It’s hard to understand the true meaning of Christmas when the meaning of life itself is confusing. And for me, it was a complete mystery. I grew up an upper middle class existence that I’m sure was the envy of many people. Even to my best friends, everything looked normal. No one knew I had been terrified of my alcoholic father’s temper for years. No one knew my mother was a drug addict, though her family suspected it. Even when she committed suicide, only my father knew the cause and reason for death. He told us she just died. And we would no longer be allowed to see any member of her family. But by then his life was being over taken by inner demons led him through two more disastrous marriages, being hospitalized for alcohol and drug overdose, committing fraud and grand larceny, lose his job, his fortune, his friends and slowly his kids.
So while growing up, what I loved most about Christmas – the one thing I could count on to be normal and fun and actually joyful, was the giant Harrison family Christmas Eve party held every year. My dad had two brothers and a sister and the party would always rotate around to one of their houses. Never our house, which I never thought about, but I doubt our home could have captured the spirit and laughter that the party always had. This party alone made Christmas something to look forward to, and actually gave the holidays meaning. It was so special I even went to it every year in college, though by then my relationship with my father and his new wife at the time resembled walking on a high-tension power line. But the point of the party was to bring everybody together and I happily accepted it. It was fun. It was joyful. It was tradition.
Tradition meant I could put aside hurt feelings and drunk stepmothers in mini-skirts for at least for one night. I could feel the warmth of the family and after attending it for twenty-two years, it was really special being able to bring my bride of three months to it. For Melissa, the party was even more wonderful. She grew up in a home where the only tradition was turkeys being thrown across the holiday table by a drunk father or mother, so an actual party where people met and laughed and hugged and honestly said “Have a wonderful Christmas”, left her with such a glow that one night four years later we thought this is too special to end, let’s go to midnight mass.
So the tradition was born, the Christmas Eve party, followed by the midnight mass and slowly the spirit of Christmas began to infuse our holidays. Now I don’t want to overstate the impact. Melissa’s childhood meant Christmas was a holiday to avoid and some demons can really never be driven out. Even though we went to the party, even though we went to mass, even though we had holiday songs ringing through our house for fifteen days, Melissa couldn’t help herself and she gained neighborhood notoriety for having the Christmas tree in the yard by noon Christmas day. Which in its own bizarre way became another tradition.
Of course that all changed with children. By the time we had our two boys, many of my cousins already had their own high school kids coming to The Party. As they got married and had kids, The Party grew and grew. It was scene from a movie. One Christmas Eve I realized I didn’t know the names of half the people at The Party anymore but by the end of the evening we’d all be hugging each other, wishing each other “Merry Christmas” and hurrying off to Midnight services.
By that time, I had started my own company, had eight employers and every month – like other entrepreneurs – struggled to meet payroll. We had good months, we had bad months but we were beginning to grow. Meanwhile my father’s life was totally unraveling. He was being investigated for selling hundreds of thousands of dollars of prescription drug samples to pharmacies in Mexico. He had been fired. The IRS had been garnishing his wages. He had lost his ranch. He had lost all of his Pfizer stock. He was drinking pharmaceutical grade benadryl that he could get from his old friends in the pharmacy business.
He showed up one day in my office and said he needed $5000 for a car. Today. Right now. I hadn’t seen him for nine months, since the last Christmas party. This was the man who used to make me drive out to his office 40 miles away when I was in college to beg for $25.00 when I was in school. Now he needed an astronomical sum I couldn’t hand to my wife? In spite of the irony of the situation, I regretfully told him “No. I can’t do it. I don’t have $5000 to spend on my own family. But $50? Maybe a $100?” He stomped out angry. There was no compromise. It was $5000 or nothing. I went to bed that night wondering what in the hell had that been all about. This guy had lived in a mansion (third marriage), had a yacht, had drug addicted stepsons he bragged about, lost everything and now all of a sudden he reappears?
I chalked it up to strangeness. I probably wouldn’t see him again until the next Christmas party. But that December, my uncle Jim who was hosting that year’s party called to un-invite me to the Harrison family’s Christmas Eve party. I was stupefied.
“Jim, are you serious?”
“I’m sorry but your dad said you would make him uncomfortable.” He paused. “He’s my brother.”
“He’s an alcoholic,” I countered. “You know the things he’s done?”
“He’s my brother.”
“So I’m uninvited? To a family party?”
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
A Christmas tradition that had been part of my life since I was born was suddenly torn asunder. I was now un-invited. We no longer had an extended family of a hundred of so. Just the four of us suddenly felt very lonely at Christmas time. This party was the only holiday tradition I had known for thirty-five years. It was the only holiday tradition my sons had ever known. It had almost restored my wife’s belief in Christmas. Now, all gone. A hundred people in my family I would never see again.
The whole being expelled from a family reunion just confirmed for my wife that Christmas was more frightening than Halloween and to just get it over with as fast as you can. In our souls, we both knew that traditions are important because they are something that can be counted on, like the sun coming up. They are a source of stability in a family, they represent bonds that this family can’t be broken, and they become more and more important as kids grow up, move out, take husbands and wives on the other side of the country, but come back home because it’s tradition. Though men especially tend to take traditions for granted, they are a huge part being a family, of holding it together. Without traditions, every holiday is up for grabs. Suddenly I was envious of people who knew they “had to fly to Boston” for Christmas, or “were busy cleaning all the bedrooms because a houseful of relatives would be showing up for a week.”
For us, even with children, church and lighted trees, Christmas became something to endure. We were traditionless. So because there was nothing to do, we started traveling on Christmas. Buy a tree and act like everything was normal, jump on an airplane December 21 to Vail, Breckinridge, or Keystone and spend a ton of money to help our kids have more fun than they could have at dumb old Christmas party. We couldn’t even make a tradition of going to the same place for Christmas. Our tradition was no tradition. Melissa worked tirelessly to forge strong bonds with her brothers who were scattered between Montana and Cairo, so one year we flew to Whitefish where one lived and that became our tradition for awhile. But kids got older, traveling became more difficult and with kids in college, prohibitively expensive. So we started staying in town and things got more awkward. We substituted traveling with more and more expensive gifts, regardless of the economy. Something had to break and one Christmas Eve it did.
Standing in our church’s magnificent reception hall, I’m dressed in my cassock and robe ready to serve as a chalice bearer in the candlelight service, hell in all its fury broke loose. One of my sons started a vicious argument with the other one over a perceived slight. Right there. In front of God and everybody he started cussing him out. I was stunned. The anger was way out of line with what had been said, with the occasion, with everything. But his rage continued to escalate till people in the church were noticing. The more I tried to calm him down the more upset he became. Some childhood memory of being mistreated by his older brother years earlier had now taken residence in his brain and he wasn’t going to let go. And it didn’t help at all that my other son could be dominant and dismissive. But suddenly a nice, quite Christmas had just been nuked. And looking back, the biggest problem was that there was no Harrison Family Party to fall back on, no tradition that would allow us to calm down, laugh about it and be a family again.
The tension between them grew so much over the months, that it tore me apart and my efforts to “save” our family just made things worse. I had everybody go to counseling where positions just hardened. I couldn’t let it go. For some reason their fighting made me feel like I was listening to my parents drunken rages. I tried everything in the book to bring them back together and it was all unsuccessful.
The following Christmases I dreaded. One year I broke into tears in a restaurant over the thought of another Christmas Eve with my adult sons who I assumed wanted to anywhere but together. There was no large family tradition to hold us together, to take our minds off what happened, to take a chilling incident and reduce it to natural sibling conflict that can show up even in later years. There were no traditions to look forward to or fall back on. No big family party that could bring back love and joy and warmth of Christmas Eve. That one night seemingly unraveled everything I had worked for years as a parent to achieve: a family of unity, harmony and love based grounded on faith. The meaning of Christmas, the joy and promise of the birth of a savior, that became lost in the worry of “how bad can this Christmas get?” One year I even cancelled Christmas because I couldn’t bear the thought of the tension. I just said to hell with it. That year both boys miraculously showed up at Christmas Eve service, then the next morning, my younger son brought over a small, rotating lighted tree he plugged into the wall and sat on a small table. Everybody tried to get along, but by now my heart wasn’t in it. This looked like the definition of an alcoholic Christmas. I just wanted December to turn into January as quick as possible.
To make it worse, I’m a parenting author. I held my own family up as a model of my beliefs. My sons were incredibly successful at incredibly young ages. They are both good and sweet. But everything seemed broken. What could I tell any dad when my own family was in disarray? Then a bunch of men helped me understand that my books were essentially about being a loving parent and raising responsible children. We had done that. The boys were now adults. Successful, responsible, and definitely independent. They loved and respected their mother and father. My job was done. Making them get along was no longer my job. I came to realize my family that seemed broken was just getting older. Adult children can’t be treated like teens. They have to work things out themselves. For twenty some odd years I had held on to this ideal of a Saturday Evening Post Christmas but it was time to let it go. It was up to my sons to find happiness and joy and Christ on their own.
So I would like to say all has ended well, but the reality is, all has simply ended. The tears, the insanity, the misery has ended for me has ended because I have given up trying to fix their relationship and turned that job back over to God. Naturally as I’ve backed out of trying to fix them, their relationship is healing itself.
Sometimes for no explainable reason, things don’t work out according to our plan despite our best efforts. I’ve learned I don’t need one night a year of warm feelings about God, but 365 days. The whole incident hasn’t shaken my faith, but just made me more aware that being “good” and “religious” and “a loving parent” doesn’t insulate you against darkness or kids becoming adults or your own childhood demons.
My wife and I are going alone to Israel this Christmas and my priest assures me this trip will make up for all the lost Christmas’ we’ve experienced. My youngest son even paid the air faire. He’s happy to be alone with his friends, as is my oldest son.
I really, really miss the tradition of The Harrison Family Christmas party. I think it could have saved me several years of hell. But once evil and alcohol and insanity entered the door, the party began losing steam. It’s gone forever now.