Is January Here Yet? by Pam Munter
Contrary to popular beliefs, Christmas is not always merry. As a child, I tolerated its
ambiguity better than I do now. The glittering lights, the festive music, the anticipation of the
Christmas morning bounty – they all compensated for the tension in my family in the days and
It was important to my mother that the holiday resemble a Hallmark greeting card,
everybody happy and smiling. Society itself exerts the expectation of euphoria this time of year
but my mother seemed to see the season as her annual report card.
For many weeks, she dutifully shopped for relatives and for her husband and two
children. Once the task was completed, she spent several evenings sitting at a card table in the
middle of the living room surrounded by wrapping paper, ribbons and decorations, lovingly
adorning the gifts, each package a work of art.
“Pam, wrap that one in the gold paper, not the blue. It goes to Aunt Mimi.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a cigarette case.” Her eyebrows shot up. “From Orgell’s.” That was a prestige store
in Beverly Hills so Mimi must be on her good list this year.
I followed her instructions, though it was clear I lacked any of the skills she had
cultivated over many decades. It didn’t even occur to me until years later that my father was
absent during these events. His primary contribution to the holiday was to rush out the day
before Christmas to buy something for my mother. In general, he left to her the elaborate
Christmas preparations, including the family Christmas dinner, typically for 20-25 people.
Sometimes when Mom opened his gift on Christmas morning I could see her perpetual smile
harden into a frozen mask. It was obvious that what he had given her was neither expected nor
Yet it was the familiar and reassuring family rituals that kept Christmas afloat. The week
before, we all ventured out in the family car to look at Christmas lights, singing carols while we
visited the drive-by Nativity scenes in the park on the Santa Monica bluffs. Then as soon as it
was dark on Christmas Eve, we’d make our routine deliveries to family and friends to exchange
gifts. The adults would sit and talk while us kids sat and fidgeted, eager to make the next loot
stop. Christmas Eve dinner was ham, potato salad and beans, hurried so we could take turns
opening a single present from the pile.
Each year, Mom would ask what I wanted for Christmas. I could count on getting several
of my desired items, thanks to my parents’ generosity. Other times gifts appeared without regard
to either my interests or wants. One year in particular—I was maybe ten—I had been saving for
what seemed like forever for a coveted three-speed blue British racing bike to replace my old
balloon-tire Schwinn. My father had bought a large white ceramic piggy bank for this purpose,
carefully lettering the side with, “Racer Bicycle Fund.” When I did chores to earn money, I’d
ceremoniously insert the coins into the piggy bank. I just knew the day would come when I’d get
When Christmas morning arrived, I awakened to find a shiny two-wheeler sitting right
there in front of the tree. I blinked twice, knowing it must be for me, the one I had wanted so
much. But it wasn’t blue but a dismal, dark maroon and not the brand we had endlessly
discussed. I tried to look pleased amid my confusion and disappointment. After all the gifts were
opened, my mother sat back and crowed.
“Don’t you just love your new bike, honey?”
I swallowed hard and ventured. “Yeah, I do, but…it’s the wrong color and…”
I saw her recoil as if I had slapped her. “Well, that’s ingratitude for you.”
I knew I had said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry. But I wanted a blue one.” I had worked so
hard for that bike and felt like I had earned it.
“You’re just being selfish. You should be grateful you got a new bike at all.”
I felt terrible. And ungrateful. And selfish. I had ruined her perfect scenario. It wasn’t the
only such holiday trauma, either. I never knew when I might say the wrong thing, eliciting the
familiar epithets. Christmas was filled not with the happy suspense all children anticipate but an
unnamed sense of dread.
My mother knew her last Christmas would indeed be her final one. We had practically
kidnapped her from the nursing home for an evening of gift-opening and the traditional dinner
which she couldn’t eat. Our gifts to her were practical—a nightgown, slippers, favorite
candies—knowing there were probably just months remaining. When we were done opening, she
looked at us and with uncharacteristic effusiveness, announced, “This is the best Christmas I ever
had.” That night, it was all about the relationships, the fact that we had gone to so much trouble
to help her enjoy the holiday one last time. The moment still underscores the bittersweet nature
of the holiday.
These days, I spend Christmas with my son, Aaron, and his spouse, Dana, in the home in
which he was raised, 1000 miles away from where I currently reside. The ten-foot living room
ceiling easily accommodates a massive, brightly decorated Christmas tree. Over the years, the
legacy ornaments of Aaron’s youth have been replaced with ones they have collected together.
They go to a lot of trouble to decorate the entire house as if anticipating an inspection from Santa
himself. We shower each other with an embarrassing abundance of gifts, filling each other’s
wish lists as if the house were an Amazon annex.
So why is it when I hear Christmas carols a feeling of desolation creeps over me like
insidious ivy, wending its tentacles through my memories. It’s as if the emotional farrago that
could be fended off in childhood threatens to momentarily engulf me.
Would I miss Christmas if I missed Christmas? The familiar melancholy would
inevitably return. But then I’d turn off the holiday music and switch the TV channel to some
innocuous reality show, a soporific distraction until it’s over for another year.