As a kid wandering the Plaza – we’re talking pre-mall years – I’d run into Santa handing out candy canes to other children – "other" being the operative word. Being the son of the Candy Shop Maven did not, in my world, preclude me from being given a candy cane by Santa. Plaza-Santa apparently did. Sensitive, bright and abundantly precocious, I experienced this prejudiced exclusion as a direct personal attack. Being denied a candy cane, excluded from the world of myth and legend, by Santa no less, seeded deep distrust of the establishment and authority.
Precocious yes, indulged no. In my house in the early 60’s, nothing was limitless. You ate what was put on the table. No complaints. Rules of behaviour and manners however, were not rationed. Learning the rules made Mother happy. Making Mother happy at Christmas was the pièce de ré·sis·tance to a peaceful kingdom. A successful Christmas required magic, beauty, tradition and much, much sweat equity. This magical Christmas of Mother’s Dreams would come to mean, “Start in September.”
Recreating Christmas years of yore, fondly spent on my Grandfather’s farm in the ‘40’s and 50’s, was pretty much a done deal, with food and games for extended family. An extended family who came to our house every Christmas for 25 years. Wonderful! … Christmas bliss! For them. As a child, then teen, bearing responsibility greater than due, created life patterns next to impossible to break. Especially in a society addicted to Heroes and Saviours.
Christmas 1942 is not the same as Christmas 1962, 72 or 82. Higher standards of living issued decade by decade, wreaked havoc with simple heart felt Holiday entertaining. Cousin Charlotte’s 1960 Decorator appointed ranch bungalow complete with professional Florist Christmas to match – think pink & white – became the Christmas standard forever more. Christmas country meals, games and laughter, simple fun and joy, received a Decorator background in which to live.
Mother’s oohs, ahhs and endless cooing of admiration directed toward Cousin Charlotte, her pink and white Christmas and magical atmosphere of hot off the press mini-lights, made their indelible mark on my eight year-old psyche - right alongside Plaza-Santa’s candy cane denial.
1963 and good intentions full steam ahead, Christmas hosting began on rocky ground. I witnessed my siblings, Brenda ten years old and Cheryl 8 years old, self-doubt, second guess, and sink like a rudderless boat as they attempted to follow Mother’s instructions for Christmas preparations. Chaos reigned supreme. One step became three with two do-overs, each sister questioning the other into confusion and bad judgment. Mistakes abounded, a scene desperately in need of my Fairy wand, Fairy dust and all.
Anything needing rescuing, especially my sanity, I would rescue. Before I lost my mind at the thought of Mother displeased and generously sharing her upset, my keen attention to detail kicked into gear. If there would be any peace and good will – goddamn it – it was up to me to create it. I laid my personal Child-Christmas on the sacrificial altar and released my inner magician to produce “Perfect Christmas for Everyone!”
“And to all a good night” came at the cost of immense intuitive powers. Powers to deduce: “What would make Christmas the magical experience Mother wanted? The miracle she silently demanded?” That one – the miraculous one – including the background of comfort and atmosphere. The one produced by Cousin Charlotte in her ranch bungalow. Christmas perfection first witnessed at Cousin Charlotte’s, fully landed in my imagination. Imaginative, intuitive and precocious – a potent threesome.
The perfect Christmas Mother envisioned would come to include room-by-room Decorating - fresh decorating of paint, furniture and flooring. At best, just in time to embellish with Christmas décor. Year after year, decorating projects began with projected completion times aligned with Christmas hosting. Once completed, decorating projects became re-decorating projects. Sofas came and went.
Today’s media, peer pressure and hot real estate markets inundate our attention with the glories of home decorating. Not so in the 60’s and 70’s. Home decorating beyond insipid blandness, was viewed as elitist - revealing the battle waged under the surface between my father and mother. Mother’s search for improved status and higher social standing was pitted against Father’s “hardship-make-do” philosophy. None of this was easy. Joy did not emanate from the season of cheer and good will.
Year upon year of emotions wrapped in expectation foster a future of courageous unwrapping. Dare I mention a pivotal Christmas horror? Christmas at 15.
I summoned the courage to ask for an expensive sweater for Christmas. Easing my parents into the notion required skilled planning, maneuvers equal to war moves of 1812. Pitching the idea needed solid buy-in right off the bat. Having the aid of the store atmosphere and adroit sales help who knew not to press, the heavens opened. Agreement!! A deposit was made. Stores did that in 1969. Father would pick up the deluxe Ingo Sweater in time for Christmas, my fragile teen ego could hope! It would be saved!
Christmas morning came and the rush was on to open gifts then on to last minute preparations. All presents gone through and no gift box fitting the size of a Sweater-Saviour-In-Waiting. Something was amiss. My parents said nothing. In shock and disbelief, I mustered the courage to bring reality home. I queried.
The response? “Your father forgot to pick it up.” Par for the course. My father resented having to acknowledge my existence, so why would he spend money or extra time supporting my need to bolster teen-age angst? Self-esteem soothed by Sweater-Saviour? Rubbish. A Teenage Christmas horror producing an abiding reaction of recoil to future presents received. An odd prophecy. One new Christmas horror would supersede the last.
25 years of hosting Family Christmas, “The Same Years” exposed the relentless collective need for Same Same Same. Resist as my family did, Life did not listen. Family icons died, marriages ended and pets died. On Christmas Day in 1975 my Manchester Terrier “Buttons” died in my arms. Each event marked the march of time. Tradition’s importance deepened with each transition. Family resistance to change solidified into an immovable and relentless disdain by everyone remaining. Except me. Change came fast and furious in my life. A great deal of personal work, and we’ve become friends, change and I. To resist life’s changes is madness.
The odd years, years of one off Christmas celebrations, stand in magnificent relief to those early years of same same same same. Well, maybe not magnificent. Christmas has, at least, become unique unto itself. One time only Christmas have come to include:
- A very dull, rainy Christmas in Paris with “The French Canadian”
- Roy Thompson Hall LGBT Christmas eve service with my mother – details highly edited when relayed to Cousin Charlotte at Christmas Day Dinner.
Then came the one and only, Christmas 1994. Capping off an awful, horrible, terrible year. My Annus Horribilis. Beginning on rocky financial ground, death became a frequent visitor, I turned 40 and …. wait for it … two weeks before Christmas my ex declared he was seeing … a therapist. “I do not want the responsibility of a relationship” he said in his Quebecois accent. Radiating offense at having spent the past six years confined in the harrowing experience of keeping company with moi, our dog, two cats and a comfortable, tasteful Cabbagetown home.
Months later, as his therapy progressed, he recanted two objections to relationship imprisonment. With French Imperialism, he first decreed, sorry, recanted:
“This is the best home I’ve ever had” … A thought bubble over my head appeared: “No shit Sherlock”
A second decree followed: “I am now willing to share custody of the pets.” ... A 2nd thought bubble appeared: “Fuck you Charlie, and the horse you rode in on.”
Two years later, Christmas 1996 arrived – the Holiday Horror of Horrors. The Christmas of many phone disputes with Mother, attempting to communicate my absence at Cousin Charlotte’s Christmas Day Celebrations. I was too exhausted to endure Family Christmas in Kitchener. Living the previous 18 months as roommates with my ex was sufficiently stressful in itself. Add to that six recent months renovating my new tiny house and working a Saturday freelance job bringing beauty and order to a luxury furniture showroom. All while managing Department Store Christmas installation. Department Store Christmas begins in September I might add. Sound familiar?
I was adamant. “My new life will begin on Christmas Day. Alone with my furry kids.”
Singing in the Christmas Eve Choir at Roy Thompson Hall completed, I drove to Ontario St. for the final carload, MY dog, and two cats. Just before the stroke of midnight, for the last time, I locked the door of my ideal home with its now dead dreams.
My furry kids made no sound to announce Christmas morning. I slept until noon. A far cry from childhood awakenings in the middle of the night, shaken by dreams of sleeping through Christmas.
My mother prophesied correctly on our phone disputes. It was her last Christmas.
And I was not there.
It would be 2006 before my Self-resolve got a kick in the ass to end this Family Christmas Horror. Inspiration came from my sister Cheryl. She assumed phone harassment as her inheritance. “I am your older sister and I demand you – you must come to Christmas.” A deadly power play on her part.
In the past ten years I’ve joined family Christmas once. Christmas 2013 I took my own vegetarian meal and joined my immediate family and closest cousins at cousin Tracey’s home in Courtice. It’s just east of Oshawa for anyone wondering. In part I attended as an exploration – to test the waters. Would it be possible to seek and receive affirmation from this conservative, change resistant, small town lot? Especially the ones ensconced in Fundamental Christianity – cue sister Cheryl.
In light of my prolonged absence, obvious questions would be forthcoming … “How are you?” “What have you been up to?” Fortunately, family traits, yes extended family too, include discretion. To be queried on my weight loss was unlikely. Robust, even muscular was my usual state. Never before in my adult years had I weighed 145lb.
Specializing in not playing social nicey-nice, I would have to disclose truthfully. Or shut the questions down with an abrupt “Fine.” “Not much.” If anyone can shut down questioning ‘tis a lifelong gay man in his 60’s. Our formative years were steeped in just such responses. The words fall off our tongue like warm butter off a cold knife. Protection. And self-defense.
The nature of my exploration? … Is it safe? … Is it safe to disclose? To disclose my three month-old diagnosis. HIV. Of the many shattering moments in life, nothing compared to this.
Before me was a door to open and walk through. To speak my personal need to be heard, affirmed and reassured. Or sacrifice my truth, my need, in deference to the spirit of blind unity and shallow silence, pretending to be the Spirit of Love. Of peace. Not long into the visit I reached my decision. No Christmas disclosure. Not this Christmas. That door would remain closed.
In writing this tale, I recognize life’s repetition. Self sacrifice began this Christmas Horror Story fifty years earlier in 1963, when my nine year old self declared: “If there would be any peace and good will, goddamn it – it was up to me to create it.”
… Apparently vows have a long shelf life. Silence demands to be heard.
Perhaps it is this same vow now wisely choosing peace. Personal peace - gained through solitude. We now call this Self-care.
Nothing compares to staying in the City on Christmas Day, when it's cloaked in serenity and silence. The needy off on their travels, we are able to savour the City’s emptiness. Center our selves in solitude. No horror.
Providing my dog Shanti’s tumour surgery in two weeks goes well, and, if the weather is good, meaning above freezing and no snow … Shanti and I may TTC to the Beaches and commune with the rocks and water. We’ll come home, I’ll throw in a vegetarian pizza, maybe have a glass of wine should a bottle of cheer fall my way.
And count my blessings:
1) The blessing of living in a country providing Government Health Disability;
2) The blessing of Trillium Foundation paying $1500 month for meds;
3) The blessing of living in a Co-op with a Pet Fund agreeable to loaning the $2000 for Shanti’s surgery.
Personal workshops and health therapies will be reduced or eliminated for the next year and a half to repay the Vet fees. The remaining $880 a month disability income will be used judiciously … Sacrifice and I have a long relationship. Besides, Shanti is in need.
4) And the blessing of having found access to my NO.
“NO I will not be attending Family Christmas. Thank you.“
“NO I will not succumb to isolation, second class citizenship, ignorance, prejudice and stigma by any community, gay or straight.” Not again.
Perhaps I’ll watch Angels in America. Both three-hour parts. Drama safely behind a screen.
Full disclosure. No pretense. No judgement. No contests. No games. No judgment.
We will be safe. We’re family, Shanti and I. Heart to heart family.
Dennis Battler / Copyright.
Dennis wishes to dedficate this post to Van Day Treux, Bill Cunningham and Jeff Schmaltz.