Christmas Traditions in a "Dysfunctional" Family

The feeling of growing up in a dysfunctional family seems to be common. The term "dysfunctional" indicates that the family did not function at all, which is usually not true. No matter how deep the pathology or how damaged the members, families usually DO function to some extent, especially during the holidays.

I call my family "dysfunctional" because my father was a love and sex addict who also suffered from a personality disorder. My mom spent most of her life dealing with my father and also with her paranoid schizophrenic mother who ended up committing suicide at age 69. Mom suffered from panic disorder and low self esteem, a condition she unwittingly passed on to me.

Fast forward to Christmas at our house. This holiday brought stability to my sister and me because the family followed the same traditions each year. First, we attended Christmas Eve services, usually at 11:00 PM, so that by the time the service was over, it was actually Christmas Day.

My sister and I were each permitted to take one gift to bed with us. We were not allowed to open that gift until we woke up in the morning, and we were prohibited from waking Mom and Dad or going out into the living room to see what Santa had brought until Mom and Dad were up. We also had to wait until Dad got all of his movie equipment ready, including some huge lights as this was well before the age of digital and video cameras.

Mom would make sure my sister and I both had robes and slippers on and had our hair fixed before we exited our room. Dad would get the lights switched on and the film rolling as we came into the living room to discover our surprises. There was no sound on the film in those days, so Dad acted as film director as he ran the camera. My sister and I were blinded by the movie lights, but somehow we managed to find the tree and our gifts.

We each received one major gift at Christmas. When I was three years old, I got a stuffed Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. When I was four, I received a cardboard doll house which my friend and I tore to shreds one day for fun. Mom and Dad were not amused!

My sister and I would open other gifts, usually "practical" items such as socks, hair bands, and clothing. We were happy to get these things. We also emptied the stockings we had hung up. The stockings always contained a silver dollar and an orange along with some candies.

Another tradition we observed was that Dad always gave Mom some lovely pieces of clothing, which she invariably took back to the store. Nothing ever really suited her except a suede coat with a  mink collar that Dad insisted she keep. She wore it rarely and always felt conspicuous in it. Every year, Dad would have Mom try on her new clothing, and all of us would compliment her and tell her how lovely she looked. Just like clockwork, she would remove the new items, fold them carefully, and then return them to the store the following week. Nothing ever suited her completely, and she was so obsessed with saving money that she often got cash back instead of other clothes. She grew up during the Great Depression. Enough said.

After gifts were opened, we had a larger-than-normal breakfast. That often included bacon and eggs, which was unusual for us as we were a cereal family. Then we would get dressed and arrange our gifts neatly under the tree. The rest of the day was spent enjoying whatever we had gotten.

Dysfunctional: Not really -- not on Christmas Day, anyhow!

Today, our family no longer includes my dad -- in fact he is spending his second Christmas with God this year. He and Mom divorced after twenty-five years of  marriage, but he continued to be part of my life until he passed. Our nuclear family includes my mom, who is now ninety, my daughter and her husband, and my husband and me. We will attend Christmas Eve services, but the difference is that my husband will be celebrating Eucharist as the priest of the church. Mom, my daughter, and I will sing in the choir.

We don't exchange gifts any longer; instead, giving money to various charities in honor of family members. I do, however, have a few small gifts for Mom and for my daughter. We will have dinner together tomorrow and spend some time enjoying one another's company.

Christmas in the "frozen North" is somewhat alien to my husband, who hails from the Land Down Under. His family celebrates with a picnic or barbecue and sometimes goes to the beach. It's hotter than Hades on Christmas Day in Australia. Australians are much more laid back about holidays and how they are celebrated. His mom often sends me something handcrafted for Christmas. This year she sent me a tea towel decorated with the banksia flower, a native Australian plant.  Gifts are usually small and thoughtful. Australians don't normally go for an ostentatious Christmas.

I began this post talking about dysfunctional families, a term that is much bandied about and misused. I have yet to find a family that completely lacks difficulties or psychological issues in at least some of its members. We human beings have a facility for taking what is handed to us and doing the best we can with what we've got. In my mind, that's actually pretty functional.

However your family celebrates Christmas, may you have a blessed and spiritually refreshing holiday. Peace.

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