When Christmas Doesn’t Feel the Same

by Elyse Toribio

I never believed in Santa. Seeing my dad or uncle march into the living room on Christmas Eve wearing a baggy Santa Claus costume and a garbage bag stuffed with wrapped gifts was all the proof I needed to know that the holiday was absolute magic.

We’re a Christmas Eve family, always have been. My mom and her three sisters lived near each other, so they took turns hosting every year. Like at any decent Hispanic party, the adults would blast music, drink and yell “Wepa!” while the kids did their own thing — mainly, sugaring up as much as humanly possible and plotting ways to convince our tipsy parents that yes, it was midnight and could we pleaaaase start opening gifts already?

Eventually they’d relent and we’d all gather on the floor near the tree. One of the older kids or a parent would be the announcer, grabbing a gift from the stack and calling out the name of the recipient. After each name was called we’d whoop and holler and applaud, and the person would get up to claim their present, hugging the gift giver in thanks. In my grown up mind, I like to think this tradition made us more grateful for each other and our hard-working parents, not some bald white dude.

But back then, it was really only a means to get to our toys faster. We couldn’t imagine how friends we knew and kids we saw on TV went to bed early on Christmas Eve and waited all night long to see what they’d scored. In the wee hours of the morning, we’d all pass out and the next day everyone would find their way home, then gather again later for sancocho or a similarly huge meal.

In 2001 everything changed.

By December I’d decided it had been the worst year in my young life. My grandfather died that February, and six months later my aunt and uncle took their four kids and moved to Florida, downsizing our close-knit group by half. In September I started the sixth grade and as the pudgy new kid I didn’t think things could get worse. A few days later, it did. I had nightmares for months that I didn’t tell anyone about, and I blamed no one in particular for how much things had changed, but I was angry nonetheless.

My relatives came up from Florida for Christmas that year, but it wasn’t the same anymore. It felt like a put-on. We were getting older and nowhere near as excited to open the gifts as we used to be. We missed my grandfather. At some point during the night my cousin and I got into a nasty fight, scratching at each other and yelling obscenities I didn’t even know I knew. We were separated and I was made to write a letter of apology. It was your standard “sorry not sorry” piece, and so we spent the rest of the night in a pissy funk.

That was the last Christmas we all spent together, as far as I can remember. In the years since, those of us who still live in the area try to keep up with our quirky traditions. We still open gifts on Christmas Eve, but no one sticks around until the wee hours celebrating. Once everything has been handed out, someone starts collecting all the wrapping paper in a big garbage bag, and the moms go to the kitchen to pack leftovers and we all start saying our goodbyes.

But even without the losses and the moves and all the other garbage problems swirling about, would anything really have stayed the same? I can’t imagine us surly teens caring so much about presents, and I can’t picture everyone’s schedules and budgets allowing for such a celebration.

Except sometimes I do imagine it. And it really does still seem magical.

Elyse Toribio is a writer in New Jersey still coming to terms with having lived there longer than in her native New York. Her browser history is a graveyard of online shopping carts that were never checked out, and when she’s feeling particularly riled up, she tweets at @elysetoribio

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