Every day's a bad day in an alcoholic family. Yet, my Christmas memories include some joys.
What made joy possible was that at Christmas, my father relaxed, deeply and in some indefinable way. A smart, good-looking veteran of World War II, he would today be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; he was hypervigilant, inappropriate, and habitually abusive. But at Christmas he touched down for a while into the place that is represented in the movies by soft, golden light.
This transformation was signalled by his purchase of a couple of pounds of mixed nuts in the shell, which he enjoyed cracking and picking in his easy chair, and a five-pound box of Brach's mixed chocolates. I don't think he ever knew gourmet chocolates existed; maybe he remembered Brach's from his childhood, when it would have been a great treat. He was born in 1920 to a steelworker who eeked out the family income by raising vegetables and pigs. When storebought ketchup came into the house, he and his brothers would fight over it, and drink it all straight from the bottle.
Like many children of the last great depression, he was obsessively uncertain about money. Thrift was automatic. But at Christmas, that relaxed, as if he temporarily stepped into enlightenment, into the reality of our middle-class prosperity.
We of course put up as large a tree as the front room would hold, and hung it lavishly in just a certain way (three strands at a time) with tinsel that was saved neatly year after year. It was always topped by a simple, rather ugly star. He strung more lights across the valance of the draw drapes, all this with much swearing and people tiptoeing around the bad mood that was habitual when he was working. It must have been after all that effort that he could count the job done, and come home with candy and nuts and relax into a sense of being on vacation.
It didn't seem to have anything to do with Christianity. I never saw any sign of him caring about religion until after his death, when I found an old poem on his desk, "Crossing the Bar." It speaks about the hope of meeting God after dying. I don't suppose he ever thought he met God while he was alive. He wouldn't have thought of his Christmas happiness that way, or of his joy in buying generous gifts at the last minute as being a virtue, the way we talk about the practice of generosity in Buddhism. It was fun. It was "taking it easy for a change."
But it was more. The other place one might see him in a similar mood was at "the farm," a large piece of hilly acreage he bought as soon as he could afford it, as a place to go camping and eventually build a pond and a cabin. Nature does that for a lot of people, even those who are disillusioned with organized religion and everything else about human society. He probably experienced it as soothing, comforting.
On the farm, which was 240 unfarmable acres, there were places he could stand and turn, and everything you saw was his. Not even a fence in sight. He died there alone in 1997, of a massive stroke. Rather than imagine that, I like to remember him as he was in his forties, relaxed and expansive in his armchair, an Old-fashioned at hand, cracking walnuts so they came out in two perfect halves.