Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas in the hideout

Christmas has always been a complicated holiday for me. For one thing, I suspect my childhood Christmases were more overtly religious than many people’s, in the way that only Christmas in a Sunday School teacher’s household can be. (Christmas Eve services were not optional.) I was always pretty much okay with that, though, and I didn’t usually insist that everyone else I knew celebrate Christmas precisely as I did—I felt that was only fair, considering that I didn’t celebrate Christmas exactly the way they did.

More troublingly, Christmas in my family was almost always, to some extent, about death. My family had lost several beloved members around November and December over the years, for various reasons, and their ghosts tended to come visiting when the holidays rolled around. I saw them in the shadows in the grownups’ eyes, whenever certain names were mentioned … or avoided. I hadn’t known most of these casualties of winter myself—they had died before I was born, or before I was old enough to remember them. But at least one of them had looked enough like me that I used to get our old school photos mixed up—we had the same haircut one year, and the same shirt, and almost the same eyeglasses. It was a complete accident, but an eerie one. So I was a ghost, too, in my way, whenever someone called me by the wrong name.

As an adult, I like the symmetry of that—of taking a holiday that is, at least in concept, about a birth, and making it a little bit about death, too. As a kid, though, it just made the holiday season weird and slightly ghoulish, and I always felt I had to be freakishly cheerful lest I set someone off crying. I was not a naturally cheerful kid; I even refused to smile for photographs for about five years straight. So some of my most cherished Christmas memories are of the times I spent alone—hunting through used bookstores to avoid the crowds in the mall, playing in a deserted park while the rest of the neighborhood gathered indoors to drink eggnog and sing tidings of comfort and joy. They had their Christmases, and I had mine—darker, more bittersweet, but somehow more authentic, too, more in the spirit of a frightened teenager giving birth in a barn in a strange town where no one could spare her so much as a bed.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that most masks would have a Christmas a bit like that. Trevor, for example, is an orphan—twice over, if you count both his parents dying in a car wreck and his mentor vanishing in a pool of blood. Rae, too, is haunted by someone she lost, and I suspect she feels it a little more keenly when the world starts playing Jingle Bells. Throw in the fact that superheroes pretty much always seem to spend the holiday working—I have lost count of the number of comic-book stories about the spandex crowd fighting to save Christmas from supervillains or evil elves—and you’ve got a recipe for a less-than-jolly holiday.

But the thing about these—shall we call them dark Christmases?—is that there’s always a little light in there, too. For every awkward, ghostly moment when someone called me by a name that wasn’t mine, there was the fact that my paternal grandmother did genuinely love me to bits and had her birthday on the day after Christmas, so it was impossible to be too dour as long as you remembered to get her something for each holiday. (She was very particular about that, but not too picky about exactly what you got her and very forgiving if you forgot entirely.) For every family squabble that sent me ducking out the back door and through the streets to the park, there was a cozy “hooky day” with friends where we watched stupid movies and drank hot chocolate and laughed at how dysfunctional our families were.

So I suspect Rae and Trevor would spend their Christmas together. Rae’s parents would be out of town, as usual (her father’s work really picks up around the holidays), and Trevor is an orphan the whole year ‘round, so I imagine them gathering blankets and pillows from all over the hideout and piling them into a nest in the corner, deploying space heaters (a concrete hideout built into a storm drain gets COLD in the winter rainy season), and curling up together to stay warm. Maybe they’ll watch a movie on Trevor’s crazy Frankenstein laptop. Maybe they’ll drink hot chocolate. Maybe they’ll see a few ghosts. Probably they’ll laugh a lot, to keep the dark away. And that’ll be Christmas.

Best Christmas ever, if you ask me.

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