’m thinking that maybe it’s because my brother and I are so similar, two white middle-class, middle-aged males. The biggest difference is that I’m still married. Adam’s downhill slide really accelerated during and after his divorce. And don’t think that I don’t know that I’m a few mistakes away from being in the same rueful position as he was. I’m more than aware of how precarious marriage is, especially with a little one in the middle. There’s no real telling what tore Adam and his ex-wife apart. For my wife and me, I know that if it’s anything, it will be one of two things or both: my cynical, jerky demeanor and/or our parenting philosophies. My wife and I appear to be on two different planets. She’s on Earth, and I’m not just saying that to remain in her good graces. I know that she’s the alpha. It’s as if she was born with 100 years’ worth of parenting knowledge in her brain. But as she is down here on terra firma kicking ass, I am on Uranus. I’m very seat-of-my-pants. If I’m not going to worry about something in five years – a little high fructose corn syrup isn’t going to kill him; he’s only kidding when he rolls his eyes at us and moans, “I knooow” – then I’m not going to worry about it now. That’s sort of the way I go through life. And look at how great I turned out! *takes swig of Miller Pony from under desk*
Enduring Christmas, now and in the future, is definitely something I’m going to be worried about for a long time. I’m sort of chaffed now just realizing that I have to write “enduring Christmas” when it’s my favorite time of year. Maybe holding onto it is what Adam would have wanted me to do. He was a good brother. I know he wouldn’t have wanted any of his loved ones to lose a deep part of themselves over him. As long as A Christmas Story is the only movie we watch, I think I’ll be fine.