Two weeks ago, I was convinced that I had this Christmas thing sorted. I was feeling excited. I was thinking of putting up a Christmas tree and decorations, there was even talk of presents! When I consider the place I was in, at this time last year, that felt like a huge improvement. But then, the stirrings of Christmas past started to come back to haunt me. I have few memories of Christmas as I was growing up; but what I do remember, is full of pain, contradictions, unmet expectations and false hope.
What do you see when you look at the typical Christmas imagery? Happy families, snow, Christmas trees, presents, togetherness, joy, peace, and so on. These all help to build up expectations of what Christmas should be. There is a huge pressure from society to meet these expectations; and it’s almost impossible for a regular family to meet them, let alone a dysfunctional family like the one I grew up a part of.
I remember Christmas as being a burden for the family… there was so much money needed for presents, food and alcohol. The mother would save throughout the year in order to be able to fulfil the work and family commitments that were expected of us… we must keep up the illusion of the perfect family after all, mustn’t we! Those commitments involved hosting parties where the Summer heat, alcohol and music lead to a lowering of inhibitions and an increasing level of raucousness. I still have nightmares about the laughter from the parties.
Thinking about the presents we received, it was odd. As there were two boys and two girls in the family, we often got the same presents, but different colours – my brothers would both get the same plane, but from different countries; the sister and I would get the same doll, but hers would be brunette and mine would be blonde. I find that a little odd, especially as the sister is five years older than me. Did she get inappropriately younger gifts, or did I get inappropriately older gifts? I’m not sure why, but I get a sense that the gifts were another way different ones in the system felt that they “owed” the parents, and that we were disposable, or easily exchanged with the sister. It seems like we weren’t encouraged to feel a sense of individuality or separateness from each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have received gifts, especially when I know that so many go without. I’m only trying to show how easily children can pick-up on undercurrents and implied messages. I doubt that the mother was purposefully trying to invalidate any of us with the gifts, but that is what happened. I have a feeling she did it in the interests of treating us equally, and it’s only with my now distorted hindsight, that I see it in this way.
Presents have always been a triggering and negative thing for me. The act of someone giving me a gift immediately raises questions about the persons motivations… What do they expect in return? What have I done that is worthy of receiving a gift? What do I get the person in return? What is appropriate to give? What do I have to do to keep their respect, or is it all a game and they’re teasing me?
I’m getting better at accepting gifts as they were intended, but it’s still a struggle. Part of me continues to go back to the old days where getting a present was a reward for being a “good girl”. This is possibly why Christmas was always so difficult… different people would give me presents, and I couldn’t figure out what was needed to pay them back. It’s for this reason that I like the change in focus away from gifts… which reminds me of an argument that I continually had with Matthew. He was always worried about not being able to compete with his now ex-wife because she could afford to give the boys gifts. I would always argue that his place within his boys life was secure as long as he provided them with love and safety. But I don’t know if that’s true, I’d like to think it is, but peer pressure and societal expectations can be a great influence.
Sometimes I hate society. Then, I’m reminded of the good it can do as well – Geek girls ACTIVATE! I know the first action was one of bullying, but the response was what mattered. It reminds me that there is good out there too.