🎅🏻 The Christmas Letters
When my eldest was a year old, I began writing an annual Christmas Eve letter. They were tucked away to be delivered, one per year, from the time they left home. They've left home. Here's the story.
For the last ten years1, every Christmas Eve I have sat down and written for my children what the family has come to call the “Christmas Letters.” The Christmas Letters are ridiculously long, shamelessly sentimental letters that my children will open on future Christmas Eves, one per year, starting the year they leave home. I will continue to write these letters long after they’ve moved out, until I’m either senile or buried. Which means that my children will open a letter from their father on Christmas Eve for about twenty years after I’m gone.
I protect them like a nervous squirrel. Right now the letters are stored on CDs and in every third directory on my computer so that I don’t lose them. They are also printed out in hard copies, organized by year, collated into a binder, protected by see-through plastic slip covers. I store the binder in the same fire-proof safe that holds our wills and our Do Not Resuscitate documentation.
The safe is locked with a key. There are actually two keys. One of the keys is hidden. If I die unexpectedly Melanie knows where to look to find the envelope that indicates where the hidden key is. She has delivery instructions on what to do with the letters that include steps on how to protect the master copies. If the children ever decide in a rage that they hate me and burn their letters on the sidewalk with lighter fluid, no worries! Dry your tears, children! It’s all good! I have backup copies!
Like term papers that have to get done, they start to loom like torture, an annual anxiety that starts around Thanksgiving just as we’re cleaning up the dinner dishes. I think, out loud, Jesus, it’s almost Christmas. How the hell did that happen? Those fucking letters. I have self-pity waves of “how did I get myself into this?” I wonder why I spent four hours the first year practically writing a novel, wrapping my intestines around the laptop, setting the bar ridiculously high for every subsequent effort. It was just like me to turn it into the letter writing Olympics. This is how I ruin my whole life. I should have written a card. A really nice card. Maybe one I drew a tiny little picture on.
But nobody cares. Nobody’s listening. Everyone is watching a football game. I scrape the cranberry sauce into the trash and think resentful thoughts like you will care, and then I worry that they won’t, the self-pity artillery starting to explode around me, making me run sideways across the listing battlefield. I’m like an empty-nest mother. I break down in tears collapsing on the floor by the garbage can and commit to staying there right next to the knife-scraped butter wrapper until somebody comes in and understands the hell of having to write these letters every goddamn year until I’m dead with no breaks ever and all by myself deep into the night. Some undeserving whelp yells out “are you alright in there, Dad?” and lets me know that he will “be there in a minute. It’s almost half-time.”
Yes it is.
A few days before Christmas I start making notes on what’s going into them, what their significant milestones were that year, what I’ve learned, what we’ve been through as a family, international events that need on-the-ground political commentary for befuddled future generations. As we drive along in the mini-van, I interview the kids for what was important to them, what they want preserved. They usually think of critical events I’ve forgotten. Then I compare and contrast with Melanie’s list, squirreling, squirreling, squirreling, rolling little nuts in my paws and darting up and down my tree.
As soon as the children are in bed, our traditional Christmas stories have been read, and the last requests to “open something tonight like all the other families” have faded, I head to my study to write. I’m always starting too late and I always get up almost immediately from my big spinning office chair and I go into the kitchen to get some port, partly to get me out on the high-wire but mostly to vent and let Melanie know “I’m starting too late. It’s too late. Goddamn letters. I don’t know why I’m starting so late. I’ll be up until two in the morning.” She’s got her own problems wrapping 4,000 presents and suddenly the pop-pop-pop of small arms fire breaks out across the DMZ. I deny it righteously, but I do actually say it like it is her fault that we had to eat dinner and say goodnight to the children on Christmas Eve.
And then, in order to make absolutely sure none of my trains come in on time, I get out the old letters and start re-reading them, surrendering myself to their seductions and soft strokes and writerly satisfactions. That takes at least another half hour. But it truly may be worth it, because even a year later while rereading them I remember things I’d written about just a year ago but had already forgotten and I’m charmed by that and find myself getting in the mood, feeling the good, weepy vibes; I’m settling in, summoning the voice, making tiny edits on last year’s missing words and misspellings. The resistance fading, faded, and gone.
And suddenly I’m there.
I look up from the black and white laptop screen and the whole world is in color just like in the Wizard of Oz. It’s 10:30 at night and I’ll be writing for hours, but I don’t care because I’m ready now.
Daddy’s home for Christmas.
I like to write with my music blaring, heavy metal is best, my extremities pounding out Have a Drink on Me or Zeppelin’s The Ocean on the invisible high hat and bass drum I keep beneath my desk. The loud music babysits my skittish, caffeinated body like a bubbly, warm Ritalin bath. While this is going on my mind can slip off its chain and under the fence and wander back through the past year and sniff into imagined corners of the future. I almost don’t even hear the music. If you listen closely to Ramble On you will hear a little pat-pat-pat-pat-pat sound through practically the whole thing that kind of doesn’t belong there.
That’s me typing.
Go listen. This can wait.
With no complaints Melanie has patiently done all of the gift wrapping for years– I’ve shamelessly used the letters as a get out of jail free card – but Heaven help her if she comes into the office while I’m writing and asks me something reasonable like “honey, you don’t happen to have another roll of Scotch tape?” She actually has to scream this at me because the music is so loud I didn’t hear her the first seven times and I was so busy hammering away at the hand-wound Zildjians that I didn’t see her either. I don’t know how David Bowie and Bing Crosby can compete with this in the next room.
The sudden screaming startles me and my extremities ricochet every which way, invisible drumsticks flying free, smashing into the Venetian blinds. My knee bangs painfully into the bottom of the table. It’s like John Bonham stepped on one of the arena’s big black power cords. I feel startled and foolish, and I swivel around in my big black chair and growl at her like a cornered dragon. A cornered dragon caught doing drugs. A cornered dragon caught doing drugs totally naked with a knee that he just slammed into the IKEA table. “Dammit. I was right in the middle of a thought. Now I’ve forgotten what I was going to write!”
In the middle of a thought!
Oh, no, Superman!
A few minutes later – oh, fuck, shit, goddamit – I get up and go out and bring her a Scotch tape from my cadenza, Early Man in the primitive beginnings of an apology. He’s still not communicating verbally, but note the submissive lack of eye contact, the furrowed brow and the tell-tale shoulder slump. Then I’m back in the cave.
Where the hell was I?
No, not Stairway. I can’t write anything during Stairway because after 34 years I still cannot remember exactly when the guitar solo is going to come in and I always have to try to time it which throws me off the writing.
Ah, yes, Kashmir. Da-de-da-de-dump da-de-dun-de-dump-dump.
Yes, yes. That’s right – the whole thing about Daniel and the scrolling tooth fairy note in 4pt text…
Hours later, I emerge, teary-eyed, after penning the final “Love, Dad” and I go find Melanie in the living room, still scissoring away, usually sitting on the floor, awash in a sea of colored paper and reindeer labels and puffy stick on rose ribbons. I quietly put my port glass in the sink, and from across the room I apologize for my behavior. Then I edge in closer and survey the pile of beautifully wrapped gifts and the stockings all hung and let her know thank you for all this wrapping and also that “this year’s letter was really the best ever” and “I’m sorry about all of that up there before.” I’m just this and that and some other thing too apparently, and I trail off helplessly.
I do think to go back and wash the port glass in the sink.
We finish the last few odds-and-ends together, with me taking instruction perfectly now, leaving the reindeer trail of carrots exactly where I’m told to even when I truly don’t think actual reindeer could reasonably get at them underneath the piano. We situate her handiwork beneath the tree, both of us cringing at the obscene pile. We’ve got more gifts under our tree than Macy’s, and every year we decide it has to stop, that it’s embarrassing and we’re spoiling them, and we even make the kids open everything before guests come over so we can hide the loot. But it’s still kind of wonderful, and the two of us stand there and watch our Christmas glow in the tree lights for a minute.
Upstairs we check in on the soft faces of our impossibly beautiful children and, like cat burglars, sneak a single present – the biggest one, the “one from Santa” – to the end of each of their beds. We take turns and run the Santa drop-off commando style. One parent keeps “covering fire,” blocking the child’s view to the foot of the bed with their upper body while pretending to do the midnight kiss, the one where the child is sleeping, but might still feel the love somewhere down there in Sleepyville. The other parent, blocked from the child’s view, angles the Christmas present in a casual, but still pleasing Yuletide lack of symmetry like Santa would do himself.
Then Melanie fixes it.
Our hearts actually pound during these missions, because we know that if they wake we’re holding the terrible secret of Santa’s identity in our guilty, cat-burglar paws. That and the fact that we don’t really get out that much. Sneaking presents into the children’s rooms is like paintball for us.
We close their doors with agonizing, overwrought, body-contorting attempts at complete and utter silence, actually scrunching up our faces to keep the volume down. Sometimes the refrigerator turns on suddenly downstairs and we press our fingers to our lips to shush each other, our eyes flashing back and forth like we’re on a jailbreak. We tune in on any possible stirring from the children’s rooms.
No. There’s none. We’re okay. The coast is clear. The guards are sleeping.
We continue staring at each other in the glow of the hallway nightlight for an extra second, smiling at each other like mischievous children, our parental experience of Christmas at its apex now.
It’s two o’clock in the morning. Another Christmas Eve managed, behind us now, the children a year older. Another letter into the thick pile. (I’ll back it up and print it out tomorrow.) Another job well done all around, really, and in each other’s eyes, for a truly lovely moment there, we can see everything that’s right about our marriage.
They run long, epic even, sometimes ten single-spaced pages. They have a liturgical sequence at this point. Generally Christmas Eve day is recounted. The presents are inventoried along with their relevant back stories and there’s always that year’s good night ritual. Then, when I’ve been in that study for a few hours and meditated long enough on my little angels, I find myself in the stained glass room of the heart where the best writing is done and the true prayers come from – the ones filled only with gratitude. I let them know what they were like that year, what the world was up to, what they’re getting that year (got that year) for Christmas, how I see the world, how they see the world (saw the world), why I ran around the back-yard beneath their windows shouting “ho-ho-ho” and so on. But really I just go wherever the spirit leads me.
Aside from gentle admonitions to call their mother on this future Christmas Eve and really broad-themed advice like marry only for love, they don’t contain instruction. I’m not Polonius. I don’t really know what to tell them anyway, and the dad that gives advice is not really the dad I want showing up in those letters. The family has spent plenty of time with him and knows pretty much what he has to say and his opinions on, well, everything.
But there are things I need them to know, things I’ll never tire of repeating, and that’s what I try to get in there: how much I believe in them, how beautiful they are inside and out, what a delight they are (they were) to have in our home, and a thousand different ways of letting them see that we love (we have always loved) them dearly and utterly. They are love letters, and like all love letters they come from the heart of love which is part gratitude.
And part good-bye.
And so, for a little while anyway, Christmas will come around in those future years, and the father I want my children to have will join them. And he will continue to be there for a generation of Christmases after he’s gone, arriving annually until the steady queue of his letters is down to single digits and then, at last, finally depleted. Then I really will be well and truly gone. And that’s okay; this second life of mine, this resurrection of sorts, will have been on my own terms. I will have said goodbye as I wished.
I have a small hope that my children will continue this tradition with their own children and their children’s children and far beyond until generations from now nobody can remember who started it and everybody upstream wants credit. That would be fine. (It was me.)
In the meantime, while I still remember the password, you will find me on Christmas Eve opening and closing the door to my heart, blasting my music and drumming at the air, laughing out loud, wiping my writer’s tears, and season by season gathering and carefully setting aside my children’s inheritance.
Feel something. Twice a week.
I wrote this is in 2009!!! The first Christmas Letter was in 2000! I have a long drive, am returning very late to NYC this evening, and will need to write another one of these goddamn things this evening to my 21 and 25-year-olds.