When I found out Santa Claus was a lie, I didn’t know how to break the news to my parents. Several convincing arguments from classmates had sowed doubt, along with considering the logistics. But my mom and dad were always so excited about Santa every year. But how could I be so cold, watching my dad come to terms that I came to terms that Santa wasn’t real? Parents grow up so fast. What’s the harm of them holding on to my child innocence just a little longer?
I’m 9 when my dad asks “So what would you like for Christmas this year?” I’m in the backseat of the car watching snow fly by when I keep up the lie.
“Oh, I haven’t sent my wish list to Santa yet. I have to write that out soon!”
Tense silence. He exchanges glances with my mom who’s riding on the passenger side.
Weeks later, Christmas morning, each present under the tree addressed to me bears the same tag:
From: MOM AND DAD
In a natural silence that comes after opening presents, my dad says out loud to no one in particular “Yep, no Santa this year.”
I absolutely adore the story and heart behind the “No Santa Christmas” of 1998, but for Christmas 2013, I really needed a Santa.
Broke in more ways than one, moving back home feels eerily natural. In days I'm gorging on comfort foods and playing video games with my brother like I have returned to an ancestral land. The timeless pleasures of the southwest suburbs. Leaving Chicago was leaving behind several run-ins with what I would assume was rock bottom. I would hit this rock bottom, wake up on my air-mattress in a spinning room and mutter “this must be rock bottom” only to discover that the “bedrock” was actually a narrow cliff-side shelf, easily rolled off into a free-fal, until hitting another jutting cliff. As I settle… “Now, This must be rock buttom.” One these respites, I consider positive lifestyle changes like juicing or only getting drunk two times a month.
Homemade foods salve the soul. I snag a job at Starbucks. Structure. Home is where I can finally afford health insurance, but home is also where I’ve internalized "People who need therapy just need a good friend." After a few months of a new start, I was back to keeping the lie. I roll over.
It’s easy to blame boozing on my dad passing away five days after I turned 21, or point to the isolation of moving away to college a few months after his death, but addiction was waiting to flourish. I was isolating long before my first drink. Not being able to voice grief did not help. I already hid most details of my life from my immediate friends and family. I desperately wanted to start over again. I won’t roll over.
Earning a DUI that October, I’m blessed with not hurting myself or anyone, physically. When I saw the red and blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror, I was hit with a wave of relief. It was over. No hiding.
“This, This, must be rock bottom.”
I’m not great at holidays. Nor great with talking with family at holiday parties. Nor reliable at gift giving. And my gift giving is surrounded by ego that each gift has to be the best gift, despite not having any money to spend, 2013 especially, I tried crafting. Non-starter.
My brother and I had previously talked about how much fun it would be to stage a funny, cheesy family Christmas portrait. It has been decided. The complete immediate family had open availability post-Thanksgiving dinner for a photo op. The stars were aligning. This single photo, my redemption.
Thanksgiving night. Post-dinner, and I am in my room shaking with nerves. Downstairs in the living room my mom, brother, sister, and brother-in-law are waiting for me to start my much-anticipated gift. Coming from a family that worries, I am positioned in a unique conundrum: Conceptually, we're making a purposefully janky Christmas photo, but internally, it must be perfect in it's controlled jankiness. I twalk out of my room, head to the linen closet and find an old bluish green bedsheet that could double as the backdrop seen in middle-school class photos. My sister to helps hang the backdrop. My brother is taller than the backdrop.
My mind chimes in “All is lost.”
I worry, I get tense, and worry is as contagious as yawning, so soon we are all suddenly tense and worrying.
My brother Kevin states that, if we are going for jankiness, then the busted backdrop works in our favor, and I want to counter that the backdrop gives order and proper framing for jankiness and compromising the frame undermines the erzats studio feel, but instead, I breathe. This is new to me.
My sister Julie and her husband Mike embrace the idea of my looming brother and decorate him as a tree. They tend to tinsel and I go to set up the shot using my dad's old tripod. Shit, it has become a bipod. And I want to scream, but instead we start stacking books. It's not that I've stop caring about the photo, but maybe… oh wow, is this what it feels like to have fun with my family?
We’re hanging ornaments on my brother, my mom subbed her ugly sweater for a winterwonderland denim number. A dearest friend of mine and an “adopted” family member we’ve babysat for most of their life stop by. We’re out of Christmas sweaters but our house collects costume pieces for pinches just like this.
We have to act fast. The light-up tree topper on my brother’s head is starting to burn and ornaments are shattering. We pose, I hit the timer on the camera, I run back into my space but I don't make it quite in time before the flash, we go with it, and I bounce back to the camera, and the picture is still loading.
Of all the Christmas songs, Little Drummer Boy as got to be the least musically interesting. But I like the idea. This boy finds themself at the birth of Christ. Everyone else there has brought gifts, but this boy only has a drum. So he plays the drum for baby Jesus.
It can be read as a great testament to using art to commune with faith and the unknowable. I could see it as extolling how “any gift you bring that comes from the heart is a good gift.”
But… imagine a reality where a young child plays drums for a newborn baby. It can easily go south fast. Nowhere in the song is any indication of the quality of this child’s drumming, not to mention if he can read the room.
The song loads.
CAPTION: The horse is wearing a hat, which gives the horse status.
Their glowing faces expectantly looking at me to see how it I like it. And I look at them as if I had just tricked them. But this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. My sister sees it first, and she cries. My mom, wary from the start, looks at the photo, laughs, takes a deep breath, looks at it again, and says "oh this is weird." The rest of that night still stands as the most relaxed evening I've ever had with my family. Over the next few weeks, our family sent glossy print-outs of this picture to unwitting family members. Of any photo, I can’t think of one of us that holds more truth.
About the artist...
Mike Haverty (They/Them) is a performer and writer living in Chicago. Read more of their writing at ReclaimingLaughter.wordpress.com.
Want to see more of Mike's work?
Check out their work from past issues: