After my first semester of college in Missoula, I drove home to New Canaan, Conn., to spend Christmas with my family. This was in 2005, the year of Bush, YouTube, Benedict XVI, Katrina and the first human face transplant. It was also the year moviegoers watched handsome cowboys make out on the big screen, and the year I started to hate Christmas.
In New Canaan, the wealthier you are, the higher you live on the hill. The town of 20,000 people sprawls across undulating hardwood forests 50 miles from New York City, and the smallest homes on the smallest plots of land are near the bottoms of those hills, while the hedge fund managers live on top. My grandfather called the people on top “Ridge Runners.” I called him Big, because he was tall. He was a venture capitalist who got his start on Madison Avenue back when handsome Don Draper-type dudes made capitalism and chauvinism classy. Eventually Big earned enough to move to the suburbs and became a Ridge Runner. He and his wife, Henrietta, who was a poet and civil rights activist and who I called Little, raised their three children well above sea level in New Canaan. When I was 8 or 9, Big gave my dad a plot of land just behind his home, where my dad built his own house. We—my dad, my mom and I—lived in Big and Little’s backyard.
That Christmas in 2005, my dad’s family convened at our house. Big and Little had died within months of one another years before, and though a hedge of evergreens had been planted to separate our home from the new homeowners up the hill, I think my dad and his two sisters liked to spend Christmas in New Canaan because it felt like the only place their parents could still join us. By that time, I had also become aware of the fact that my parents sort of despised each other, and that my mom felt anxious around my dad’s sisters and that my aunts didn’t take my mom and her afflictions very seriously.
My Aunt Kathie—a Manhattan therapist whose partner, Betsy, is a Manhattan photographer—and I were sitting in the living room talking about my experience in Montana. She asked me if the fishing was as good as I hoped. She asked me how my writing was going and if I had met Judy Blunt, the author of that incredible book about growing up on ranches. The questions bothered me. They seemed less an inquiry into my life and more an effort to reveal the novelty of my decision to move to Missoula. I didn’t want to respond because I didn’t want to give the questions credence, but also, I didn’t have good answers. I had fished very little. I had written nothing outside of my requisite composition class. My inaugural months in Missoula were spent more or less distracted by the sporty people, music in parks, keg beer, pot and long lines of tan-legged girls waiting for ice cream cones. To that point, Missoula had been a satisfying college cliché, and here on Christmas, my aunt was making me feel shitty about it. Then she asked if I’d seen Brokeback Mountain.
I saw it the week before on my way back from Montana, somewhere in Wisconsin or Chicago. I was impressed by the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger and the scenes where they wrestled one another into moments of intimacy. I knew it was beautiful and that it did something. But as an 18-year-old freshman, I didn’t like the movie. I thought it was long and too quiet and slow-moving to make it worth the price of admission. I said this to my aunt, and although I was being genuine, I aimed to antagonize her.
Not long after that Christmas, my parents moved to Massachusetts and divorced. My half-sister, Kate, had a daughter before her marriage also ended. Aunt Kathie’s son moved to California, my other half-sister to Maine. And I was living in Missoula, where the shape of my life was comfortingly malleable. By my early 20s, I decided family wasn’t a good enough reason to ever leave.
Holidays are strangely powerful days on the calendar when we are expected to feel things we might not be ready or willing to feel, spent with people we are meant to love but may not see often or know very well. Just as each family has its own makeup and stories, each family also has its own holiday expectations. When you are young, as I still am, and your perspective is limited, this is a complicated proposition: Even as family changes, the time spent with one another is meant to feel the same. Or at least this is how I have felt since the Christmas of 2005.
As my dad finished smoking two chickens and my mom’s chocolate chip cookies cooled on paper towels, Aunt Kathie sat in front of me considering my review of the movie. She put her hands on her lap and leaned back in the sofa. She had rimless glasses that moved up on her face as her smile grew larger. Suddenly, I wished I had just said I liked Brokeback Mountain. Suddenly, she wielded a power only family members of an older generation—people who remember Christmases when you pissed your pants and built block forts for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures—can wield.
“Well,” she said, “it sounds like someone has been spending too much time in Montana.”
When I was little, it was different. Ten years before Brokeback became the favorite euphemism of actual homophobes, I saved Christmas. I also saved the lives of two grandparents, three uncles, three aunts, six cousins, two parents and two cats. Christmases then were more about the promise of presents than anything else (which I now believe is not such a bad thing). It was also when my mom’s family gathered at the home of my mom’s mother, whom I called Emmie, and her husband George, whom I called Pa. They lived in a single-story house in Commack, Long Island, where the topography is mellow and gives way to the ocean.
About that time, I began to dread gathering with my mom’s family. I was a chubby kid who wore sweat pants to school and once poured a bottle of hydrogen peroxide into my hair to make it blonder. I was sensitive and sucked at math and soccer, and had recently stopped taking karate lessons after wetting my pants on the mat of the dojo. At this time my cousin, Kaitlyn, was becoming the sort of girl who expected all roads to be paved for her. It’s a quality that these days is sort of endearing, but as a 7-year-old she brandished it like a flame thrower, from which I was too slow to escape. She used to leave me out of games and call me fat. I recall a family reunion in the Poconos when Kaitlyn wouldn’t let me in a hot tub with the other cousins. I was probably 10, she was 8. I cried until I was hysterical, hyperventilating and wailing. My uncle recommended someone call an ambulance.
From inside the front door of Emmie and Pa’s house, the living room was to the right. There was a couch and armchairs, a coffee table with Swedish meatballs and mushrooms stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and a Christmas tree, wrapped presents piled underneath. Straight ahead a doorway led to the dining room, where the grown-ups ate, then a kitchen and a den, where Pa liked to sit in a La-Z-Boy sipping gin and nibbling the corners from a Hershey bar. To the left of the front door was a room with a tiled floor, a skylight and a hot tub. It was there the kids were kept out of the way while the grown-ups ate—and where Kaitlyn could torment me.
I wanted to eat with my parents, but both of my uncles were former college lacrosse and football players who lifted weights and talked about it, and I didn’t want them to know I was scared of a little girl. So I just sort of avoided sitting down, got up for more turkey or went to the bathroom. Things were going well that Christmas. I don’t remember any run-ins with Kaitlyn. My strategy of avoidance was working. At some point I walked through the dining room, past the table where the adults laughed and shouted over dinner, through the kitchen and into the den, where a muted TV showed sports.
The den was lowly lit. The faux leather of Pa’s recliner was cracked and worn soft in the seat and on the arm rests. My mom’s real father battled alcoholism and killed himself sometime after being divorced from my grandmother, when my mom was a teenager. Long before I was born, Emmie married George, a pharmacist from Port Jefferson, Long Island, who loved her children as if they were his own. He also loved the Yankees and crossword puzzles and enjoying both from his recliner. When his stepchildren had children, he loved them too and became known as Pa.
The den was empty. Next to the TV, lit candles stood on a mantle. Above that, a wreath hung on the wall. I don’t remember if I smelled it or if I just saw what was happening, but the wreath was fully on fire, a spire of black smoke crawling up the wall and pluming at the ceiling. I walked out of the den, through the kitchen and into the dining room. “There’s a fire in there,” I said.
The grown-ups pushed away from the table and ran to the den. Someone called 911, and the kids were shooed out the front door. When the fire truck arrived, my uncle took charge. He was a volunteer fire fighter in New Jersey and offered advice to his colleagues from Commack as they put on their helmets and grabbed axes. The entire family was out in the street, washed in the red flashes of the fire truck. I don’t remember how long we stood there before someone said, “Jamie’s a hero!”
A few years after the fire, the family began to disperse. Pa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He and Emmie moved into an assisted living facility on Long Island before moving into a golf course condo on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Physically, Pa couldn’t play golf, but also I think he hated the game. He was a baseball guy.
Two years ago, Pa died in Florida. Emmie has since remarried, and I’ve heard her new husband is very nice. For many people, the ideal of Christmas is cobbled together from a bank of childhood memories when the holiday exhilarated and buzzed with anticipation: treats and presents and time off from school. As we age, we attach ourselves to those memories—to the phantom tingling we felt as young people on Christmas Eve—and they become an abstraction we call Christmas spirit. If I have Christmas spirit, it is sourced by the memory of Pa on two feet, and the lot of us standing out in the cold, as the fire fighters tore apart the wall where the wreath hung. In the end, most of the damage to the den was caused to make sure no embers remained—to put out completely the chance of the fire re-igniting. Huddled in the front yard, all of us facing the house and the lit Christmas tree through a bay window, I remember my uncles, aunts, my mom and my dad laughing absurdly.
A decade after the fire, my dad left my mom. In the years leading up to the separation, Christmases had become fractured and inconsistent. A few gatherings were held at my parents’ new home in northern Massachusetts. Some were at Aunt Kathie’s apartment in Manhattan, which my mom didn’t attend. Others at my uncle’s house on Long Island, but the families had been spreading apart for years, and never were they all in the same place.
I became increasingly disenchanted with the holiday. My aunt’s latent observation that I was a homophobe wasn’t a cause for the way I began to feel about Christmas, but I used it as a justification for a cynicism that at some point I became proud of. To me, holidays unduly demanded feeling things about people who I only saw once or twice a year. And so I began to skip them, staying in Missoula or joining a friend rather than returning to the East Coast. And after my parents split, I stopped attending holidays with my dad’s family all together.
Two years ago, I devised a plan to have Christmas my own way, reinvented without the pretense and obligation of the family I was given, free to spend the day with the friends I had chosen. For dignity’s sake, the friends’ names have been changed.
After a morning spent trudging through knee-deep snow in the hills above the Clark Fork, my friend Davis and I returned to town with a sapling evergreen in the back of my truck. We stopped by China Buffet and ate a plate of lo mein and cashew chicken, and then a second and a third. Some time in the late afternoon, I built a bank of snow around the keg on the deck and the other orphans started to arrive.
They brought decorations, Christmas lights and tinsel and ornaments for the tree. They drank from Solo cups and refilled them before they were empty. They wore ugly sweaters. At one point, my friend Chris pulled a bag from his jacket pocket and poured a little pile of cocaine onto a plate. For a moment, I was anxious because it was a sort of brash move, and I wasn’t sure how the 15 or so other orphans would feel about it. And after all, it was Christmas. But no one seemed to mind.
The night dragged on. I called my sister, Kate, back in New York City. Forever, she had been the most constant relationship in my family, a relative who was also a friend, a confidant and a counselor. In recent years, though, my absence at Christmas had driven a wedge between us. I’d tell her that I couldn’t afford the trip or more bluntly that I didn’t want to deal with the hassle. She would call me on it. My niece, she would say, deserved to see her uncle.
Why I thought it necessary to call her that night is obvious—I had too much beer and too much of Chris’ party favor and felt the need to rub my newfound give-no-fucks attitude about Christmas in the face of someone I missed. The conversation was brief. She gifted me some laughs.
Eventually, people filtered out of the party. Hours before sunrise, it was just me and Chris and a few others, sitting in my ruined living room, watching YouTube videos. My dog sat on her bed with a dog I didn’t know, looking forlorn. The Christmas lights were on the floor and lit the room from the ground up, so the ceiling was dark. The kitchen floor was slick with dirty melted snow. All night, I had had reason to rejoice, feeling the levitating chemical surge of the holiday spirit, something I knew I wouldn’t feel with my family back east. But then it was the next morning, and everyone was gone. I picked up cups and poured the dregs down the sink. Every surface was sticky, and when I tried to mop the kitchen floor, I succeeded only in spreading around spits of sand. I was tired and probably could have fallen asleep but I felt the need to keep moving, to distract myself from whatever feeling was sure to come. The tinsel was a bitch to get off the carpet.
Humbuggery is easy, because Christmas is a holiday disconnected from its antecedent. It’s more American than Christian, and if you don’t feel like flying home to see your family, it’s convenient to just call it capitalist. On the other hand, if you are the one waiting at the airport, it’s equally convenient to declare Christmas as a day for family—a moment when you are meant to slow down and spend time with people from the same gene pool, who you were born to love. Neither attitude is fair, and both inflict undue pressure on the person owning it.
Like Christmas, the ideal of family is often based in memory and felt in the present as an abstraction. Just as we see our families grow by birth and marriage, we see them shrink by death and divorce. Family is a bedrock given to dissolution, a hypocrisy that when you are young tempts disenchantment. I recognize that privilege, more than anything else, breeds cynicism, and cynicism mistakes hope for naïveté. I also recognize that people and circumstances are forever changing; nothing can be relied on to stay the same.
A year and a half ago, I began dating a girl named Carly and we immediately moved in together. Most of my friends thought it was a bad idea—a classic near-sighted mistake on my part—and so far proving them wrong has been a joy. I spent last Christmas with Carly and her dad and stepmom, her brother and his wife and infant son. For three days, we watched football, cooked and ate and played board games. Like my family and so many others, her family was fractured and spread out, but they made me feel at home. They made me miss my own family, in all its strewn-about pieces. Eleven months later, Carly and I got engaged.
This Christmas, I am going back east. To say that my feelings have softened because I am getting older, my perspective wizening, is only partly true and a little bit of a cop-out. More at the heart is that again my family, like everyone’s family at various points in a life, is on the precipice of redefinition, and so too are my attitudes about time spent in December.
My dad remarried in July. His wife is from New Jersey. Her name is Jayne and she has sisters named Joyce and Joan and sons named Jordan and Jason. That my name is James, as is my father’s and his father’s, is a fact I’m still working through.
The wedding was pleasant if a little weird. Having not attended Christmas in years, it was the first time in a long time I had seen my aunts and his other relatives. Hugs were accompanied by looks that seemed to say, “Nice of you to join us.”
My sister Kate was also at the wedding with her growing family. Today, Kate has two daughters, Zadie and Naiyah. They are beautiful and smart and I think if Kate has any major anxieties about being a mother, chief among them is that her daughters will be raised without a strong sense of family.
Naiyah never met Big or Little. She was a tiny, memory-less baby when we still lived on the hill in New Canaan. When Naiyah was 3 my sister and her dad were divorced. When she was 4, my sister remarried and a year later, Naiyah had a new sister. Then her grandfather was also divorced and my mom, who Naiyah called Reenie, wasn’t around so much. Now her uncle will be married, and her family is changing again.
At my dad’s wedding, Naiyah was proud of her fuchsia dress and silver slippers. I’ve never really spent a Christmas with her. I don’t know what they’ve been like for her, but I remember Christmas vacation and the anticipation of Dec. 25 when I was her age. When I think about Christmases of the future, I imagine Naiyah as she was in the dress she wore to my dad’s wedding—laughing and blushing at things that had long ago become invisible to me. I’ll spend some of those holidays at Kate’s home in Brooklyn. Carly will be there, and maybe she’ll squeeze my thigh when my aunt reveals my phobias again. Maybe we’ll go for a walk before dinner and she’ll make a joke about all those J-names. And when all the grown-ups are sitting around the dinner table, maybe a candle will flicker out of control in the next room. Maybe Carly will be the first to notice Naiyah standing in the threshold to the kitchen. She’ll be wide-eyed and pointing through the doorway. Softly, she’ll say, “There’s a fire in there.”