I’m not proud of it, but one week ago today, I barely left my sofa. Only the decorative Christmas pillows stayed there longer.
Very early that morning, I had watched my granddaughter, but when she was picked up at noon, I fell to the sofa in an exhausted heap.
My friend Nancy had invited me to her family’s Christmas open house and I toyed with the idea of going. But thanks to readers who told me about Hulu Live as a replacement for expensive cable, instead I got sucked into Christmas movies on the Lifetime Network.
In about seven hours of back-to-back sappy movies, this is what I learned.
In Lifetime movie homes, everything is decorated for Christmas. I mean everything. From lighted wreaths on every wall and twinkle lights around all the windows to bows on kitchen cabinets. Even the dog is decorated.
I felt so inadequate as my own tree, purchased on the internet, stood not 3 feet from my head.
“Why isn’t your tree decorated?” my daughter had asked earlier.
"It is," I said defensively. "It’s lit, it’s flocked and it has four ornaments. I don’t want to overdo it."
“They aren’t ornaments. They are tags that read One, Two, Three and Four.”
"Are you judging me? When you kids were little, I decorated every inch of our tree, top to bottom and even the bad side. We had every ornament you could imagine. From First Christmas Together to Baby’s First Christmas times 3. Disney and Precious Moments, which I hated by the way. Their eyes always creeped me out. There were homemade Popsicle stick Rudolphs and mini gingerbread houses made out of graham crackers that mice had chewed on over the summer.
"We had so many flashing colored lights the whole neighborhood knew when we plugged it in because it caused a power surge. And we can’t forget the tinsel because that’s what you kids wanted. I was still vacuuming up tinsel when it was time to put the plastic grass in your Easter basket, which I then vacuumed up until Labor Day. So sue me if I want simple now."
But nothing was simple in the Christmas movies I watched that day.
Everybody either had a taxing, stressful job that caused them to be disliked by everyone, or they had a bakery or a restaurant they were trying to save. In one movie, developers wanted to shut down their town and turn it into a ski resort. Of course, the thin and beautiful French-trained baker ended up falling in love with the guy working for the developer, but only after 90 minutes of arguing and feeling betrayed by him as he befriended her daughter who didn’t have a dad.
Not once did she eat her feelings by consuming mass quantities of those delectable-looking cookies or croissants. But I did, pausing the movie long enough to cook and consume a small-intestine-sized piece of hot sausage from Al’s Market in Barberton. It was delicious.
As the hours ticked by and Nancy’s family party was beginning, I was still on the sofa, watching Melissa Joan Hart get dumped by her boyfriend right before Christmas. The plot twist was when she fell asleep on her sofa and awakened to a real-life human Nutcracker standing in her living room. This was not a coincidence, as she’d had a crush on the Nutcracker when she was a little girl. And I thought I had some weird crushes.
I learned that in the Lifetime Christmas movies, almost everyone is smiling and unctuously happy, so much so they make Buddy the Elf look depressed. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s 70 degrees on the set, the snow is all fake and everything smells like sugar.
Some of the movies are sad but I just watched the sappy ones. Maybe because the sad ones hit a little too close to home.
Growing up, every single Christmas was ruined by my dad’s drinking. When I was a kid, there was a song on the radio that I could have written.
“Please, Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas.
I don’t want to see my Momma cry.
Just last year when I was only seven,
Now I’m almost eight as you can see,
You came home a quarter past eleven
And fell down underneath our Christmas tree.
Please, Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas.
I don’t want to see my Momma cry.”
But he did and my mom cried and I cried.
One memory that sticks out was the Christmas Eve my dad came home drunk and told me to wrap my mom's Christmas gifts, a fancy lighter and matching cigarette case. The problem, to my 8-year-old mind, was that my mom had finally given up smoking that year due, in part, I believed, to my repeated pleas for her to stop.
Conflicted and crying in my bedroom, wrapping the gifts seemed easier than suffering the drunken wrath of my father. My mom smoked until the day she died of congestive heart failure in 2013.
As I grew older and moved away, I somehow convinced myself that Christmases growing up were perfect. In my made-up memories, my parents were like Ward and June Cleaver and we sang Christmas carols around the tree and drank eggnog without any alcohol in it.
In my years anchoring in the Quad Cities, I would drive around on Christmas Eve between newscasts. With carols playing on the radio, I’d look at all the decorated houses and sometimes see people through the windows, people I imagined were happy and singing and sober.
When the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” would come on the radio, I’d sob. Probably because that’s the way it would have been with my pretend Christmas family in my pretend memories.
Getting married and having children of my own would put an end to that behavior, and there was no more pretending. I vowed that Christmas at our house would be the best it could be, and it was. Some were better than others but none was ever dysfunctional, and that was my goal.
Now, it’s 2018. My children are in their 20s, and my daughter has a child of her own.
Divorced and living alone, memories of the good Christmases come flooding back and I wish I could go back and relive them all over again. I would have made more cookies and let the kids eat them to their hearts’ content. I would have spent more time playing with them and their new toys and less time cooking and fussing over a dirty house. I would have had us sing more songs and re-enact the true Christmas story in our matching PJs.
In short, I would have loved bigger. I would have loved harder. I would have loved longer.
As I watched my fourth Lifetime movie, I imagined that’s what they were doing at Nancy’s family’s house and I just couldn’t bring myself to join in. I preferred to settle in with my old friend, darkness, and make fun of the latest sappy movie.
In the days following my time in the pit of depression, I realized that all these movies, in fact most Christmas movies, are about redemption and reconciliation, which is what God did that first Christmas when his son was born a baby in a manger. God reached down to us because we could never reach him.
In life, nothing is neatly wrapped up in an hour and 20 minutes like in a Lifetime Christmas movie. Sometimes a sadness stays with us our whole lives. Deaths, divorces and drunken Christmases past all haunt us. Some of us suffer with depression and Christmastime is the worst but we need to remember that we are not alone.
Like George Bailey in the best Christmas movie of all time, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” if we spend any part of our lives giving to others, others will give back to us in our time of need. We just have to let them.
To me, that’s the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not the gifts we get, it’s what we give to others. It’s presence, not presents, that means the most.
Nancy, I hope I’m invited again next year. I’ll be there with jingle bells on, Al’s sausage and some non-alcoholic eggnog. In the meantime, I think I’ll put on some Christmas music and decorate my tree.
Contact Robin Swoboda at Robinswoboda@outlook.com.