Christmas Is Sacred: an excerpt from Corn-Fed: Cul-de-sacs, Keg Stands, and Coming of Age in the Midwest
Every holiday season, my younger brother Dusty tries to get the family to watch Christmas horror movies.
He knows this will reliably get my goat.
Few things are morally sacred in this world, but Santa Claus is one of them.
It is never OK to mix Yuletide with gore. (If I have to tell you this, you are what’s wrong with America.) Yet Dusty will always capitalize on our family’s indecisiveness to throw in his vote for campy violence.
“What should we watch?” I whined again last year.
“Black Christmas,” Dustin suggested (again), widening his eyes.
“CHRISTMAS IS NOT THE PLACE FOR HORROR,” I told him, again. I then began my monologue, which was punctuated with annoyed pauses:
“Christmas is for artificially scented pine candles and plastic Santas.”
“Christmas is for getting gifts for your dogs and posting at least a half-dozen videos on social media of them unwrapping organic Milk-Bones.”
“Christmas is for buying fresh chestnuts in November and throwing them away in January after you find them rotten in the fridge because you have no idea how to roast chestnuts.”
“Christmas is for getting drunk and sending ellipses-laden texts to your male coworkers.”
“Christmas is NOT FOR SLASHER FILMS.”
Secular Christmas is more than my favorite time of year, it is my favorite thing ever. If I had to choose between Christmas and world peace (or immortality, or unlimited puppies), Christmas would win every time. Many people, especially in urban areas, find it necessary to divorce themselves from the holiday season. The endless parties, pressure, and frantic shopping are just stressful and commercial—and frankly, not “cool.” I mean, yeah, OK. They are all of that. But they are also a time for flying fat men and magic reindeer! In addition, I grew up in a family full of people with anxiety disorders. Somehow, Christmas had the power to subdue all of our anxiety. For this reason, I continue to hold Christmas and its happy magic sacred. And anything sacred must have rituals.
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Christmas Eve, 8pm: Eat a big dinner. This was the splurge night of the year, which meant putting crab legs on the credit card. Mom hovered over the boiling pot of water, threatening the crab legs. “You better be good,” she warned them, “at that price.” In addition to crab legs, Dad required a pan-fried steak. Between the smoke from the steak and the steam from the crab legs, our house felt like a foggy moor next to an active volcano. Lack of proper ventilation also ensured that we spent at least a half-hour taking turns flapping a dish towel at the smoke alarm. We typically ate dinner in pajamas, due to the inevitable butter stain splatters across our chests and laps. It is the most glorious meal of the year.
11pm: Go to midnight church service smelling of shellfish. Christmas Eve was the one time church didn’t stress me out. I loved the hymns and candles. Toward the end of the service, a volunteer church family, sometimes ours, passed out small stick white candles with a flimsy cardboard tutu—a poor shield from wax drippings. (All the children in our church grew up with hot wax scars on our thumbs and forefingers. Never forget that religion is about suffering, kids.)
12:00am: Sit in freezing car while Mom dutifully said hi to all of her church friends. Wait impatiently and give a half-hearted wave to passing parishioners. The sooner we got home, the sooner there would be snacks and a fire and general pre-Santa excitement. Dad put on Christmas music as we waited for the old Buick Skylark to warm up, which felt like it took about the same amount of time that it took Emperor Hadrian to build his great wall. Our impatience finally burned out and Dusty and I would fall asleep before we got out of the church parking lot. Dad took turns carrying us into the house.
12:15am: Rally. Create elaborate tray of snacks for Santa, because he always leaves a nice note. Include a variety of cookies (yell at Mom if there aren’t enough different kinds, because that is just bullshit and a failure on her part as a mother) and carrots for the reindeer. Even after we found out that Santa was maaaybe Mom and Dad, I insisted on a tray of snacks just in case, and because I loved getting Santa’s notes the next morning. I asked Mom recently when she knew I found out the truth about Santa Claus. “The year you started putting out beer for him,” she replied.
1:00am: Pass out, drool on Dad as he carries us to bed. (Christmas was a great workout for Dad. Perhaps it’s all of those post-sweat endorphins that kept him in such a good mood.)
6:00am: Wake up, gleefully. Open door and tiptoe into the hallway. “IT’S TOO EAR-LY,” Mom called. The upstairs area of our house, where the bedrooms are, is at most 600 square feet for three bedrooms and a full bathroom. The walls between the bedrooms are about the width of a noodle. It is an intimate space.
6:02am: Crawl into Dusty’s bedroom to wake him up as silently as possible. Tiptoe downstairs together to look at presents. I remember each year I would feel a wave of disbelief that some of the packages wrapped in glossy reindeer paper could really be for ME.
6:03am – 7:00am: Sit with Dusty on one of our beds, staring at the ceiling, occasionally dozing off.
7:00am: Parents start to rustle. Run to the basement for stockings and wait FOREVERRR as Dad made coffee.
In addition to the traditional Christmas time frame as a child, there were a few other rigid Christmas rules. I still follow these in my own home.
- The tree must be real. What is the point of having a fake tree? At worst, an admissible tree can be stolen from the remnants of dry white pines at the Home Depot parking lot late night on Christmas Eve (as long as you can climb a fence and run fast). At best, I’ll fake a sick day and drag my husband all the way out to Wisconsin to cut down a fresh Concolor Fir.
- Tree-trimming requires a few ingredients. First, you must have decades of ugly ornaments, preferably handmade by nieces and nephews, as well as the naked demon ornament purchased from the back of a bodega in Mexico. If you don’t have your own collection, some of the best ornaments can be found in the alley the week after Christmas. Next, to properly trim a tree, you must imbibe. If I’m prepared, I make mulled wine from scratch. This is much easier than it sounds (about as complicated as packaged ramen), yet super impressive. Usually, I’m not prepared, so the backup bev is whatever liquor happens to be lying around, mixed in packaged hot chocolate. If neither is possible, I’ve relied on just tossing some nutmeg in a shot of bourbon. One year I tried to make Malört eggnog. I do not recommend.
- Everyone must have a stocking. In our house, each dog plus our foster turtle has a meager stocking (sometimes a literal sock). Stockings always had some of my favorite gifts: Dad threw in a few scratch-offs for everyone, and Mom always included a jar of pickles for Dusty and olives for me.
Christmas has always been a time for my family where things, for once, felt right with the world. There is such a thing as Christmas magic. It has the power to turn family dysfunction into carefree joy. My family was all I ever wanted at Christmastime. Together, we may not be able to accomplish:
-Putting together a VCR
-Taking a road trip without getting lost at least 47 times
-Staying awake for an entire day without napping
-Selecting a movie to watch without a two-hour debate
-Selecting a dinner restaurant without a door-slamming fight
But we do Christmas perfectly. It is beautiful and holy.
And that is why I will never, ever watch a Christmas horror movie.