Reading: How The Grinch Returned My Christmas

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How The Grinch Returned My Christmas

Bad memories and crass commercialism made her hate the holidays. Until a stranger asked her to knit a stocking

By Spike Gillespie

Baby in Christmas stocking
The stocking that changed her mind

Christmas in America is like the desert sun.

Regarding the latter, you can take as many measures as you’d like — from slathering on SPF 500 sunscreen to having a beach umbrella surgically implanted in your skull — but ultimately the heat and light will suck you dry. Regarding the former, in my experience, no matter what techniques one employs one can never fully outrun or block out what I count as the single greatest, most reliable annual nightmare in our culture. So well known am I among my friends for my holiday loathing that often their December rituals include checking in on my mental state.

Tis the Season to be Dreary

I have my reasons for loathing the season. The main one is this — Christmas, without fail, triggers my PTSD, a condition I suffer courtesy of a wildly abusive childhood. The everyday tension my eight siblings and I endured living with a mentally ill parent at the helm ramped-up every Thanksgiving. My father’s state worsened as he began his slide into what I now know (and also experience) as seasonal affective disorder. Invariably, by Christmas Eve he was explosive.

The emotional fallout of a childhood riddled with Christmas torture means that every year, no matter how old I am, an unstoppable gloom descends upon me, beginning in late November and reaching a crescendo on December 25th. Often, I lock myself away and cry.

Compounding my distress are unbidden recollections of how my pain and my attitude ruined more than a few Christmases for others. Chief among my unintended victims is my son, a man now, who, I am sad to say, had to endure my yearly breakdowns as surely as I had to endure my father’s. When he was little, I’d try to just skip the whole thing, rationalizing that we were neither religious nor did I wish to lie to him about that fake entity, Santa, too often trotted out to coerce children into “being good.” But then, feeling guilty for depriving him of what his peers had, sometimes I’d make a mad last-minute dash to try to give him some semblance of Christmas — drugstore trinkets hastily strewn beneath a saggy little tree — these sorry efforts never enough to mask my depression.

As the decades wore on, I endeavored with genuine effort to ease my December discomfort. I discovered that traveling to foreign countries where I did not speak the language and where the holiday is less blatantly commercial worked relatively well. Many years, I ran away to nearby Mexico. Once, I was lucky enough to spend Christmas in Paris with my then-boyfriend, an Israeli. Being Jewish, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the holiday or trying to get me to enjoy it. We partook of his cultural tradition of getting Chinese takeout. So relieved was I to be so far away from the over-the-top celebrations back home, I didn’t even recoil when some dude dressed up as Père Noël hugged me at the Eiffel Tower.

When I couldn’t get away, I’d fall back into my cranky ways. A few years ago, wildly affronted by a nativity scene on display at the State Capitol in Austin, I convinced some friends to join me in protest against this clash of church and state. A musician friend agreed to lead us in song. We assembled only to discover the crèche had vanished. Turns out it was the day the Capitol was closing down for the holidays and they’d put the decorations away. Undeterred, I scooped a poinsettia from the trash, placed it where the manger had been, and declared this our symbol against which to rally. We sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I took comfort in our solidarity but also noted the irony: Passersby surely mistook us for Christmas-loving carolers.

A Stranger’s Strange Request

Last year, I stumbled upon my best solution to date. The foundation for this fix was laid several summers ago, during a broiling Texas July, when I received a Facebook message from a woman I’d never met in person. She was dying of cancer, and chemo left her too sick to knit. Her third grandchild was about to arrive. Would I, whom she knew to be an avid knitter, make a Christmas stocking for that baby, one to match the stockings she had made for his siblings? My desire to help overrode the initial recoil I felt at the prospect of taking on this holiday-themed project. I completed my task shortly before she died. A few months later, on Christmas Eve, her daughter-in-law sent me a picture of the newborn snug in that stocking. I wept.

But I did not, thank you very much, allow this to turn me into a believer ready to give Scrooge a run for his money in the attitude change department. As noted, I have entirely too much baggage to ever go that far. Still, it was the spirit of that project that spurred me to undertake another knitting-related cure last Christmas. I spent the day at a recovery center for low-income addicts, giving knitting lessons to anyone interested.

Weeks before the big, dreaded day, I’d mentioned on Facebook my intent to do this. My fellow knitters were so stoked that they donated mountains of supplies. My friend Denise made beautiful project bags to distribute. I knew I seemed like the selfless heroine of the day for “giving up” my holiday to help newly sober addicts. But that was not my goal. The act was far more selfish than selfless and, as in a tear-inducing Lifetime Network movie, you better believe I received far more than I gave that Christmas day.

How grateful I was for a distraction from all the holiday hubbub going on outside the walls of that center. By the time I was done teaching, the day was nearly over. Such sweet relief.

Perhaps the only thing I find as annoying as boisterous tales of Christmas joy are stories with Grinchian underpinnings, accounts in which people such as myself are at long last convinced to embrace the festivities. Let the record reflect this: I will never, ever, ever buy into Christmas. But I can say with deep gratitude that I now understand deeply the best way for me to deal is to find some way to serve others, to get outside of my own head. My gift to them also serving as my gift to me.

  1. Elena Rivera

    Loved this story! I couldn’t stop reading until the end. So raw. So real. And, believe it or not, actually uplifting. Whereas I don’t suffer from this syndrome, I do tend to get depressed as the holidays approach and it seems to get worse as I get older. Perhaps that woman asking you to knit a Christmas stocking for her grandchild was not a mere coincidence. Perhaps it was the Universe helping you find a way to change your experience of the holidays, albeit without converting you. A gift can take so many forms, but the best are those that come from our true selves, as you have done with your knitting.

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