By Peter Nichols
For me, as for many people, Christmas was always about the gift-giving. Unfortunately, I don’t mean the goodwill of the season kind, but the expectation of expensive presents variety that eventually descends into pure chaos. It became bad enough that by age forty-five I dreaded the annual trip to visit my family at the holidays.
Gift mania started innocently enough. As a divorced kid pulled between two houses, I loved the hubbub that came with the holidays. Extended family descended on my paternal grandparents’ 1920s Tudor-style abode in my classy but conservative hometown of Mission Hills, Kansas. I ran around the house in my tube-socked feet redoing decorations while Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” played on repeat. Ice clinking in the grownup’s cocktails, the ring of the doorbell, and endless last-minute shopping trips filled me with cheer.
The scraggly bush of a tree sat stuffed in a corner. Still wearing his suit, my grandfather muttered goddamn-its as he struggled with the stand. After bedtime, by the soft glow of the lights, I tiptoed in and counted the packages with my name.
Even my bossy brother Ben got caught up in the spirit. We called a temporary truce to sibling rivalry and worked on our lists as comrades. I’d asked for an Easy Bake Oven. He wanted model airplanes that he could blow up in the backyard. Our Grandmother carefully pinned our lists next to aunts’, uncles’ and cousins’. There was even one for the dogs.
The neighborhood transformed. I thrilled at the smell of snow in the night. One time we caroled, stopping at family friends for a drink by the fire. I was excited singing in the dark. Echoing the laughter of the adults, their boozy breath reassuring in the cold.
Over time I discovered I liked the planning better than the event. Easily overwrought as a teenager, I struggled with expectations. No matter what I got or gave out, I felt empty. The magic of the night before evaporated in the morning, often ending in tears.
Later, coming home from college, I endured my relatives and looked forward to going out. I jumped into my best friend’s car, his tires crunching in the snow as we escaped to the bar. The buzz that night was always the best.
In my twenties the holidays became about the hooch. I numbed myself with a daily dose of vodka, pot and pills. Thinking it was festive and convinced that I was charming, I stumbled through the brunches, parties and end-of-year blowouts growing messier by the day.
In 2001, on the way to visit a friend in Paris I “checked” my bags at the former Johnny Depp and Sean Penn-owned downtown hotspot Man Ray, skipped out on the bill, missed my train and spent a lost weekend wandering the city from bar to party. But no matter how preoccupied I was by nightlife, I always managed to check the lists, mail cards and shop – even if it meant bouncing checks and eating pizza for weeks.
To my family’s relief I quit drinking in my thirties. I became clearheaded and capable. I worked hard and showed up doing my best to make up for the tantrums, missed dates, and blackouts. Unable to let go of my hereditary gifting graft, I overdid it with extravagant handouts.
When I met my boyfriend Greg at forty, he was confused by my relentless pursuit of all things merry. We spent our first holiday together in Baltimore, and what started out as a simple celebration turned into a lopsided exchange when I went too far. My friend Amanda and her dad were unprepared and uncomfortable with the many tributes we unloaded on them that year.
By then, there had been a rift. The family I rarely heard from emerged only around Christmastime. Every December I raced around the city draining my accounts and maxing my cards. My in-box lit up with lists. The youngest tech-savvy sibling submitted Google docs for both himself and his girlfriend, ranked in order of priority, with handy links to Amazon included.
Exhausted and annoyed, I collapsed in my shrink’s office. The tape measure and long underwear I suspected I’d receive were no match for the best books, cashmere scarfs, handbags and overpriced designer candles I’d spent a fortune on. I told myself “It’s the thought that counts,” as I worried how I’d pay my rent. Multiple purchases for a dozen relatives left me short on funds and long on resentment. Not only did Greg and I endure flying from New York City on the busiest travel days, but my eighty-year-old dad, his twenty years younger wife and their two adult children expected us to lug expensive presents across the country.
Come the 25th, I watched my stepmom Loretta make mental notes on who got what from whom while wearing her newest piece of jewelry. As a young bride she had been slow to adapt, but now decades on she was the biggest proponent of our Christmas list craze. I tried not to think about my real mother alone watching movies in her drafty house.
At one point, I enlisted the help of my yoga practicing sister-in-law Susie. We agreed to draw names with a two-present limit. But nobody stuck to the plan and Susie and I ended up looking like jerks. The following season we said only stocking stuffers – but my parents went all out. Secret Santa fell flat when no one obeyed the rules.
This year I’m doing it differently. I’m putting my people-pleasing on hold to have a gift-less holiday I think I want. Greg and I are celebrating sober by taking a trip. As I read my book by the beach, I won’t obsess about all the stuff I didn’t buy, the meals I didn’t cook, and the family I won’t see. I’ll push aside the guilt and tamp down the anxiety by detaching with love from the list-driven materialistic meltdown. I am giving myself the ultimate goody – a family and present-free Christmas.
Peter Nichols is a Midwestern-born, New York City-based writer currently studying at The New School.