The Truth About Christmas

Twelve Drummers Drumming
I designed English Club to expose my students to American culture, beyond the super exaggerated commercial society they are shown on the television. Naturally then I planned an entire unit devoted to Christmas. What else does an elementary school teacher do in December? It occurred to me more than once that this may raise eyebrows given how politically incorrect Christmas is in U.S, but as the course designer and the school’s most authentic source of all things American, I decided that operating under the American Culture umbrella I was free to do anything I want. I march to my own drum, bitches, and it’s not a buk.

Eleven Piper’s Piping
One of the things I dislike most living in Korea is the frequency at which I am approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the bus station, on the street corner, next to the market. They see me and my whiteness and react like some sort of sniper rifle, “TARGET LOCKED”. Their initial approach always seems innocent enough, like maybe they are just overly friendly Koreans who want to practice their English a little bit. After the opening barrage of questions, “Where are you from? You live in Gwangju? What do you do here? You like teaching? You like Korea?” come the soul-crushing interrogations about my state of mental health. “Are you lonely? Do you get sad? Do you feel there is no way out?” (This entire conversation takes place while I’m either walking at a steady “I want to get the fuck away from here” pace through the bus station or while I’m inching back into the crowd of people trapped at the stop light with me). Finally they identify themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses and present the ubiquitous The WatchTower magazine that publishes such hard-hitting investigative reports as “Did People in Bible Times Really Live So Long?” and “Was it Designed? The Salmon’s Efficient Swimming Style”. I think they want me to believe that inside said magazine is the answer to my assumed loneliness. Usually I feel obligated to actually take the booklet from them because it’s hard to avoid someone putting something in your hands, but rather than turn to it in a time of need, I open a beer and open the magazine and start talking shit about  the article on otters.

Ten Lords a Leaping
Day Two of English Club Christmas Unit my single sixth grader approached me after class to tell me that as a Jehovah’s Witness, she could not complete the planned ‘Christmas Card’ activity tomorrow because she does not “keep Christmas”.  I smiled (or grimaced, I don’t know) and remembered that I had sagely included a handful of secular greetings in tomorrow’s plans. She could sit through a little presentation about Christmas, dammit, and then make her boring blue “Seasons Greetings” card. And if any parents came complaining, I would plead innocence and confusion. “What do you mean “incorrect”?” Sometimes the language barrier has its benefits.

Nine Ladies Dancing “The Truth About Christmas”
Day Three of Christmas Unit my sixth grader brought me some special Christmas time Jehovah’s Witness literature, the most detestable kind. On the cover it promised “The Truth About Christmas”, inside pictures of happy looking heathens enjoying plastic bottles of vodka and premarital flirting with the opposite sex.

Jehovah God says Christmas began as a pagan holiday, one of those giant orgies the Romans are known for. The “true” Christians don’t believe in celebrating Christmas and they boycott the materialistic greed that characterizes shopping and gift giving. They denounce baby Jesus as the origin of the holiday and turn their noses up at those of us happy to celebrate in a more refined manner what can be called an evolved Saturnalia.  I am okay with this idea. If Christmas did begin the spirit of boozy pleasure, I am happy to continue that tradition and I resent people trying to make me feel bad about marring Christianity with a holiday that was barely Christian for me to begin with.

Eight Maids a Milking
Even without Jehovah God shitting all over the place, Christmas has been a challenge to teach. An hour’s worth of powerpoints, movie clips and games simply can’t capture the magic of Christmas. I am 25 years old and I believe that Christmas is magical. Not because I believe in Santa anymore, but because I once did. As a child, you spend the entire five weeks leading up to Christmas trying to behave according to Santa’s simple but consequential ‘naughty and nice’ meter. You write letters, sit on laps and generally never shut the hell up about what you want Santa to bring you. You lay awake on Christmas Eve hoping with all your heart that you just might wake up when he makes his way down the chimney and catch a little glimpse of the benevolent mystery man. And then you wake up ungodly early, cruel punishment for your parents who have spent the last few days making sure you have a perfectly magical holiday, and run downstairs to tear into your loot. You exist only for Christmas morning.

At least that’s how my Christmases went. What this ultimately means is that I grew up a privileged middle class American with parents who cared enough to go to all that trouble. Luckily, that sort of caring perpetuates itself. That’s the truth about Christmas.

Seven Swans a Swimming
I believe most of  jolliness in Christmas is rooted in how we spent Christmas as a child. The happiness that I feel now about Christmas is because Christmas has always been happy for me. For people who had equally happy holidays and have their own children now, it’s a time to try to recreate what they once experienced. Because it’s not the materials you end up with on December 26, it’s the weeks of anticipation and mystery and specialness that makes the season what it is. So the Christmas joy just keeps spreading. Christmas brings out the best in most. People and parties and food and gifts, everything is sparkly and cheery. This is normally something I would find irritating, but at Christmas it’s allowed because it’s CHRISTMAS.

Six Geese a Laying
The best I could capture of Christmas morning was that video, you know the one, of the kid ripping open his Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning, and screeching in pure, unadulterated (see how that word applies) delight in receiving exactly what he’d been so good for all year. I realized the other day that even when I didn’t get exactly what you’d ask Santa for (a puppy, every year a puppy), I don’t remember feeling disappointed. I’m sure I was, but it’s not the overwhelming sentiment that my childhood Christmas carries. Disappointing Christmases are reserved for adults, and it’s only because the standards were set so damn high when you were a kid.

Five Golden Rings
Ultimately what makes a Christmas wonderful for me now is family. Anyone who knows me knows my family and knows that their role in my life cannot be overstated. Individually we qualify for the dysfunctional Olympics, and a few of us manage to take home the gold year after year. But together we exist outside the realm of impossible and we are what I think everyone wishes a family to be: a group of people with a shared experience, the willingness to forgive and a tendency to love unconditionally.

Four Colly Birds
Christmas Eve 1997-2009 – Eight o’clock rolls around and the Dwyers begin to collecting in the living room or kitchen. It’s just the five us usually, although sometimes a stray kid with somewhere less warm and inviting to be finds his way onto the couch. In the kitchen the mom prepares individually ordered pizzas and calzones from scratch. Surrounded by an array of homemade toppings, she yells at the mooches who keep picking at the sausage and someone asks from the other room, “Is it time yet?” When the food is done, everyone will gather around the television to watch Home Alone for the 800th time. The dad always suggests we branch out and find a new movie to watch, but we cling to our tradition because it is just that, a tradition. Doesn’t matter if no one can actually hear the movie because we are all saying the words. Doesn’t matter if we’ve seen the part where Marv screams like a girl and attacks Harry with a crowbar eighty gajillion times, it’s still fucking funny.

Christmas 2010 – Me alone in my little Korean apartment. Elvis plays Silver Bells and it’s barely snowing outside.  I’m huddled over the computer working and clutching a bowl of steamed broccoli and chopsticks. No Christmas tree. No presents. No family. No warmth.

Three French Hens
I knew this year would be different. I knew that among the important, heartbreaking things I would miss (my baby brother’s high school graduation, my father’s return to health, a few dear friends’ weddings) was Christmas with my family. But it seemed like something I was supposed to do, if only to prove that I could.  Now I have to make the best of it and I will. But it’s still won’t be Christmas. My fellow English teachers probably have a much better attitude about the whole thing than I do, but you don’t read this blog because we’re barfing happy rainbow unicorn optimism all over you. I’m telling it like it is, Christmas in a land where Christmas is a romantic date holiday pretty much blows.

Two Turtle Doves
In the end I have found that Christmas away from home is not worth the “adult credit” I receive for completing it. Christmas is the primary marker of the close of one year and the start of the next, a time where no matter how awful what’s going on in my life away from my family, I can escape to the dysfunctional warmth of my mother’s house. And no matter how much time spent in a hospital, in a court room, or in a funeral home or whatever maladies often befall the holidays, I am amongst the most reliable people in my life, surrounded by good food and Christmas music and familiar faces. Now I’ve been absent once and I vow to never be absent again.

And a Patridge in a Pear Tree
The regret I have in missing this Christmas is accompanied by an ever stronger anticipation of what the next few holiday seasons may hold. A Christmas reunion with my parents and brothers, calzones by the fire and the familiar script of Home Alone, barely audible behind our excited recitations. And eventually the possibility of a new Christmas tradition, Home Alone always in the background, and new family members and new generation to teach the truth about Christmas.

6 responses to “The Truth About Christmas

  1. Megan, this is pretty wonderful. I just wanted to let you know….it’s “Four Calling Birds”.

    Collie birds would terrify the everloving hell out of me.

  2. How about Skyping your family on Christmas? Also, why spend Christmas alone when you can call up some friends and have a good time. Time to build NEW traditions!

  3. From one foreign English teacher to another, I hear you.

    Merry Christmas. And don’t oversteam your broccoli or there’s no way chopsticks will save you.

  4. Well-done post. Being in a place where Christmas is just about going on a date and wearing a fucking weird hat from Paris Baguette means my brain cannot accept that it is Christmas yet.

  5. Merry Christmas!!! Enjoyed your post.

  6. Megan, I love this! We miss the heck out of you guys and will miss seeing your Christmas tree from now until June, when you would finally take it down.

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