I will tell you at the outset that while I don’t really like Christmas, I have enjoyed a few good ones in my time. My time is defined from age 30 forward, after the birth of my only child. There is reward and pleasure in giving, and to have made him happy by spoiling him was indeed my pleasure.
Perhaps being Jewish has something to do with my lack of joy at Christmas. After all, by definition the season lacks any spiritual relevance for me. But it is more than that. We make a big deal about feeding hungry people on Thanksgiving, and become more generous at Christmas. What about the rest of the year? Can’t we find the same moral or spiritual imperative to provide and comfort when it isn’t a holiday? There is also a political objection for me. In particular, it feels like it is about marketing and merchandizing, so companies can meet their bottom line. Always onward and upward with corporate America, and what an opportunity Christmas provides. All that aside, I did grow up a very bad Jew and Christmas presents were part of my upbringing.
I remember the grand total of one Christmas from my youth, and it will stay with me forever. When I was eight years old and living in a Brooklyn slum called Brownsville, my older brother and I were invited to spend Christmas with my father and his second wife, Pat. They lived on Long Island in a nice big home and not only would I get to escape the rat’s nest that was home, but there was also the promise of a meaningful present or two.
I didn’t really know much about Pat and think I had only been around her a few times. She had one son who was about my age but I didn’t know him either. Most of that weekend is a complete blur, but as Christmas Eve unfolded it would rock my world and scare me half to death.
At what point in the evening Pat started drinking is an unknown, but when we said good night, the door to our room remained open a crack and my brother and I could both see into the hallway and I caught a peek at the red bicycle that was being wheeled into the living room and put next to the tree. My heart raced at the prospect of that bike being for me as it would have been the greatest gift I ever received and was exactly what I was hoping for. I do know that I had great difficulty falling asleep and I was beside myself with anticipation and glee. Please God, let that bike be for me. Please God; I’ll be a good boy for the rest of my life. Please. Please. Please.
My brother and I were awakened to the sound of yelling. Loud yelling. Screaming. Through the slightly cracked door we could hear all of it, and see part of it. I remember Pat being incoherent, and reaching for the phone. I watched as my father grabbed it out of her hand and started hitting her with it. Hitting her hard enough to crack her skull and have blood flying everywhere. I was curled up into a protective ball hoping it was a dream, but it was real. When and how it ended, I do not recall. I don’t know if our father came into the room and told us it was ok. He may well have. He might not have.
Somehow, the next morning arrived and presents were opened. I have no idea what kind of gifts I might have received, but I can tell you the red bike was for Pat’s son. I was now broken hearted in addition to being exhausted and terrified. I have a faint recollection of that trip ending abruptly right after the gifts were opened. Remarkably, getting back to the decaying streets of Brownsville was ok. My mother’s indifference and ineptitude were better than the horror I witnessed that Christmas.
That marriage did not last long. Pat, as it turns out, was a significant alcoholic and my father remained challenged emotionally for all his days. My brother tells me he can remember the smell of all that blood.
I have owned many bikes since then; my current one weighs 650 pounds and can go as fast as I want it to. But never fast enough to lose the memory of that bloody Christmas.