When I was about nine, I got what would be the most awesome gift I would ever get from Santa before one of my parents confessed they had done double-duty roles as Tooth Fairy and Mr Claus all those years. I knew it was awesome because the wrapped box dwarfed my little brother and everything else under the tree, and its delivery into our home was preceded by whoo’s and wow’s from cousins and the household help.
Inside was a three-feet-tall Barbie in a wedding dress, Duty Free sticker on its plastic coffin, and what I didn’t know then was it would be my friend for the rest of grade school before an overactive imagination and the disintegration of its tulle-and-rayon wedding gown turned it into a demonic corpse bride that would forever be consigned to the top bunk of our maid’s room, under a pile of silverware, you know, just in case it tries to get up and kill us all.
I guess now that I think about it, getting presents from a bearded, obese old man who keeps tabs on little children is kind of creepy.
|Mine had clothes and legs, but nonetheless was as freaky. Photo from here.|
Anyway, Christmases used to be simple like that, existing only to satisfy some material craving but primarily to spend an extensive amount of time with your family in a kind of loving, merry, impossibly harmonious stasis because nobody is allowed to piss all over the holidays with their depression and negativity.
As I grew older and went through a series of Catholic schools, I started to get keenly aware of the concept of collective guilt over humanity’s sins, recompensed by showing altruism (giving!), moral certitude (were you naughty or nice this year?) and gratitude for all your blessings.
I really loved it. The waking up to lazy, chilly afternoons bundled up in my mom’s comforters, sauntering up to the penthouse (or before we reconstructed our house, the garden) where a buffet would always be laid out (again thanks to mom’s catering and the family potluck rule) filled with mounds and mounds of home-cooked deliciousness, and just sitting around the sofas, talking to our guests and drinking Swiss Miss and playing Scrabble. Waking up at dawn and putting on your Sunday best to attend misa de gallo or gaining 25 pounds over two weeks, not so much.
It helps that my aunt and uncle run a Christmas-decor export business, so our home is always the most blinged-out one on the block (tourists will stop and take pictures outside). (See below)
But once I left home in 2010, and spent my first Christmas away from home in Muslim-majority Indonesia, the reality of the hard work it takes to plan and execute the whole shebang hit me hard. Over the last three years in expatriate-dom, people have begun to ask me, “What are your Christmas plans?” as if I’m supposed to have a plan. I usually don’t. And then I lament how Christmases past were actually always decided for me — and that I must have taken it for granted.
I am a little alarmed at the downward slide. For example, my Christmas trees have shrunk from the 17-foot glittering marvel (under which no less than 90 presents are laid for assorted family members, extended family members and the cousin’s maid’s sister-in-law’s son’s neighbor’s dog) to the one I have today, which is an ailing patio plant, 20 percent of the leaves still intact, which are strung with sparkly spider webs.
In place of holy mass (which, let’s face it, I only attended in the name of appeasing The Mom) and all the creature comforts that Christmas brings, I’ve had marathon drinking sessions (albeit with amazing people who become your surrogate family) or emotional implosions, the equivalent of what my colleague described as just staying home “wanking and crying.”
I think the worst moment was realizing on Christmas morning 2011 that I was standing in a dark club in Cambodia, surrounded by prostitutes and grandfathers — an endearing demographic, I’m sure, but a poor substitute for loved ones. I really wanted to cry right then. And I’m sorry each year that it’s near impossible to come home.
The commercial aspect of Christmas is also a pain in the ass pocket where your wallet is, and the economic crunch of years past isn’t as delicious as it sounds. It’s as if you have to bribe Christmas spirit, and I wonder, what of the ones who can’t afford it? It’s a trade-off maids complain about when I listen to their conversations on the bus.
One of them says she misses her family terribly, but doesn’t want to go home at Christmastime, even if her employer is one of the rare ones who allows it, because she knows she’ll be pressured by hordes of extended family, as an overseas worker, to hand out cash she can’t really part with because her salary, while a fortune compared to back home, can’t sustain her in Hong Kong.
And that Marxist analysis of Christmas — that it is a holiday set up by the capitalist class to give the workers a rest so that they will be well-rested enough for the next year’s exploitation — starts to ring truer and truer every year.
I suppose what you do when you’re low on funds, on cheer, on people who love you, or the energy to bother celebrating when there’s nothing left to celebrate, is to make do, because apparently normal adults who believe in Christmas should celebrate Christmas so as not feel like a social aberration.
The bare minimum I expect from my holiday in 2012, like in the previous four years, is a nice meal, a video conference with my parents and brothers (stifling the wailing in my soul as they describe all the fun they’re having) and some alcohol to clutch to my chest and to which I can whisper “I love you.” It doesn’t compare to the warm glow of meeting three-feet-tall Barbie when I was young and innocent, but at least, thanks to my ill-fated doll, by now I’m used to finding a little comfort in lifeless things.