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Free Red Wine and Other Humiliations

Your parents and friends enjoy Christmas for similar reasons: your personal embarrassment, shame, and discomfort, assuming you’ve behaved badly enough to warrant their bowls full of jelly.

Christmas, 1978

My mother used to say that nothing was more depressing than Christmas, after all the presents had been opened. Until that moment, those gifts could have been anything. Everything you ever wanted. But at a certain point, you just sat there, surrounded by torn paper and puzzles and books, realizing it was all over. Such a miserable, sinking feeling—that’s it?

It was a good lesson in the evils of expectation, but it was a poor excuse for never buying her darling daughter an EZ-Bake Oven.

Christmas Morning, 1981

Our family had a Christmas tradition: me in an angel outfit, with a spiky, plastic wreath around my head. In the wreath sat five wobbly white candles which my older brother always suggested we light.

‘The figure of Santa Lucia is an ancient Swedish tradition,’ assured my mother, who also eschewed tinsel and other Christmas ornamentation for the stoic hay ornaments she said were ‘authentically German.’

‘This sucks,’ I would complain. ‘No one else has to dress like this.’

‘Well, they do in Sweden.’

‘But we’re not even Swedish!’

‘What’s your point?’

No fair. She learned that phrase from me.

As the tradition went, I woke up early Christmas morning, donned the costume, and made a batch of Pillsbury’s Swiss orange rolls, which I brought to my sleeping parents while singing the titular ‘Santa Lucia’ song. Over the following years, I would suffer other such indignities for the entertainment of my elders—sing musical standards for your relatives, drink this spoiled milk, pretend you’re R2D2. The imperative for the youngest child in my family could be boiled down to this: Dance, monkey, dance.

Christmas Pageant, 1982

Our fourth grade Christmas play, ‘The Happiest Christmas Tree,’ told the story of a droopy evergreen, neglected in the forest. One day, a young couple chose the droopy evergreen for their Christmas tree. The tree—not really a tree, but a kid named Gibby in a green foam suit—was so happy, so grateful, he sprung to life and sang:

Oh I’m the happiest Christmas tree, ho ho ho, hee hee hee
Someone came and they found me, and took me home with them.

The tale had rather gruesome implications—that a tree should sing for joy after being axed at the knees, dragged from his habitat, and strung up with zippy lights. Not surprisingly, I took home a different message: Trees have feelings, too. At eight years old, I was intensely susceptible, and the theory was already rampant in children’s movies and television. I cried when Frosty the Snowman melted, and I probably lost five pounds in water weight during The Fox and The Hound.

After ‘The Happiest Christmas Tree,’ however, helping my parents select the family Christmas tree became a kind of Sophie’s Choice. Who could we save? Who needed us the most?

‘That one’s kind of ragged, and crooked, and ugly,’ my mother said.

‘Daddy, can we keep him?’

Inevitably, I lost these battles. We drove home in silence with a handsome, robust evergreen strapped to the roof, and I spent most of the ride with tears running down my cheeks, apologizing to Santa for all the little ones I didn’t save.

Christmas Day, 1986

And still no EZ Bake Oven.

Christmas Evening, 1991

That year, I bought my boyfriend a mock turtleneck from the Gap—navy blue, which looked lovely with his eyes. He bought me a dozen roses and an 18-pack of Coors Light (I was on a diet), which we sipped—lukewarm and fizzy—in the backseat of his car, an hour before curfew, parked in a deserted lot near the local university. It was grown-up and romantic. Very Say Anything. With empties rolling around on the floorboard, we did things we’d seen in movies and only half understood. Head arched back. Tongue stuck in ear. But nothing so awkward as the scream of a police siren behind us.

The cop knocked on the window. My boyfriend bolted into the driver’s seat, and I threw an old blanket across my half-naked body and pretended to be asleep, a skill I had picked up in drama class.

‘Wut you kids up to in thar?’ If the cop didn’t sound like this, then he should have.

‘Just resting, sir,’ my boyfriend said, tapping his fingers innocently on the wheel.

‘Wut’s wrong with her?’ A flashlight flooded across my body, but I didn’t flinch. Another thing you learn in drama: Never break character.

‘She’s asleep, sir.’

‘Wut you do to her, son?’

The tableau we presented hadn’t really occurred to us—a lifeless girl laid out in the backseat beneath a stained and crusty blanket. Clearly this was vastly more disturbing than the petting session we were trying to cover up. Eventually, the cop roused me and I fished through my purse for my driver’s license, careful not to show any glimpse of the Victoria’s Secret bra I’d so proudly displayed earlier in the evening. ‘Your folks’n expect a call tomorrow mornin,’’ he said, scribbling down our information.

‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Merry Christmas, sir.’

The next year, we parked at the cemetery, which turned out to be the perfect spot.

Christmas Eve Day, 1996

I was sitting on the front porch with some friends when a homeless man straggled past. He was lost. He was new to town. Could we spare some change? Normally I’m not such a soft sell, but it was Christmas Eve, and here we were, rich and drowsy with champagne in the afternoon. Spare change? Sure, what the hell.

The good news spread across his sagging face. ‘Angels you are,’ he said. ‘Can I give the angels a hug?’

It felt good to see him happy like that, to remember how simple it can be to please someone if you just try.

He smelled of booze and onions. ‘Nice tits,’ he whispered in my ear as he gave me a squeeze.

Office Christmas Party, 1999

Beware the free red wine. I know, I know: It’s so good and so free. And yet, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself skipping dinner in favor of yet another glass, and a few dozen purloined cigarettes, and when the rest of the office goes home, you will demand of your patient friend that you stay for more wine—not so free anymore—and so soon you are completely unable to drive home, or even really give directions, at which point your friend—not so patient anymore—will deposit you at someone else’s house, the house of a male friend, where you will wake up the landlord, demanding to be let inside, dammit, and stumble into the living room, where you will pass out on the couch. Or something like that.

The next morning, you will wake up with a snout in your face. The snout nudges forcefully. The snout is wet and particularly canine.

Your friend will enter the room, aghast at your presence in his home. Of all the questions he could ask, he will choose this one: ‘What are you doing in the dog bed?’

Be assured: Everyone at work will hear about this.


* * *

My mother was right: The holidays are too full of expectation. Too many parties, too much formality, too much stress, too many snapshots of me with half-lidded eyes, frizzy hair, a cigarette dangling from my lips, not half as cute as I thought I was. My mother eventually began to hide a few presents. In the weeks after Christmas, my brother and I would find packages under our pillows or buried in the closet. We thought our mother was being coy, but it turned out she was just getting older and had forgotten where she put them. Either way, it gave the suggestion that Christmas went on, and on, and on. Though to this day, no EZ Bake Oven.