Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire. . .In Hell
by Rebecca A Wrigley
For the first time in five years of successful holiday avoidance on my part, I gathered with the rest of my slightly irregular family at the home of our recently deceased Patriarch--my mother's father. It's a quaint little clapboard house packed to the gills with chatchkis crap. Apparently Grandpa had a compulsive knick-knack shopping habit in his last few years. Somehow, I'm glad I wasn't around to experience that new development first hand. Grandma's addiction to painting pictures of squirrels and yard gnomes was, I thought, more than enough colorful wackiness.
Either Christmas Eve at Grandpa's house was meant to be a fond remembrance of the long standing family tradition, or it didn't occur to anyone that we'd be celebrating Christmas Eve in a creepy shrine to my Grandparent's questionable taste. Even weirder--there were little yellow post-it notes with various family members names scrawled on them stuck to all the pictures, lamps, furniture, and appliances. Well, we gathered round the warm glow of the big-screen TV (post-it placed considerately without blocking the screen) to watch a heartwarming video recording of a Christmas Eve past in the same house--minus the labels and a whole lot of bad resin Golf and God themed mini-sculpture. As per tradition, Grandpa read the Nativity sequence from a family Bible so old it was mostly held together with spit and paper clips, while his youngest grandchild knelt beside him. Danny was actually pretty cute at the date of the taping, probably eight or nine years old, Tiny-Tim skinny with huge coke-bottle lens glasses. While Grandpa reads reverently, Danny performs what we like to think of as his "perpetual motion performance art"--it involves variously flailing the air with both hands and lolling his head side to side ala Stevie Wonder on speed. Danny was born with Hydrocephalus and Cerebral Palsy. The camera swerves abruptly with a cinema verité style reminiscent of Cops (and suddenly I'm expecting to see some half-dressed mullet head streak through the scene clutching a beer can and screaming incoherently; which would actually have pretty stiff competition for attention amongst my clan). We zoom queasily in on Grandma's sweet expression as she blinks at the camera and then back to the floor show, all the while smiling vaguely as if to say, "I don't have the slightest idea what's going on and I think I like it that way." A shuddering pan past Grandpa and flailing child widens to reveal my oldest cousin Peter and myself in the foreground, both dressed in an apparent homage to the band Kansas, complete with large incongruous neckerchiefs, all of it nicely accessorized by the stiff expressions and posture of political prisoners attempting to stoically endure torture in vain reluctance to abandon that last shred of human dignity. If you're paying attention, as we blur past my Uncle's game grin, you can catch the ever present faint glimmer of, "They're my family, and I love them, but please let this be over soon, Dear Lord," in his eyes. In what has to be the longest and most ill-advised one-shot in Television history, the camera pauses once again to bob in the erratic fashion of a drug-addict's POV, framing--yes it's another recently deceased Grandfather. This was our wacky pseudo-French Grandpa Pete, who could always be counted on to behave like the demented love-child of Pepe Le Pew and Bette Middler. Whatever he said was loud and just this side of inappropriate and he was always saying something. In fact that's what he's doing in this shot, discoursing loudly over the venerable recitation of the birth of the Christ child and the gentle strains of an Ave Maria recording. Beside him, my long suffering aunt (his daughter-in-law) seems to twitch with the desire to strangle the man into silence but restrains herself to shooting deadly glances. At last my Grandfather finishes his reading as gracefully as it began (mostly because he can't hear much and is completely oblivious to anything else that may have occurred since he opened the Bible). The camera swoops back to catch little Danny as his tribal gyrations climax in a huge flapping of arms, page-boy haircut flaring dramatically in exponentially faster head turns, and he shrieks, "PRESENTS!"
Now, jump-cut to the present Christmas Eve, as my adopted sister--legally blind, developmentally disabled with Cerebral Palsy which wreaks havoc on her coordination and balance, hugely overweight due to a number of completely valid factors that nonetheless render her somewhat Kong-like amongst a family of smallish short fat people such as we--abruptly rears up from her seat in the darkened labeled living room. Lit only by the dim flicker of Christmas Eve Past, she lurches to the back of the room, hands slapping randomly at furniture and shoulders as she attempts to build speed on her path to the hall-way. And say a brief prayer with me as we thank Jesus and the Saints that this is a small one story house and fully carpeted. Grandma has just begun blinking and smiling from the television screen when a door thuds loudly behind us, followed by the dull thwack of padded plastic on porcelain. As the shepherds are visited by a host of angels and the demure choir on the stereo glides through its devotion to the mother of Christ, we are treated to the real-time sounds of violent projectile vomiting--taking place in a bathroom not more than six feet away (I did say the house was small). This is the kind of regurgitation that is precede by gagging to rival the most protracted feline hairball experience and causes audible splashes in toilet water that last only slightly longer than the special effects geysers rigged for The Exorcist. Everyone left in the living room stares determinedly at the TV screen in polite silence (ironically even more politely silent than the videotaped Bible reading), until at last my mother explains in her new hard-of-hearing voice that everything's fine. My sister has recently been diagnosed with possible gall stones which make her throw-up like this after every meal. She's been doing this for at least two months, comes to dinner every night at the parent's house, eats a hearty meal, and then returns it before going home. Honestly I don't know why I wasn't expecting the Christmas Eve spew, since we had just eaten dinner before sitting down around the electric glow of video nostalgia. In hindsight, a tasteful warning announcement for the whole extended family might have been wise. But then that wouldn't be traditional, really, for our family it isn't a down-home holiday celebration unless it all skates narrowly between humor and horror.
Ya know, somehow, I feel all those John-Denver-Dolly-Parton-Charlie-Brown-Christmas specials left me unprepared for the very real weirdness that I seem to have been spawned from. I hope your holiday was slightly less eventful and really, mine could have been so much worse. See, they couldn’t find the truly awful Christmas Eve video from two years ago, where Grandpa Pete kept taking Polaroid pictures during the Bible reading, and a twenty-something Danny read part of the narrative while hissing distinctly audible demands for silence and awe to his mother who had crumpled into embarrassed sniggering with me at my all-time heaviest camera weight snorting and jiggling like a bowl full of jelly. This delightful bit of documentary-style holiday viewing was introduced last year at Christmas Dinner where it was played in a loop all evening long–they tell me it’s a new tradition.