The Ghost of Christmas Past

Trigger Warning: parental death, sexual abuse

My father died on Christmas, the year I was ten. It’s so tempting to call it “The Worst Christmas Present in the History of Ever.”

It’s the perfect counterpoint to The Best One, isn’t it? But not all good presents – not all important ones – come wrapped in shiny, happy paper. This one came with barbed wire ribbon and paper made with the hearts of little girls. It was a gift nonetheless.

You don’t need a lot of details to understand the story. He was the worst kind of father. By the time I was four or five, he had started teaching me all about the monsters that live under the bed (or, say, in the bedroom across the hall). The first few years weren’t too bad. He was in the Army and spent a good portion of my life either in Viet Nam or stationed in another state. But near the end, he was given the medical boot and came home to live with us permanently.

That’s when things got out of control. It didn’t take long to establish there were no longer any safe places at home, no safe times, not even when others were in the next room (or – in at least one grisly case – the same room). The psychological toll of living with that kind of relentless dread was tremendous. It was by far worse than any of the physical things he did to me, and there was simply no end in sight. Whatever he told me to keep me quiet was brutally effective.

I’d say the only thing that made his death horrible was the timing, but that’s just not true, no matter how much I wish it were. I spent a lot of time being angry – at the doctor for not fudging the death certificate by a few minutes so Christmas Day would remain unspoiled, at the universe for giving me such a shitty father, at myself for not being strong enough to kill him myself.

I got over him, eventually. There wasn’t much choice. After I had my daughter, I realized if I didn’t get my head right, she was likely to wind up as fucked up as I was. I surely didn’t want that, so after a dozen years or so I finally starting cleaning up the body under the tree.

But I never dealt with Christmas itself. After 38 years, it’s about time, wouldn’t you say?

It’s probably no accident – or surprise – that my favorite Christmas song is Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.” The music is beautiful and very traditional, but once you start listening to the lyrics you understand it’s about the pain and disappointment of finding out it’s all just a fairy story.

But it’s one of those songs I couldn’t listen to without crying. It’s so beautiful, but it hurt so damn much.

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow on Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noël be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve.

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on Earth, but there wasn’t. There was nothing but shame and fear. Like a stone around my neck I’ve carried the idea that I deserved all the anguish, pain, and sadness.

I railed at Fate a few days ago, fed up and furious that Christmas was still a train wreck in my head. So I screamed at him, for the umpteenth time: I didn’t deserve to have my Christmas wrecked!

This time he answered back.

“No, you didn’t. You deserved to be free.”

I still do.

I’m reclaiming Christmas. Not for my kids, not for my family, but for me. There won’t be snow on Christmas, and there certainly won’t be peace on Earth, but there will be a big little girl hoping for something wonderful under the tree this year.

That’s the gift I’m giving myself.

Well, one of them. The first gift of this Christmas season is finally being able to listen to this song without crying. And it’s an awesome present.

By Brenda

40-something-something stay home mom, floating somewhere between traditional and strange. I’m addicted to music, making things and my computer.

6 replies on “The Ghost of Christmas Past”

There is nothing I can say to this. Just nothing. Well, except maybe these few things: I love you. I understand why no one knew about any of this. My word to you is that I’ll not mention this to anyone; why the hell should I? The only think I’m even somewhat growly about is how fondly Mom and Grandma speak of him, although my assumption is that they had/have no idea, and I won’t be the one to spoil it. For your part, I thank you for not letting it keep you from giving anyone who spent Christmas with you a very good Christmas indeed. You always have been amazing.

I so much want to apologize for wrecking your opinion of your grandfather, but … well, it is what it is. I needed to write this, it’s been a big part of the healing and reclaiming process.

It’s taken me a lifetime to understand I absolutely have nothing to apologize for, even if I still feel the need to.

I’m usually not one to advocate not talking about things (obviously), but this is one of those situations when talking about it won’t serve any good purpose. It wouldn’t fix anything, and would only hurt people who don’t need to be hurt.

I love you, honey. And if you need to ask questions, or even just talk about it, don’t hesitate.

It’s fine. I’ve still got some sort of a decent view; I mean, all of those things they told me about him fighting in Vietnam and such were true. Like I said, no harm done really, since I never met him. I’m glad you found a way to share this, and your story stays with me unless you state otherwise.

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