Killing a Christmas in Salem

December 26, 2023 —
We did it. Christmas is no more. Vanquished. What was once peace on earth and cozy vigils for Santa are now stacks of flattened cardboard on back porches, dead trees on curbs, and so many plastic gift cards in pockets. It’s time to take the set down.

My daughters and I spent the weekend watching kaiju movies, driving to oddities, playing games, and just generally enlivening the innards of this old Black House. We opened presents on the morning of Christmas Eve. With most of our traditions dashed, there was no reason to play by the rules anymore. It was a surreal moment. Both joyous and felt at a distance. With the continuity of the past decade and a half broken and being the only adult, I often felt like a detached observer. The only one sewing the present to the past (the Ghost of Christmas Past is the most important ghost). But the girls make everything fun, and we exchanged strange gifts, breakfasted on cookies and Pop Rocks, and then went to the theater to nap through the Aquaman sequel.

I spent Christmas day in Salem, watching horror movies with a friend, eating homemade pasta sauce, drinking Coke Zeros and whatever was brown on his liquor trolley, and talking about a vast range of topics like only friends can. At about ten o’clock, we said our goodbyes, and I walked out into the streets of Salem, a city that has harbored me well through the acid storms of the past couple years.

It was empty. Everything was closed. The streets were wet with previous rains. The fog was thick. A layer of Christmas glowed atop the foundation of Halloween that is Witch City. I wandered the usual loop that I do in Salem—the Common, Essex Street, the Old Burying Point, a solo figure in a dark coat cutting through the fog.

I found one place open: Nathaniel's Restaurant at the Hawthorne Hotel. “Friendly shadows,” as Kris Kristofferson spoke-sung. As good a place as any to say goodbye to the season. I slunk in just in time for last call. Last call for Christmas.

What did I learn this year about being a Christmas villain?

I learned that it’s a relatively easy stance to take. The holiday insists upon itself so much because it’s mostly made of that tissue paper diligent present-wrappers use. It blows away if you so much as breath a John Lennon line at it. It’s fragile because it’s fake. And, like most bullies, it’s mostly bravado.

There were days I wouldn’t even have known it was the Christmas season were it not for the TV commercials trying to leverage holiday-lit living rooms full of veneer-shiny smiles and perfect and perfectly wrapped presents into meeting quarterly revenue goals.

I learned that the break in “holiday break” is more important than the holiday. Some days off at the end of the year to take a deep breath to dive into the next. You don’t need it covered with garland and free shipping to do that. In fact, the less you obligations you have, the better you are for it.

I learned that the recent advent of Krampus and other European monsters into our holidays might be a corrective to the saccharine, Hallmarky-markness of today’s Christmas. We have forgotten our hearts and will now have them yanked bloodily from our breasts.

I learned that a lot of people feel this way about the holiday. I probably got more encouragement for this project than any I’ve done before. Made me want to write a reverse-Scrooge story where the main character starts off all holly-ridden and jolly-diseased, and ends up as a valiant antihero so evolved above the holiday that he seems like an alien monstrosity. And you’re happy for the transformation. Like Ben drinking himself to death in John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas.

It certainly helped that my family has dwindled drastically over the past two years. That marginalized Christmas a lot.

It also helped that Heat Miser was on my side. No white Christmas to melt me. My lawn stayed as wet and brown all season as a 1980s paneled basement after a flood. Central New England, you can blame me for the psychic projection that kept Christmas dull, dripping, and bedraggled.

Finally, I do want to thank everyone who, despite my open curmudgeonry, still reached out to check on me or wish me a Merry Christmas on Christmas day. I had more texts and emails like that than the past five years combined. People are great. Even if there is a surplus of them.

Still, bah humbug, everybody. We shouldn’t forget that just because Christmas is over. Bah humbug should live in our hearts year-round.