Throwback Thursday: All I Want For Christmas Is What My Parents Got: The Myth of the Merry Middle Class

This piece originally ran on December 24, 2015. 

Lucy Van Pelt: I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.

Charlie Brown: What is it you want?

Lucy Van Pelt: Real estate.

— “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” 1965

If I’m being honest, the spirit of Christmas hits me just after Halloween. I’ll humbug at the ornaments and candy canes in the drugstore aisle, and scoff at the fir trees bound to their minivans, but secretly, I’m thrilled. Alone in my studio apartment the day after Thanksgiving, Bing Crosby is on repeat, the hot chocolate is on the stove, and my shopping cart at Anthropologie is full of $20 yeti ornaments. It only takes one look at my bank account for my holiday cheer to sour like an old carton of eggnog.

I don’t know how anybody in my generation celebrates the season without a mountain of credit card debt, or at least considerable buyer’s remorse. Christmas occurs at some maddening nexus between nostalgia and consumerism  —  the past and the future, coveting what you had and what you want to have. Sometimes what you want to have feels like the only way of having what you had. It’s hard to stay present, especially when everyone else seems to have endless cashflow to spend on mini bottle brush trees and woodland creature ornaments.

Growing up, Christmas was about getting stuff, of course, but I remember it as being more than that: carols around a piano, sneaking into the living room at four in the morning on Christmas Day to sit in awe of the Christmas tree. Indeed, it was quite a hunky-dory holiday for the MacDougall family, aside from my father cursing the tree stand and grumbling about the credit card bill. My mom did all the cooking and most of the shopping, inevitably burned the cranberry sauce, and fretted over having enough Coca-Colas for my grandmother’s visit. For my parents, the stress of the season seemed to overshadow much of the joy, until that blessed Christmas Eve when the noisy consumerism seemed to quiet, and my whole family gathered around a crackling fire to hear my father read A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Afterwards, my siblings and I dragged ourselves up the stairs and fell into a deep sleep. All was calm and bright, except for the creak of my parents’ footsteps as they carried armfuls of presents down the narrow attic staircase.

The older I get, the more absurd this tradition seems to me. It’s not a tradition so much as a habit: My parents spend their Christmas Eve unloading gifts because I haven’t bothered to help them. I am a 27-year-old asshole. I have let my parents bear the brunt of the work on Christmas just so I could preserve that childlike wonder that I know is already deadened inside me. My parents, God love them, never actually told me that Santa wasn’t real, and I feel that they are at least partially to blame for my naiveté-turned-selfishness. They told me Santa was a spirit, and like any spirits, he was as alive as long as I believed him to be. Leave it to hippie baby-boomers to make a simple thing like Santa so complicated.

The truly embarrassing thing is that I think a part of me  —  a very small, tiny nook in my heart  —  still wants to believe in Santa Claus. I want to believe that there is someone out there who will wave my debt away, eradicate climate change, and put coal into the stockings of my enemies. Santa Claus is whom I look to when the everyday tasks of adulthood feel too oppressive. I want him to give me what I want: an escape from my own responsibilities. I want a feeling, a simulacrum for the rosy Christmases of my past when I was ignorant of student loan debt and my parents’ mortality.

I can’t go back in time, so instead I am creating new traditions. My boyfriend and I got a tree together, which felt significant. I have never lived with a partner before this year, and decking out our tiny apartment with LED lights just seemed like the proper adult thing to do. We went to Ace Hardware, where a nice employee who smelled of pinesap took us up an elevator to the rooftop garden. It was warm, and the sun shone against dozens of stacked trees bound in kitchen twine like Christmas hams. We settled on a small fir that we could haul home ourselves. A group of twenty-somethings stopped us on the street and asked where we got it.

“Oh my God, that’s, like, so much cheaper than Whole Foods,” one said when we told her the price. I nodded, realizing the deep need in all of us to recreate Christmas in spite of our twenties, our minimalist studio apartments, our bank accounts. Young people still want the Christmases our parents designed, the ones as unreachable as the star on a tree.

In “Boomers Are Ready to Retire from Christmas Hubbub, But Their Kids Won’t Let Them,” Washington Post writer Jura Koncius discusses the latest damning trend attributed to millennials. While baby boomers prepare to downsize their possessions, including holiday decorations, their children still expect them to provide a Christmas wonderland. Even when parents offer to pass down some of their ornaments to their children, most kids refuse. More and more, seasonal swag is making its way to the donation bin. According to an eBay spokesman, there are around 1.3 million listings on eBay for used ornaments. Talks of a minimalist Christmas are met with incredulity from millennial children. We need our parents to continue doing the work.

Of course, the latest story on millennials can barely disguise its smug refusal to look at the bigger picture. Here’s a thought: Perhaps the reason our generation hesitates to accept our parents’ heirlooms is because we literally don’t have space for them. For those of us surviving on our own paychecks, our minimalism isn’t a conviction so much as it is a reality of being young and broke. No one I know has a basement or an attic in which to put their parents’ heirlooms for 11 months out of the year, because a basement or an attic would require a house, and, let’s be real, no one wants to enter that ticking time bomb of a market. We’ve already inherited our country’s debt — we’ll pass on the Tiffany ornaments.

When we got home from buying the tree, my boyfriend and I put on Phil Spector’s Christmas album and peeled tinsel. We didn’t have a tree topper, so we perched a plush Mickey Mouse toy on the tallest branch. Eventually, my boyfriend left for work, and it wasn’t long before my holiday high was replaced with seasonal depression. Suddenly, the tree looked sparse, and the tinsel looked, well, tacky. Don’t birds choke on nests of tinsel that end up in landfills? Wasn’t it just a little too warm to be tree shopping? The whir of the fan stirred the plastic silver strands on the branches. Even my cat regarded the tree with skepticism, sniffing it and then bristling the way cats do.

I tried to calm myself with a shopping spree at World Market (2 for $5 ornaments, how could I refuse?), and found myself leaving the congested store more anxious than relieved. Like my parents do every year, I had indulged my Christmas fantasies using my credit card, and subsequently felt shitty about it. And that’s when I knew that the legacy of Christmas was alive and well: I had inherited the debt of perfection. My parents had tried to make Christmas as magical as they could, year after year, distracting us from what they knew they could not prevent  —  joblessness, seasonal depression, melting glaciers  —  and I had only needed to experience the magic for 27 years before I realized the impossibility of recreating it. Santa wasn’t coming to haul my debt away. I was footing the bill.

On Christmas Eve, my whole family goes to the Johnsons’ house after church. Every year, the Johnsons host a traditional Swedish Christmas Eve party, with a glögg ceremony, a banquet of Swedish meatballs, ligonberry sauce, and lutefisk  —  a dried and salted whitefish enjoyed, or at least tolerated, by Nordic groups. Both Leah and Stu Johnson are academics, and during the glögg ceremony, guests gather around the kitchen for Stu’s lecture on the Pagan roots of Christmas and the history of St. Lucia. The lights are off, and at the end of the lesson, Stu throws a lit match into the glögg on the stove. A gorgeous blue flame ripples around the rim of the pot for a brief moment before disappearing, and the party erupts into cheers. Glögg, if you didn’t know, is mixture of fruit and spices, wine, port, and brandy  —  “the velvet hammer,” my dad calls it, for its ability to knock you out about two glasses in. By the time Leah sits at the piano to play carols, it’s a wonder any of us can stand. I sing next to my father so I can rest my head against his chest when he harmonizes. At the end of the night, my heart is filled with such gladness that I think I might float away.

But think about how much this party requires: esoteric food, expensive booze, a piano  —  hell, you need a Ph.D. to be able to conduct the glögg ceremony. The Johnsons live in a gorgeous neighborhood a few blocks from the university where Leah works. Their house is always beautifully lit and all their bathroom soaps smell like verbena. No one my age is anywhere close to a life like theirs, and perhaps never will be. When I told my boyfriend about my family’s Christmas Eve tradition, he laughed.

“What is this fantasy world?” he asked. I realized just how fantastical it sounded. What I was talking about sounded like a scene out of a 1950s sitcom, a Rockwellian dream. The only thing that was missing was the loyal fox terrier, howling the notes along with the carolers.

A few weeks ago, Stu broke his pelvis in a bike accident, and naturally, Christmas Eve at The Johnsons was canceled. I felt slightly devastated at the news, since Christmas Eve is about as close as I get to feeling good all holiday season. “We might as well go to a movie and order Chinese food,” I told my mom, invoking the Christmas tradition of all my Jewish friends. Christmas without the Johnsons, without the dream of the middle class, is no Christmas at all. The members of this class, all of my parents’ friends, seem to be in the hospital these days. Every year, when my mother goes through the recipient list of our family Christmas card, there seem to be fewer names, and more outdated addresses. My parents’ friends are getting sick, or in some cases, disappearing without a word. Sometimes the cards come back with an ominous message: Return to Sender: recipient not at this address. No one knows where they’ve gone.

The hardest traditions to uphold are the outdated ones. My grandmother, for instance, remembers a time when her family lit their Christmas tree with real candles. How they did this without lighting the whole house on fire is a mystery. There’s also St. Lucia, the Christian martyr, who illuminated dungeon hallways with a halo of candles around her head in order to feed imprisoned Romans. Maybe the hot wax on her scalp didn’t bother her. It seems that Christmas, for earlier generations, was charmed with indestructibility. There were no fires, no mass shootings, no debts that couldn’t be paid.

I don’t know what Christmas will look like for me 10 or 20 years from now, but every year, I get a little more accustomed to the fact that it will look different than the one I grew up with. I suspect that feeling disturbed is a part of everyone’s Christmas tradition — even baby boomers. We all long for the past, for this slippery idea of tradition and authenticity. We also long for the future, when we will be better, happier, even richer. We all want real candles on the tree. But the reality is that some traditions are better left behind, especially the depressing perfectionist ones. For me, I will continue to pine for that cozy spot in the present, knowing there won’t be anything like it again.

Caitlin MacDougall is a writer in D.C., and a frequent contributor to Hello Giggles. You can follow her on Twitter: @caitlinmacdougall1

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