It is 1984, I am 11 years old and it is Christmas Eve. The wind outside makes a tinkling noise, like a child at the back of the orchestra banging on a triangle. Cash registers are ringing all over the city, timers are dinging on top of stoves, bells are shaking outside of department stores, elevators are pinging as people reach their floors. It all makes a pretty, frenetic version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
It has been snowing for days. The statue of the angel on the corner has a white fur hat that makes her look like Anna Karenina contemplating jumping onto the train tracks. Wherever you go, you leave a trail so that people will be able to find you.
Inside our kitchen, however, we are overheated and are cooking away. I sit on a wooden board on top of the radiator mashing the potatoes vigorously for a half an hour, until they will be light and fluffy enough to rise out of the pot like clouds. The old pot looks like an asteroid that fell to earth. My older sister is in the bedroom reading a comic book. My younger sister is underneath the table, begging the dog to stay still as she puts a tiny tuxedo on him.
My dad keeps criticizing the way I am mashing the potatoes and stirring the sauces. My dad is very bossy, to the point of absurdity. He complained about my handwriting on the Christmas cards we sent out. He said that my letters looked like lazy men sitting on a bench on the corner. He said that I didn’t put the lights on the tree properly and that he gets dizzy just looking at the tangled mess. I would need a whole department of elves to deal with all the complaints that my dad makes at Christmas time.
My dad stops his lecture to tell me the story of how he got the recipe for his stuffing. It was in France during the war in 1945. He was walking through the woods, when he came across a wee little old man, sitting on the ground clutching his heart. The man had been having heart pains lately and knew that he wasn’t going to last long. He had a pet goose named Françoise at his side. He had no family to pass on his famous recipe to, so he told my dad who carefully wrote it down. I like that ridiculous story, which has become part of our Christmas ritual.
This meal is too grand for the blue melamine kitchen table with its little squares of yellow and red all over it, or our regular mismatching plates or our Canadian Tire glasses with decals of hockey logos on them. We will eat in the tiny dining room at the end of the apartment that is locked with a skeleton key. It is different from the rest of the apartment, which is rundown and lived in. It is painted light green and there is a golden chandelier in the centre of the room with light fixtures in the shape of rose stems. The chesterfield has not been ripped apart by cats and has perfect hothouse roses blooming all over it.
I go to change my clothes. It is the only day of the year that I wear a dress. I put on a tight navy blue dress with white buttons in the shapes of birds up the front. I pull on a pair of grey tights that have holes in the big toes and one in the knee that my dad has ironed a patch of a red mushroom on. I have really long skinny legs and it seems to take me half an hour squiggling on the bed to wiggle into them. I am too exhausted to bother with my messy hair that is knotted over my head.
My teddy bears sulk as they watch me. They wonder if I will stop loving them now that new toys are coming tomorrow morning. They worry about their missing ears, their bald spots, and their missing shoes. Their plastic eyes are filled with tears. I reassure them that everything is okay, and I will never forget my old friends who have taken me through so many rough times and that they are only suffering from Christmas melancholia.
My sisters and I round up all the chairs in the apartment for the coming guests. We bring in the small chairs from our bedrooms, those from the kitchen and the one from behind the desk in my dad’s room. My dad hasn’t spoken to his biological family in decades, but we have our own version of an extended family. Since I can remember, my dad has always been introducing me to people and claiming that they are uncles and cousins, although they surely are not. My dad always has odd ball riff raff eccentric young men who hang around him and adore him. They ask him the big questions like: is religion necessary, or is there a difference between a good person and a bad person. They write down the things that my dad says in notebooks. He wants to be a great man and they are looking for a great man, so it works out perfectly.
We hear them coming up the stairs, the sound of their rattling beer and wine bottles announcing them. You have to kiss people on both cheeks when they walk through the door so that they will thaw out. I always like the way that cheeks smell when they have been outside in the cold.
Roger, who works at the repertory cinema, shows up first. He has a checkered blazer with a carnation in the buttonhole. He always has wonderful things to say about films that I would never have thought of. He likes to say that Sylvester Stallone speaks as if he is weeping and that Robert De Niro acts as though there is a gun to his head. After he comes in, he gives me a copy of Au Bout de Souffle. “There will be no such thing as ordinary life after you watch this movie,” Roger says. “Everything will seem to be philosophical.”
I want to drop everything and watch this movie, but the door is thrown open. Joe, the cashier at the grocery store, has arrived. He is black and has a great afro and is wearing a polyester burgundy suit and a big fat scarf wrapped like a boa constrictor around his neck. He has really good taste in music. Once we listened to David Bowie’s Starman twelve times in a row to see if it was possible to get sick of it. It turned out that it was not. Today he has brought me a mixed tape with a piece of masking tape that has the words ELECTRIC SONGS FOR SUPERSTARS written on it.
Then comes Jerry who claims to have a PhD in literature from McGill but who works at a Salvation Army. Jerry gets drunk every time he comes over, and he pours himself a tumbler of wine the minute he walks through the door. Jerry always brings me wonderful paperback novels that people bring by the Salvation Army. He introduced me to Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka. He reads over my short stories. Tonight, Jerry gives me a copy of Franny and Zooey. Inside is the inscription, “This book will change your life.” And later I will read it and find out that it does.
They are like the three wise men who have arrived with their gifts from their respective kingdoms. All my dad’s friends are prone to excesses of both joy and sadness. It is these imbalances that have led to them not being invited to their own families on Christmas Day. My dad has a very high tolerance for eccentricity, something that I have inherited from him. He isn’t bothered by any of it and neither am I.
Judging from all the shoes in the hallway now, it looks like there must be hundreds of people in the house. I put their coats on hooks in the hallway, but they are too heavy and they collapse to the ground like fat mafia lords shot from behind.
My dad’s latest girlfriend, Helen, arrives next. She brings her black cat Telephone. My dad hates that cat. It disdains our family, flipping its tail around and giving everyone dirty looks. With its tight black fur, it is dressed better than everyone here, including our dog with its crooked bowtie. Helen is jolly and is greeting everyone really loudly. She is plump and much younger than my dad. She likes to climb on stage at rock concerts and take photographs of the singers. She shows me them sometimes. They wear spandex white suits covered in sequins and look fifteen feet tall. Helen has just graduated from university. Poor thing, she has, in her youthful folly, mistaken my dad for a romantic figure.
Helen’s parents show up next. Her mother wears a light blue suit and has a long polka dotted scarf around her neck and is speaking of hotel service in France. She is with her new husband, Mon Oncle Albert, who is tall and skinny, has a bushy white moustache, wears a beige suit and is apparently a millionaire. They carry around a green suitcase with the ingredients for a Bloody Mary everywhere they go. They are already drunk when they show up, probably to deal with the fact that their daughter has hooked up with a member of the lower classes who is twenty years older than her and has three kids.
Our family tree is as covered with odd and colourful additions as a Christmas evergreen!
My dad comes to the table wearing a navy blue suit he purchased in the fifties over a red wife-beater undershirt, like he is Santa Claus on a fancy date. He sits at the head at the table, knowing that everyone had better thank him for all the incredible efforts he has made to bring Christmas to the whole world.
We pull our crackers and put our paper crowns on our heads. In school we read about the Vikings and how their heaven was a banquet table that everyone sat around feasting at for the rest of eternity. I am happy and understand where the Vikings were coming from. The light from the chandelier shines on us, like we are the rock stars from Helen’s photographs.
Now it is time for saying grace, and Joe raises his glass in order to make the first toast.
“All we persecuted rebels and pirates have been onboard our wee ships looking for a North Star to lead us to a land of wealth and plenty for so long,” Joe says. “And we finally found it! The North Star has led us here.”
We all clap our hands at Joe’s lovely words. He is right. The North Star is on top of the Christmas tree, just like a sheriff’s badge pinned to a little boy’s black sweater as he plays at cops and robbers.
Although the people in our living room have difficulties with some aspects of life, they happen to be very good at giving speeches. They have spent so much of their lives trying to talk their way out of trouble with the police, trying to get girls to take them back, trying to justify their actions, working on dissertations or poems, and watching movies by themselves. As a result, the speeches around our table combine the unpredictability of self-destructive politicians going off script, the bravado of inspired young rock stars, the conviction of militant ministers, the bawdiness of drunk best men at weddings and the innocent hopefulness of elementary valedictorian speeches.
Jerry is next to stand up with a glass in his hand and begins, “The days are usually filled with a loneliness and a preoccupation with what tomorrow will turn us into. But that doesn’t matter tonight. On this magic night we don’t worry about who we are not, but rather marvel in the wonder of who each of us are. You are each of you dearer to me than my own family. And I thank you for taking in a wayward poet from the cold and allowing him to recite quite a lengthy thank you at your table.”
Tears start coming to his eyes. Helen’s mother suddenly decides to have her say as well.
“Well,” she begins. “I would say that I didn’t know what to expect when I was coming here tonight. But I am very glad that we decided to come to spend the night here instead of our own home. This has been very interesting. I thank you for the experience. If my daughter is happy about being here, then I am happy about her being here too. I see what my daughter sees in this family. It is chaos and it is warm. And it is real life.”
My dad watches her carefully as she speaks. He is waiting and waiting for her to say something offensive. Like most rude people, my dad is incredibly sensitive himself. My dad slams his fist on the table. All the utensils jump on the napkins, like people startled from their sleep.
“I will tell you all one thing,” my dad says. “There is no family in the whole city that is getting to eat the way that we are eating. And I’m keeping the blinds down so that they can’t see what we have and die from jealousy.”
I decide that it is time to intervene. The last thing anyone needs is a Christmas fight, which can erupt like a wild tornado, tearing across the table, knocking over all the plates and the cups and scaring all the guests away. I have been working on my speech all week. I want to do something as marvellous as Jerry with his PhD in English literature.
“Welcome my friends and family friends,” I begin. “Welcome to our big family. Welcome to our apartment. Welcome Christmas Day. Santa Claus is rushing about. Even the dog looks fantastic. Thank you dear turkey for letting us eat you. We eat like pigs tonight. We are the kings and queens of the living -room!”
My dad smirks as if to suggest that I could have done better. But then he smiles. What we are all trying to say is, isn’t it swell that we get to spend our lives together. We raise up our glasses of booze and proclaim the wonder of our own existence. And for anyone who says Christmas is too big, I say, well then, just let it get bigger. Christmas is for everyone — the losers, the aristocrats, the oddballs, the drunk eleven-year-olds, the exhausted dogs. These are our magical productions. It is when we are at our most absurd that we are our most wonderful. What are we doing at Christmas other than making life special for those we love?
Later after the guests go home, it continues to snow. The snow makes everything quiet, like when you put a sheet over a bird’s cage. Underneath the tree is a present that my mother has sent. I already know what she has got me. She gives me my favourite gift every year, which is a black journal with white pages in it. I like to fill them from cover to cover with thoughts — my words like little footprints making tracks through the newly fallen snow.
The lights of the Christmas tree are blinking from the living room. It is as though Rudolph has had one too many drinks and is lying on the couch, turning his nose on and off.
And even later, when everyone has gone to sleep, a wee mouse hops out from among the pile of dishes. He picks up a paper umbrella and performs the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on top of a paper napkin with a blue snowflake on it. And as he takes his bow, he exclaims, Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.
Heather O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the Canada Reads competition in 2007 and the Hugh MacLennan prize for fiction. Her new book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, will be released in May 2014.
Story: Heather O'Neill
Illustrations: Louise-Catherine Bergeron
Production: Jeanine Lee & Dawn Lemieux