Have a Holly, Jolly, Ex-Mas

If you, too, are thinking of Christmas with a wince and not a smile, if your inner child goes into the fetal position every December, come sit by me.
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Psssst. If you, too, are thinking of Christmas with a wince and not a smile, if your inner child goes into the fetal position every December, come sit by me.

If you look at your friends, neighbors and co-workers who have unabashed, untrammeled love for Christmas...who wassail, who carol, who bake...and you want to stab them in the eye with a candy cane, because they obviously had much better childhoods than you, and why the heck did you get shafted, I feel your pain.

The holiday trauma thumbprint was first pressed into the raw cookie dough of my soul when my mom left my dad on Christmas, 1984.

She packed us up and spirited us off to a wan, shabby two-bedroom bungalow, hours after my dad went on his merry way to work. The torn wrapping paper was still strewn across the floor, and the tree's lights twinkled impertinently, as helpful church friends carried the last overflowing box and kiddie chest of drawers out the front door.

I was in on the plot for months; I knew we were going. She swore me to secrecy and I, weary of noting my parents' utter lack of love for each other, and of breathing the air of their mingled malaise, colluded. I don't feel massively guilty about it, because I shouldn't have been put in that position, but I don't feel so hot about it either.

Funny how that trauma thumbprint almost served as a sucking vortex, if you will, that pulled future negativity into that day. Future Christmases were fraught by spreading the holiday between two houses. There were new stepfamily members to get used to, which gave everyone an added dose of awkward stress.

My mother had a very hard time with Christmas, and more times than not, she became triggered by a random comment or misunderstanding, and ran out the front door (detecting a theme?), swearing never to return.

It's kind of a buzzkill to have to chase your mother down the street of your quaint Thomas Kinkade suburban neighborhood, worried younger siblings at your heels, while snow falls and she charges on, coatless...past the bay windows bedecked with colored lights, behind which you imagine other families sipping egg nog, dappled with grated nutmeg, in their matching plaid-trimmed outfits.

Becoming an adult gave me more control over the holiday; getting married and moving to New Mexico lessened parental interference in the day. Becoming a mother took me, mercifully, out of the hedonic crosshairs, and kept me busy with cookie-baking, present-wrapping, and card-sending.

Getting divorced threatened to undo all that. As an adult, I was now back in the divorced family category. Would that sink Christmas for the next generation?

Three years ago, my first post-divorce Christmas, I gave myself the present of a trip, as my ex had the kids for winter break. I scheduled a flight to Prague on December 25th. Getting up in the air would suspend all realities, including the one that bore witness to my situation.

Apparently my subconscious wanted a vacation from my vacation, as the morning of my flight, I found that I had driven twenty miles past the airport without noticing. (I live in New Mexico. Everything's beige. It's easier to do that than you might think.) I should have kept going, because Juarez would have been more fun. I got a beastly flu on the way over, Prague was freezing, and the ex-boyfriend I was visiting behaved churlishly about my complete refusal to participate in the bodice-ripping reunion he had anticipated.

The next Christmas, I impulsively house-swapped with friends in Boulder, trading familiarity and temperate weather for gale force winds, freezing temps, cabin fever, and cranky, out-of-their-element kids. Why? I hadn't thought it through. I was in reaction mode. I vowed not to go anywhere the next year.

But last December, the trip was planned before it hit me: I'm doing it again--leaving town. Nevertheless, my partner Laura and I stuck with our plans, and took the kids to her family home in southern California, trading snow and luminarias for sweater weather and plump, warm citrus. It was an idyllic family trip, in that my ex-husband also traveled to California to meet up with his family, and we maintained our co-parenting schedule.

We made asparagus salad, fondue, and persimmon cookies in Laura's grandmother's mid-century modern kitchen. It was like stepping into Sunset magazine. The kids played in the family citrus grove, and visited the neighborhood horse each day. Things felt complete.

For the first time in years, I wasn't running away. I was away, but not running. There's a difference. I was just on vacation, like so many other families at that time of year...other families who wassail and carol and bake, who love Christmas. I was starting to see how that could be within our reach. But the matching plaid outfits? Never gonna happen.