Growing up, Christmas was kind of weird in my family. We did the tree and the presents, but we were about as religious as Richard Dawkins. My mother (who was Catholic) left the church when they wouldn’t sanction her marriage to my father, who is Jewish and an atheist. We didn’t really do Midnight Mass more than once or twice, and there were no “Jesus is the reason for the season” reminders in our house. It was basically a secular holiday for us, as it is for most people I suspect.

Like most couples that have been married a long time, my mom and dad had their Lockhorns moments, and boy oh boy was Christmas a flashpoint. The minute my mom hauled out the decorations, my dad would start getting sour, and this would set off a perpetual motion machine of negative stimulus and response. My dad would make some miserable remark—my favorite was when he referred to the holiday as “a meaningless orgy of gift-giving”—and my mother would react by buying more gifts and putting up more decorations. This in turn would goad my father into making another remark, after which my mom would go out to the store to buy more shit. My dad, seeing all the new new shit, would say something annoying, and my mom would head right back out for more stuff. This went on for YEARS, until eventually, my sister and I intervened.

I actually remember the specific phone call that flipped the switch. It was sometime in the 1990s; I was going to college in Western Massachusetts, a six hour trip from my parents’ place in South Jersey. I’d called home to go over my plans—my dad answered and immediately began complaining about my mom.

“She’s mad at me—again,” he moaned. I choose that word “moaned” deliberately—I could practically see his head in his hands.

“Well, what did you do this time,” I asked, as if I couldn’t guess.

“What have I ever done to make your mom mad, other than BEING ALIVE,” he replied. I sucked up the instinct to start moaning back at him in fake commiseration, and instead let him go on. “Its Christmas, and your mom is making a big deal as usual, and it’s driving me nuts, because she knows how I feel about this stupid holiday.”

So I began asking questions. You know, like Socrates.

“Say, isn’t it true that Kate and I are coming down, and you’ll get to see your whole family for the first time in months?”

“Well, yes, but what has that go to do wi—”

“And isn’t it also true that your family is going to bring you nice gifts that you’ll enjoy, despite your objections to all the conspicuous consumption?”

“Yes, I suppose so, but—”

“And isn’t it also true that you’re going to have a really nice meal with your family? And isn’t it also true that, unlike Kate and me, you’re getting paid vacation time?”

“Um, yes…”

“Well, then I have a good idea,” I said. “Instead of driving Mom crazy by antagonizing her, why not feel grateful that your kids love you enough to drive six hours to see you even though they’re taking a financial hit, and they’re bringing you nice things? Why not just shut the fuck up, and enjoy your turkey, your family, and your paid time off from work?”

“When you put it that way, I think I can manage,” Dad replied—and that was the last time I heard him complain about Christmas.

To quote disgraced criminal and serial rapist Bill Cosby, “I told you that so I could tell you this.”

In July 2015, my mom was diagnosed with metastasized stage 4 lung cancer—by September, she was gone, and our family was devastated. Death is never easy, but we were lucky to be at Mom’s bedside in the hospital as she passed. The day before, I managed to make her smile through the sedation, when I told her how Pope Francis—who she dearly loved, whose leadership brought her back to the Church, and whose visit to Philly she’d been excited for until the cancer put her in the hospital—had given Congress such a dressing-down that John Boehner cried his eyes out and then quit the very next day.

The next day, my mom was gone.

When December rolled around, my dad got the biggest tree he could find—but between being utterly wrecked by my mom’s death and his general disinterest in the holiday, it wound up being the saddest Christmas tree you’ve ever seen. It was only half decorated, and halfheartedly so, at that. I don’t even think there were lights on the thing, just this dead pine with a few ornaments dangling off it, shedding needles on the floor. It was probably the darkest Christmas I have experienced in my life, and that includes Christmas 2020, when everyone was locked down and “more than 65,000 confirmed and probable virus-related US deaths” were reported for the month of December.

But when Christmas 2016 rolled around, Dad was doing a lot better. He had a steady gal, who I’d introduced him to a few months before my mom was even diagnosed (that’s another long story for another time). Probably for the first time ever he was excited for the holiday.

Yet he struggled. He didn’t want to buy a tree, because he’s not a Christian. But he also didn’t want to just do NOTHING for the kids and grandkids—if anything he had MORE rug rats to think about, because his gal pal had a large family, and they were going to be dropping by.

Dad’s first thought was to celebrate Festivus, aluminum pole and all, but decided against it. “Festivus,” he reasoned, “kind of mocks other people’s beliefs, and that’s not who I am. Besides, I’m not a total Grinch.”

“I mean, to Hell with all the ‘holly jolly’ shit and the shopping,” he went on. “But I’ve always liked the holiday lights. Remember how we used to drive around the neighborhood looking for the brightest and tackiest displays? I love that stuff! They look nice—especially at the darkest time of the year.”

So Dad hemmed and hawed a bit, and after a few days he landed on a compromise. He went down to the local big box hardware store, and picked up a 10′-12′ length of PVC pipe. He painted that pipe green, and then repainted it to make sure it was a good, thick coat. Then he wrapped the pole in lights, set it in the tree stand, and plugged it in. The room lit up gaily in red, blue, green, yellow, and purple.

We have set up our holiday pole every year since. Here’s the most recent shot.

My dad’s still not good at doing Christmas. He still hates shopping, and he’s still cynical about the role of Christianity in a secular society. But he looks forward all year to putting up the holiday pole and watching the living room come to life. When I have a place of my own again, you better believe I’ll set up a holiday pole too.

By the way, the woman featured in the photo? She’s now more then Dad’s “steady gal”—she’s my stepmom.

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