For most of the last 20 years I’ve been lucky enough to have the job flexibility (and enough paid-time-off) to take a few long weekends before Christmas and some time off around the holiday itself. The last several years I’ve taken all of the Fridays after Thanksgiving plus the week of Christmas (and usually through New Year’s Day). Now, one of the reasons I do that is because there are always extra tasks to do at this time of year: presents to acquire for those I love; shipping of some of those presents to far away places; food shopping for the get-togethers with friends; decorations to put up; any extra cleaning or repairs around the house that we realize need to happen because we are trying to put up decorations; et cetera. Not to mention that I write a Christmas Ghost Story every year. And then there are family obligations.
For reasons spelled out in some previous blog posts, we’ve been avoiding spending the actual holiday with my relatives. Which means that I pick a day off shortly before the holiday to drive down to my Mom’s house, drop off presents, visit with her, take her to dinner, and stop in briefly to see other family members that live in the same town. Then I come back home to my husband the same day, and we have the actual holiday just to ourselves.
So, even though technically I have been on vacation for several days, I haven’t had a single day that feels like a vacation. The first day I had to do final grocery shopping for the party, wrap presents, drop off Christmas stuff with a friend who was leaving town, do some of the cooking, and finish the ghost story. The next day we both had to finish cleaning the house, cook everything for the party, host the party (including my performance of the ghost story). And then do some of the cleaning before going to bed. The next day I needed to do more cleaning, turn some of the leftovers into soup for us to eat, watch my favorite football team lose a game they should have won handily, and wrap all the presents I’m taking to family. Then the next day I have to get up, pack the car, drive a couple hours down the freeway, do all the errands down there, drive a couple hours back.
And then it will be Christmas Eve. And at a minimum, there will be some cooking for us (and I’ll likely have to run to the store for something). And then on Christmas Day there will at a minimum be more cooking.
Please note: none of the above is meant to be a complaint or venting. These are all things I am choosing to do because I want to spend time with people that I love and so on. But, I have had more than one friend or acquaintance who has heard that I’m on vacation ping me to find out if we could do some fun activity on one of the aforementioned busy days. All four of them have been perfectly understanding of the fact that I’m all booked up for those days, so I am also not complaining about them.
What I am complaining about are the dang brain weasels in my own head that start trying to make me feel guilty and admit I am a total failure because I don’t have time for unplanned things for a few days.
And those weasels usually manifest as either the voice of my late nice grandmother or the voice of my late evil grandmother, each in their own way twisting the screws of guilt to the maximum.
I had a blast at the party. It is wonderful to see these friends, some of whom I have known and loved and been celebrating with for 34 years. I love seeing people enjoy food I have made. I love even more getting to eat wonderful things those friends bring to the party. I love chatting with and hearing those friends. I love the various performances some of them bring to answer the Ghost Story Challenge. I love seeing friend unwrap presents and express delight at their gifts.
I know there are going to be many fun moments while I’m doing my one-day zoom through with family. I know I will enjoy hanging out with my husband on Christmas Eve and whatever we decide to do that night (likely watch some Christmas movies). I know I will enjoy whatever I find in my stocking from Santa on Christmas morning. I will have fun as my husband and I open the presents from under the tree. I will enjoy whatever meals we make on those day.
All of this busyness isn’t without purpose or meaning. But sometimes at least some slices of my brain gets whiney about it. And I know I’m not the only one.
And yes, there will be some more busy days. I skipped our usual laundry day because we were prepping for the party, so one one of these coming vacation days there will be a reckoning for that. There will be more cleaning. There will be attempts to meet up with some of the friends we haven’t gotten to hang out with. There will be at least one trip to a movie theatre.
But there will also be at least a few mornings where I get to sleep in and be lazy for part of the day. I just don’t know exactly which ones, yet.
Some years ago I found myself in a weird conversation, trying to explain what it was about a certain kind of holiday movie that my Mom loves—she records dozens of them off of certain cable channels and likes to re-watch them. They make my skin crawl, and when I was trying to explain why, the friend kept pointing to a lot of Christmas movies I love that, to them, induced the same sort of eye-rolling they experienced when I described the ones I don’t like.
There were a couple of reasons for the communication mismatch, but I’ve since realized that the biggest one was that I hadn’t correctly identified what was fundamentally common to all these movies that bugged me: most of them are built around some variation of the premise that the only place where people who truly love and understand you is the community in which you grew up.
And for a whole lot of us—especially queer people—that is the absolute opposite of truth.
The real truth is that, here in the big city far away from any of the small towns I grew up in, I am far less likely to have a stranger react with obvious disgust if I introduce my husband as my husband—let alone have them immediately correct me that Michael is my friend. But that’s the reaction I often get not from strangers, but from people who claim to be friends back home.
So, I want to be clear: I have a lot of fond memories of my childhood. There are many people I knew back that that I genuinely loved and admired at the time, and many for which I still feel fondness. But for too many of them it is at best a bittersweet fondness. Because when a person who formed a big part of my life refuses to accept that the person I love and have committed my life to is my spouse—when they claim to still love me yett disapprove of the person I love (not because of who he is, but because of his gender), when they vote for politicians who want to take away what legal rights I have, when they openly talk about how legalizing my relationship is going to result in hellfire raining down on the land—it’s more than a little difficult to believe in their love.
I love my mother. I love my sister. I love my aunts and many other relatives. But I also know that to varying degrees they don’t support my right to live my life openly as a queer person. When I visit the small town where many of them live—the place where I graduated from high school and attended the first part of college—I feel on edge and defensive. And it’s not me being paranoid. From the anti-gay bumperstickers to the casual political comments, it is very clear that some of them only tolerate my presence so long as they don’t realize what I am.
For many of us, our families of origin remain what we might generously call a demilitarized zone—a place where a kind of cease-fire is enforced, though a cold war continues, and unmarked minefields abound.
So that’s why certain holiday movies and songs don’t quite resonate with me the way they do to some. The towns where I grew up aren’t where I’m most likely to find the sunshine of a friendly face. Our blood relatives are not where the light of unconditional love gleams.
So for many of us, the home sweet home is the place we went to when we escaped those communities. The people with whom we are happy in a million ways are the friends and found family we have assembled since growing up and leaving behind the narrow-minded denizens of our communities of origin.
I can get as sentimental and schmaltzy as can be about the family I have found and built since learning to be my true self and live openly. And that might induce eye-rolling for some, but it is not, by any means, something that makes one’s skin crawl.
As a gay kid growing up in a very conservative and uptight denomination, I understand why a lot of people dislike Christmas music. I understand that what some people hear when those songs play is, “You must conform to this belief system that has oppressed you, or else!” Seriously, some sacred music provokes memories of very bad experiences for me, too, so I get it.
My particular idiosyncrasy is that traditional religious Christmas songs just don’t register that way for me. I can sing “O, Come All Ye Faithful” in more than one language (my Latin’s a bit rusty, but…). I love singing along to “Angels We Have Heard on High” because when I do it bring back memories the many Christmas concerts where I either sang it or played in the orchestra. In my head, I’m singing the tenor, and bass, and alto part (and wishing I could still hit all the notes for the soprano), as well as playing the trumpet and baritone horn parts.
So, while I understand intellectually that those particular Christmas songs are sacred hymns, to me they’re just part of the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” extravaganza. Yes, “O, Holy Night” brings tears to my eyes, but is the wonder I used to experience every night when I lived in tiny towns in the Central Rocky Mountains, where we could walk outside, look up, and see the entire Milky Way, not being washed out by the lights of a city. Which is the same sense of wonder I used to get when I was a very small child laying on the floor in our living room with the Christmas tree lights providing most of the light in the room. It’s why sometimes during this time of the year, my husband will come out of the computer room and find me sitting in the darkened living room, staring at the Christmas tree.I think part of the reason is because music was a part of the holiday season for as long as I can remember. Every year Mom would pick up at least one or two new Christmas albums. For a good part of the 1960s every November would signal the arrival of such albums at gas stations and other place that you wouldn’t expect. You could get a whole vinyl album full of song recorded by various people (some names quite famous, others not) for practically nothing when you filled up your gas tank, or made some other purchase. Those made up a rather large part of our collection.
Dad mostly tolerated the music. The only album that I know he actually liked was Elvis’ Christmas Album, because Dad was a bit Elvis fan.
Anyway, while we sang some of the sacred Christmas hymns in church, and some of those Christmas concerts I performed in over the years were at churches or with religious groups, I spent a whole lot more time singing and listening to Christmas music at home. Where “Up on the House Top” or “Sleigh Ride” or “Silver Bells” or “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth” or “Snoopy’s Christmas” or “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas” was just as likely to come up as any of the religious songs.
My current iTunes library contains 13.9gigabytes of Christmas music. That’s 2,657 songs which would take about 5¼ days of continuous playing to get through the lot. Which I know is totally bonkers. And the fact that there are Christmas albums still on my wish list that I haven’t acquired, yet, is even more mind-boggling for some.
Then there are albums that aren’t actually on my wishlist, but I wouldn’t mind adding to the collection if I could. I was reminded of some of this this weekend when Mom texted me about find a box of cassette tapes of Christmas music, including some that are kind of my fault. Twenty-two years ago (the first Christmas after Ray died) I spent several days visiting Mom for Christmas, but because Mom was still working in retail at the time, that meant for several of those days I was hanging out at her place by myself.
It just so happened that she had recently found in the back of a closet a box full of old vinyl Christmas albums, including a bunch that—so far as I can tell—have never been re-issued on CD or digital. I went out and bought a bunch of cassette tapes and spent one day recording all my favorites onto cassette. I made two copies of each—one for me and one for Mom (because she liked to listen to music in her car). After I showed her the first day’s work, she asked me to transfer several more.
I wish I could say that, when I had the chance a few years later, I transferred those recordings to compact disc. I’m not sure why I didn’t. But I’m glad to know that Mom still has hers (though I suspect the quality may have degraded a bit by now, and I have no idea the quality of the player she’s listening to them on).
I’m not obsessed with finding those old odd albums. I just wouldn’t mind if I happened to find one had been issued at least once in a more modern format. Just because listening to an old recording that you used to hear often is kind of like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years, and sharing stories and laughs about things you did together a long time ago.
It’s another sense of wonder, like looking at a twinkling Christmas tree in the dark and remembering the bright starlit skies of yore.
For several years while blogging on LiveJournal I would post a survey asking about food people were making for Thanksgiving dinner. Half the fun in these polls were the conversations that would happen in the comments about the differences in what we thought of as traditional holiday foods. The first few Thanksgivings after this became my primary blog I constructed similar polls… but no one responded (there were occasionally be a couple of comments, but not many votes). So it hasn’t seemed worth it to construct a poll here.
I do think talking about the foods we loved as kids can be a great way to share memories and get to know each other better. But sometimes I have to remember that not everyone has great memories of holidays spent with family. And even some of us who do cherish a lot of those memories have a lot of bad memories associated with the holidays.
Because my dad insisted that, if at all possible, we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents, that meant that for most of the Thanksgivings and Christmases I experienced before the age of 15 he was on his best behavior. It was like being in a magical zone where bad things couldn’t happen to you. He would transform into the Good Son™ his mother expected, and therefore none of us got slapped, beaten, or yelled at. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother was a different sort of abuser, tending toward emotional manipulation and gaslighting. So it wasn’t that the holidays were perfect.
And then, when one is queer and closetted, whether family members are abusive or not, the holidays are an opportunity to be reminded that one is different. I preferred to hang out in the kitchen and help with the cooking, for instance—but if certain extended family members were there I would be scolded for not playing with my male cousins or at least hanging out with the adult men watching football. One particular a-hole uncle loved pointing out every one of my behaviors that he saw as being a sissy, for instance.
And then there are the questions about whether I had a girlfriend. Which got worse once puberty hit. Because no matter what your answer was, there were always those self-assured declarations, “Just you wait! When you meet the right girl…” and so forth.
And then there were the political conversations. In a sense, I’m sort of thankful that gay rights didn’t start being in the news with any regularity until my twenties.
What got me thinking about all of this was this amazingly horrible story: Junior’s Contest: Ruin Thanksgiving To Own The Libs. That’s right, Donald Trump, Jr, is daring his followers to intentionally goad your liberal relatives into having an argument. And of course all the trump voters are sharing it as if this is a great new idea.
I have a few responses to this:
First, once again we must thank the Republicans for demonstrating that they firmly belief hatred is a family value. While arguing at the holidays is a tradition in lots of families, it isn’t a good tradition. Taking delight in ruining to day of someone you claim to love? On a holiday that Republicans insist is a religious holiday, to boot. Way to show how will you understand the teachings of Jesus, guys.
Second, conservative relatives, in both my experience and according to a few studies on the matter, have never been shy about spouting off their controversial/racist/homophobic beliefs especially at holiday dinners. They don’t need any encouragement in that matter.
Third, those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum already have a lot of practice at biting our tongues and avoiding arguments at the holidays. See my second point. Now, it has been argued that disasters like the election of Trump might have been avoided if more of us had confronted our racist relatives more often at previous holidays, but I have my serious doubts in this reasoning. At least in my personal experience, arguing at family gatherings has never changed anyone’s mind. It was the one-on-one conversations outside the group situation that has been more successful.
Fourth, the libs in most families are far more likely to bite our tongues and roll our eyes with stuff we disagree with come up. The meltdowns are almost always from the racist uncle going off on an angry rant because of some fairly innocuous thing someone says.
It’s true that the last few years I’ve just been avoiding the awkward/angry conversations by simply not spending time with the trump-voting relatives at Thanksgiving, and limiting my Christmas visit to a day before the actual holiday. There is something about the gathering together that seems to bring out both the dysfunctional behavior and the need to assert their xenophobic-dominionist-racist-homophobic opinions. It took 23 years after I came out of the closet for some of the family members to stop saying some of those homophobic things to my face. Once again this year I don’t get to eat Mom’s Mistake Salad for Thanksgiving, but my husband and I are doing just fine with our pear and ginger pie, turkey, savory sweet potatoes (like Great-grandma S.J. used to make), green bean casserole, scalloped corn, and my Insane Relish Tray. And the downside for them—I’ll probably get comments as I have the last few years from several of the extended family because the variety and quantity of olives and pickled things on their relish trays never match what I used to bring down every year.
I much prefer our Peaceful Queer Thanksgiving to anyone else’s HaHa Trigger the Libs Holidays.
I used to work for a man who was born on Columbus Day. He said that what he loved most about it was that where he went to school it was a day off, so he and his friends always got to go to the movies or something similar on his birthday. That was one reason that when he founded his own company as an adult that one of the benefits offered was that each employee got their own birthday as a holiday.
I wasn’t significantly younger than he was, but I don’t remember any of the school districts I lived in ever closing school for Columbus Day. Instead, at least during elementary school, it was a day that we would be given lessons that were extremely white-washed about the man who supposedly discovered America—a continent with tens of millions of inhabitants with rich cultures (and often knowing a whole lot more about agriculture the that later European invaders). But Columbus wasn’t even the first person from Europe to land on the shores of the new world!
Native American museum director: Columbus was far from the first to discover America – Scores of cities and a growing number of states are renaming Columbus Day to honor the history and cultures of America’s indigenous peoples.
Maybe since my former boss grew up in New England while my childhood was in Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, and the Pacific Northwest is why his school was closed on Columbus Day and none of mine were. The state-centric history classes I took in Middle School and High School spent a lot more time teaching us other myths about the colonization of the U.S. I learned, for instance, about a “massacre” which had occured in 1878 less than 100 miles from the town where I was born, but not about that fact that first a federal agent had ordered men to plow a bunch of the native american’s prime pasture land, and when they protested, it was the U.S. soldiers who fired on the Native Americans first. It was called a massacre for years because, even though more of the Natives were killed than whites, it was a very small number of those whites who lived to surrender.
Less than a year later a significantly larger army contingent marched all of the Natives at gun point out of the green and fertile region with many rivers and forced them to settle in a desolate desert area where there was virtually no water sources at all.
Funny how those details seldom made it into the textbooks.
I understand why people are reluctant to rename the holiday. It was unsettling when I learned how much I had been being taught was a lie. It is unsettling to realize that the town where I was born, and the surrounding fields and woods and nearby riverbank that I enjoyed exploring and goofing off in when we moved back when I was in Middle School was among the land stolen in that historical event mentioned about. It is unsettling to realize my entire country is built on land that was stolen from peoples that we killed, drove out, intentionally exposed to diseases, whose children we stole, whose culture we mocked and outlawed and then appropriated.
It is not a pleasant set of facts to embrace.
The neat story about brave pioneers settling an “empty” frontier is a much more romantic and uplifting idea than the very messy, bloody, and immoral truth.
I have one other reason why I believe that Columbus Day should be renamed.
Columbus was wrong.
I don’t just refer to the evil things he did to the people he found living in the so-called New World, I mean that not once, even until his dying day, did he ever belief that he had found any land previously unknown to his contemporaries in Italy or Spain. Columbus insisted until the last moment of his life that the islands he had discovered where the Indies, islands off the coast of India. Because of trade routes such as the Silk Road, Europe had been in contact with east Asia including China, India, and so forth for generations before Columbus’ time. He didn’t belief he had discovered continents previously unknown to Europe, he thought he had found a shorter route to lands they already knew about.
So, in addition to being a thief, con man, and mass murderer, Christopher Columbus was an idiot who refused to accept the evidence that was brought forth by many of his contemporaries that the lands he was invading were not India and islands off its coast. For that reason alone, no one with a lick of integrity should be willing to support a holiday honoring the discovery that he denied until his dying breath.
We need to change the name of the holiday. Sooner, rather than later. We’ve started, let’s keep it up: More localities drop Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
I’m sure it seems weird to some people that a queer man who describes himself as an ex-Christian would observe the Feast of Epiphany. But I’m not really observing it so much as using it as a cultural milestone. Many years I take down all the decorations on New Year’s Day. Some years, some of them stay up longer (usually because I’m busy or sick or otherwise swamped). I just always try to draw the absolute last line at Three Kings’ Day.
This is also the last day I let myself listen to Christmas music.
“Is it just me or is the reason that Earth Kitt’s original version of ‘Santa Baby’ is better than all the rest (other than the fact that Eartha Kitt is inimitable) the fact that Eartha was actually singing to a sugar daddy that was was playfully calling ‘Santa’ and was dead serious about all the thing she was asking for (…and Micahel Buble was really trying to sing to Santa).”
“Wait. Do people genuinely think that Santa Baby is about Santa??? I’ve known that it was about a sugar daddy since I was like 11.”
“Michael Buble doesn’t know what a sugar daddy is and that’s the flaw that will finally kill him.”
“Bold of OP (original poster) to assume Eartha Kitt had not, in fact, landed Santa Claus as her sugar daddy.”
I had planned to keep a streak of posting every day through my vacation, and I had several other topics I meant to write about today. But I reached the point last night with this cold where I can’t think very clearly, and naps keep attacking me, but I’m not sleeping well since last evening because I keep having coughing fits that wake me up.
While transferring some content from my various Tumblrs to other platforms, I’ve also been scrolling through to see what remains there, and this particular post really cracked me up last night.
At a fairly early age I understood that Eartha was singing to her sugar daddy, but I also was absolutely certain that the real Santa was, indeed, the her boyfriend who came with financial benefits.
As I got older, I realized that it was a little… odd, that some of the same people (in church and so forth) who railed on about the crumbling morals of the nation and so forth, also thought that this was a funny song.
Eartha Kitt – Santa Baby:
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I don’t need to justify why I think a particular song is a Christmas song. As a matter of fact, you can’t justify such a thing, because we aren’t really talking about thinking here, but rather feeling. And no matter how much logic you pile up, that doesn’t change the way another person feels.
Just as an example: the exact same logical case that certain other people are making that a specific song isn’t a Christmas song applies to “Jingle Bells.” Seriously. “Jingle Bells” doesn’t mention the manger, nor the angels, nor the shepherds. Absolutely nothing in the lyrics at all about the arrival of Jesus, so not a religious Christmas song, clearly. There is also no mention of Christmas, nor a Christmas tree, nor holly, no mistletoe, not even chestnuts roasting on a fire. Yes, it mentions snow, and a sleigh is mentioned a lot of times, and then there’s all those jingling bells. But first, it’s a one horse open sleigh, not a reindeer drawn sleigh. Snow doesn’t just happen at Christmas. Bells were put on sleighs and carriages and the horses that pulled them at night and particularly in winter time as a precaution to avoid collisions in dark intersections.
In fact, the original author of the song back in 1822, wrote it as a party song. We’re so used to children singing the song that we don’t notice how racy the song is. A couple being out in a one horse sleigh meant no chaperone, after all, and that means all sorts of naughty things could occur. The word jingle, by the way, is meant to be a verb, not an adjective. Jingle those bells, because you’re driving fast! And there’s also some innuendo that.
And then there’s that line “He got into a drifted bank And then we got upsot.” Most people assume it’s away to make “upset” as in overturned or fallen over, to rhyme with lot. Not so fast! The word appears in a number of 18th and 19th Century songs, where it does seem to refer to something fallen over and such, but not just fallen, but in fallen in a drunken manner. Yes, other uses of the word seem to be referring to a more stumbling and raucous situation amplified by the liberal application of alcohol.
So not only isn’t “Jingle Bells” not a Christmas song, it’s not a wholesome children’s song either.
Except, of course, that for most of its history, Christmas hasn’t been a wholesome children’s holiday either. There are reasons the puritans banned the celebration of Christmas entirely in the old Massachusetts colony, and not because Christmas trees were pagan symbols. In point of fact the decorated evergreen tree wasn’t associated with Christmas in English-speaking countries at the time of the Puritans. But untangling the tree’s origin is way more complicated than I want to be here.
But, everybody knows that “Jingle Bells” is a Christmas song. And I think a case could be made that other Christmas songs mention sleigh rides and jingling bells at least as much because the modern celebration of Christmas appropriated “Jingle Bells” in the 1860s as the fact that those things are associated with winter.
I’m a Christmas music addict. And yes, there are some Christmas songs that I absolutely hate. I have walked out of people’s houses when certain songs come up. So I understand that someone can have strong negative feelings about a song or a movie. Let me like my songs and movies, and I’ll let you like yours.
And if you happen to stop by my place, I will offer you some eggnog. With the rum and brandy if you like, or without. Let’s just all have a cheery, jingly, non-judgmental holiday!
Khruangbin – Christmas Time Is Here:
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Big Freedia – Make It Jingle:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
My childhood Christmas memories are divided into several sections. There were about six years where Christmas consisted of Dad, Mom, my sister, and I cramming into either the four-wheel-drive pickup (because the roads would be icy at some point of the journey) either early morning Christmas Eve or sometimes at the end of Dad’s work-shift, and drive hundreds of miles from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal Grandparents’ house. My maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma) and one set of great-grandparents on that side happened to live in the same small town as my paternal grandparents (aka Grandpa and Evil Grandma), so we would get to see them at least briefly during the trip, but it was always clear that we were there to spend Christmas with Evil Grandma, and everyone else was secondary.
I was aware, during this time, that Mom’s side of the family liked to get together on Christmas Eve, and again for Christmas dinner the next afternoon, but Christmas morning was generally for each family unit at home. Because we often were arriving at Evil Grandma’s house late in the evening, I very seldom got to attend the other family Christmas Eve.
Then there was a period of three Christmases in a row where we lived just an hour’s drive from Evil Grandma, which meant getting to see everyone for a bit longer at the holiday. That is, until Nice Grandma re-married my Mom’s adoptive father, and she moved out to Washington state to live with him.
Then there were three Christmases we lived in the same small town as my paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents (and only a couple hours drive from a bunch of other relatives). The tradition then became that we would spent a chunk of Christmas Eve with my Great-grandparents, then Christmas morning and Christmas dinner at Evil Grandma’s.
Then after my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved up to the same town in Washington state where Grandpa and Nice Grandma lived, and that first Christmas Eve was a revelation. When Grandma lived in Colorado, Christmas Eve involved my Great-grandparents and a few of Grandma’s friends, because there weren’t many of her non-in-law relatives there. In Washington, there were Grandpa’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, my Mom’s six half-brothers (and for some of them wives and children), plus a bewildering number of cousins, demi-cousins, shirt-tail relatives of many other sorts, plus the people that Nice Grandma always seemed to adopt.
Not every single one of that vast constellation of Grandma’s “folks” made it every year, but a lot of them managed to drop in for at least a little bit. As my Aunt Theresa (who was the ex-wife of one of my Mom’s brothers) was fond of saying, “You never knew who you would see at Gert’s Christmas Eve!”
Aunt Theresa was a great example. She had only been married to my Uncle Randy for three years. They divorced when I was about 14 years old. Theresa and Grandma had got along really well from the first time they met, so she was the one who came to Grandma the tell her thag she was divorcing Randy. Theresa told the story later that, “Gert looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You can divorce my son, if that’s what you have to do, but you are not divorcing me! You’re part of my family forever, you understand?’”
And for the next 30-some years of Grandma’s life, Aunt Theresa came by frequently to visit, check on Grandma, and keep her up-to-date on the well-being of Theresa’s relatives—because Grandma still considered them all in-laws.
Two: I only got to see another one of my Mom’s half-brothers at a couple of those Christmas Eves, once I was living nearby and able to attend. Uncle Brad never quite got his life together. He spent a lot of time in jail. He was never convicted of anything serious—I think the longest sentence he ever got was six months—but, between being addicted to a couple of illegal substances, and having to sell said substances to support himself at times, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. So sometimes Uncle Brad missed Christmas Eve because he was in jail, and sometimes because he was in some other trouble.
And then he got sick. Everytime Grandma called him, he said he hadn’t been coming to visit because he was sick again, and figured he was contagious with whichever illness he thought he had.
Christmas Eve 1982 was the first time we had seen him in months, and he looked awful. Of Mom’s brothers, Brad had been the shortest, and he had never been what anyone would call fat, but that night, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grandma thought that he was using more serious drugs, and confronted him a few times. He insisted that he wasn’t, that he’d just kept catching things that he couldn’t seem to shake.
Then one day a few months later, Aunt Theresa showed up at Grandma’s and said, “I have some very bad news. Have you heard of this new disease they call AIDS? Well, Brad has it. He thinks he got in it one of the times he was in jail…”
My Uncle Brad wasn’t a really early case, but when he was diagnosed in early 1983 it was only months after the Center for Disease Control gave the illness that name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Uncle Brad didn’t live to see Christmas Eve of 1983.
My Uncle Brad was hardly the only person that I knew that would be taken by AIDS. I’ve written before of the winter when so many friends and acquaintances of Ray and I died in the same six-week period that we couldn’t attend some of the memorial services because they were happening at the same time.
The disease didn’t get its name until September of 1982, but it had been recognized as an epidemic that ought to be taken seriously since 1981. Unfortunately, no one in either party on the national level was willing to even talk about it, let alone allocate funds to the CDC and other agencies to address it properly. The very first politician at a national level to call for the government to address the crisis was a woman from California who was elected to Congress in a special election in June of 1987 to fill a seat that was vacated with the previous Congresswoman died due to cancer.
That new Congresswoman, after being sworn in, was allowed to make a short introductory address to Congress as was traditional. Usually these comments are a brief thank you to family and supporters. And the new Congresswoman did that, but she ended her remarks with this statement that surprised her colleagues, “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”
The Congresswoman was Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi became a tireless campaigner on the issue, bucking both her own party’s leadership, as well as taking on the Reagan administration’s (and subsequent Bush admin’s) bigoted opposition. During those early years, reporters and others kept asking how could she, as a Catholic, support what was perceived as a gay cause. Her answer was simple and consistent: “We are all God’s children, and that includes gay people.”
While people think of her as part of the establishment and middle-of-the-road, that is a gross mischaracterization. Not just then, but now. So in case it isn’t clear: I frequently describe myself as being far more liberal and progressive (radically so on many topics) than the Democratic Party, but this is one queer man who considers Minority Leader Pelosi’s current trajectory to become Speaker of the House as a big Christmas present to the forces of justice, mercy, and compassion.
Third: My Nice Grandma didn’t always live up to my idealized vision of her. Because of how negatively she (and other relatives) reacted to my coming out of the closet in 1991, I had to boycott all family events for six years. Not just Christmas Eve: everything. If my husband wasn’t welcome as my husband, then I wasn’t. It was years later that I would first read Dan Savage’s version of the same epiphany I’d had which led to the boycott: “The only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.” Because of the many times over a couple of months I had been told by multiple relatives that I was going to hell and deserved it, that sure I could live my life as I chose but any time I was in there home… I had had to tell them I would not visit them, ever, but if they liked they could come visit me. Though, any time they were in my home…
(Those ellipses can imply so much, no?)
After six years, it was Grandma who reached out shortly before my birthday in 1997 and asked if she and my step-grandpa could drive Mom (who doesn’t do freeways) to see me on my birthday. I said of course. It was awkward for about an hour, but the ice finally melted, and the next thing we know they were inviting us to come down to a picnic and the meet my sister’s new daughter (my sister and her now-fifth-ex-husband were coming for a visit), and suddenly they started treating Ray like a person, instead of a symbol of whatever their feelings about my queerness were.
The change in attitude (including apologies) was topped off by a request that we come visit for Christmas, where, yes, Ray was welcome, and none of the weird conditions previously alluded to were expected.
I really wish I could end this by talking about Ray’s first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. The problem was, Ray was very sick (he did not, by the way, have AIDS; that picnic had been a bit difficult for us to juggle because Ray’s second round of chemotherapy was underway, but we managed). In November he had a seizure, went into a coma for several days, and then died.
Michael’s first Christmas Eve with Grandma happened in 1999. It wasn’t the first time he and Grandma met. That had been at a different trip, where I decided it would be better not to have the first meeting tied to a major holiday. We had been on our way to Mom’s (she lived an hour south of Grandma back then), and we stopped in for what was supposed to be a short visit (just in case). Michael had hardly spoken a couple of sentences when Grandma gave him a look and asked, “Is that a Missouri accent I hear?”
Soon the two of them were talking about all these places in Missouri and Oklahoma where Michael had grown up, and where coincidentally Grandma had lived for a number of years. You want to talk about coincidences? The hospital listed on Michael’s birth certificate, is the same hospital listed on Mom’s birth certificate.
Anyway, they just kept talking. At one point, my step-grandpa leaned over and said quietly to me, “If you wanna get a burger or something, I think the two of us could slip out and they wouldn’t even notice.”
I was very happy. Grandma liked Michael. That meant if anyone else in the family didn’t, well, they have to keep it to themselves.
Despite the warm fuzzies of that encounter, all of the things I said yesterday about why we avoid the big family gathering apply. This Christmas Eve, it will just be Michael and I. We usually cook a sort of romantic dinner. I’ll watch some Christmas movies. We’ll probably stay up until midnight to say “Merry Christmas” and have a kiss under the mistletoe. But we have to get to bed soon after, because first thing in the morning, we always check our stockings to see what Santa brought.