Friday, December 2, 2011

Maybe Santa Will Rescind

Three aunts, two uncles, two grandparents, and two parents who have been fighting all week reside over a flock of children. It’s a crepe paper massacre on Christmas Eve, starring villains Ages 3-14. The tree is ten feet tall and is guarded by a barracks of boxes. My siblings, younger and unaware how little of the haul is for them, huddle with our cousins. I retreat for the computer, letting everyone else have their night. Neither children nor Christmas are my thing, and at the height of teenaged cynicism, the family is about as unappealing.

The oldest cousin, let's call her Cedar, trots up to me. Cedar holds a green and blue box in her hands, and for a moment I think she’s going to hand it to me. It’s stirring, since she’d be the only non-grandparent who remembered me this year. It almost hurts that I’m a broke invalid teen with nothing to offer her in return. Our family stretched the bank to get as many gifts for them as we could.

Then I see CEDAR on the FOR label. She is toting one of her own trophies.

She asks, “Where’s your present?”

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “Maybe Santa will bring me something tomorrow.”

“No.” Her face contorts. “What did you get me?”

Like magic, the guilt dissipates. Her father’s loaded. I look aside the box she’s clutching, recognizing both an overflowing stocking and six packages for her by the coffee table. I point to her stack.

“Isn’t it in there?”

Cedar waddles off to investigate. I’m about to get a drink when she returns.

She reports, “It wasn’t in there.”

“Did you check under the tree?”

I’m in the kitchen when she re-returns. Now she carries fists instead of a box. Her head cranes around the entrance, as though losing sight of the Christmas tree will cause her trove to evaporate. Maybe Santa will rescind.

She asks, “It wasn’t there, either.”

“Are you sure?” I ask, hoping that a return to the tree will get her caught up in her other gifts and she’ll forget about me.

I slosh my plastic cup of tap water and lag behind her to the living room. Cedar actually elbows her sister on her way under the tree skirt. By now the skirt is lonely. Only discarded bows keep it company; the goods have been dragged to the four corners of the room for rummaging.

Near the fireplace, my little brother talks with concern to our dad. The poor little guy is close to tears with incomprehension over why the others have so many more boxes. Dad is doing his typical bad job of hiding outrage. The in-laws got him the perfect gift: another reason to be angry at someone.

Cedar purses her lips up at me. This is not at all her fault, but teenaged cynicism doesn’t care about fair.

“It’s not there,” she repeats.

“That’s funny,” I say. I wave my palm at the tree’s twinkling lights. “I put it next to the present you got for me.”

The look on her face sticks with me for years. It’s like I’ve gotten a Math problem wrong. Even the tone of her response suggests I’m the dumb kid.

She says, “I didn’t get you anything.”

And I say, “How about that?”

I remember going to check on my sister, but not much else. Christmas isn’t really my holiday.


  1. Merry Christmas from the family.


  2. Ah those who have a lot always think they need more don't they... ho ho ho

    Ps: hey I made mince pies today, l love chirstmas, we don't have much in the way of present, there's only the three of us, but we still have a nice time.

  3. this is really rather touching and delivered with a quiet dignity for all his teen cynicism.

    marc nash

  4. The comeback line certainly gave me a warm Christmas glow!

  5. Ouch. That's the kind of thing that can leave a mark.

  6. Danni and Helen, I've chilled out a lot on Christmas in recent years. I've tried to make it about pleasing certain people in my life, showing a little gratitude and good will. So I'm better with the holiday now than I was back then.

    Tim, yup.

    Marc, how did this piece touch you? Any particular instant of dignity?

    Peter, which did you identify as the comeback line?

    Tony, on whom?

  7. I like that just when you think you've got where the story is heading, it twists somewhere else... Great flash piece.

  8. It leaves a mark on everyone, John. It's just that some of the participants are aware of how they've been shaped by the experience, others aren't. For the purposes of this piece, though, it's most obviously for you, the narrator.

    It's not my intention to get inside your head or anyone else's, or to be preachy. It's just to note that the kind of person you are is determined, not just by what you are aware of and what you're oblivious to, but by what you hold onto and what you let go of.

  9. Dear John,

    Saturday afternoon I will don the red suit, beard, hat and boots of Santa Claus for the children of Keck Observatory. I will remember your story and use it to help me infuse my performance with joy and laughter. The real magic of Christmas is safe somewhere in a child's heart. i hope to help it stay there for at least another year.



  10. I'm sorry this holiday is so onerous for you, John. I liked how the teen brought the lesson home with the quiet response of putting his gift right next to the one she'd gotten for him. Turnabout is fair play. Well written and heartbreaking. I hope the holidays improve. :)

  11. My family has NEVER done a big family Christmas, or a big family anything for that matter. And I've never been so grateful for that as I am after having read that story.

    "How about that?"

    Love it.

  12. "I put it next to the present you got for me."

    A line I will be sure to remember.

    Brilliant as always John.

  13. "Jack, where's my card?"
    "Oh no, it must be lost in the post with the one you got me!"

    This happened Wednesday this week. So I enjoyed this!

    Great stuff, John.

  14. Nice articles. I'm just blogwalking and very happy to stop here. And also give you some comment here.

    Dont forget to give us some your comment into my blog too.

    Thanks for share,
    * Fitra2009 *

  15. "I put it next to the present you got for me."

    That's the perfect line!

  16. I second Sonia's comment, and shamefully enjoyed the drawn out procedure of getting to it. Christmas is a strain on me and the commericalism of it turns me off, too.

  17. Enjoyed this one too, though the commercialism is a bit sad.

  18. Good one, John! Hee-hee, just how I feel.

  19. Even though I come from a large family I think I didn't really connect with Christmas as a teenager either.

    This piece highlights the expectations of some, and the unfairness the occasion can hold.

    "How about that?" Says so much more than the sum of its words.

  20. That was the best end to a flash that I've read probably all year. Wow, that was a good one.

    I suggest you send this one out to some magazines that publish flash. Won't get in this year, but make sure you do it for next year's Christmas.

  21. Tony, thanks for coming back and clarifying. I don't find your interpretation preachy. I agree that what we hold onto and release absolutely effect what we are. That's a big reason I've been forging to reclaim the Christmas spirit.

    Quinn, haha, well living it, I didn't know how it would end either.

    Douglas, I trust in you to be a solid Santa, sir. If this encourages you all the more to be good to those kids, then what a bonus.

    Siobhan, it's less onerous these days when I have more control over how I spend it and who I spend it with. I'm just as glad you're fonder of it.

    Bev, it does sort of fit in with my lifelong hatred of children, now doesn't it?

    Craig and Sonia, some things I feel guilty for saying. Others, I feel guiltier for withholding.

    Jack, you really spoke the same words this week?

    Dark Heart... well, thanks! What an unusual name for a spambot.

  22. Wow. A tiny window into Who Is John Wiswell opens up.

    I put it next to the present you got for me.


    I think I should feel bad for enjoying this story so thoroughly, but I can't. What I wanted to do was bop Cedar over the head. Repeatedly.

    I get a little too bothered about the holiday gooberage myself, but I don't think I've ever been that cynical about Christmas itself. Maybe I should try harder.

  23. I've never celebrated multi-family Christmases, and you elegantly portray the horror these events could bring.

  24. Madison, couldn't do much about the length of the process since I was handling true events, but I'm glad you liked it.

    Catherine, now did you view this as fiction and dislike the insertion of commercialism, or did you view this my real life and find disappointment that we young'uns cared about gifts?

    Debra, someone's made you feel like this recently?

    Steve, if that big family actively tries to empathize with each other and express love, as many families try to, it can be a grand occasion. I didn't mean this story as an attack. Did it read like one?

    Michael, it's a story I've sat on for a long time. The real family wouldn't be thrilled with it, but then, they're unlikely to read it. I even hesitated to post it here, a site that I'm pretty sure none of them have ever visited.

    Larry, yeah, a tiny window. This was well over a decade ago, the thrust of it that's true. Glad I got you to laugh with that ending.

    Aidan, what's the biggest Christmas you've operated?

  25. The perfect antidote to christmas movie schmaltzy hell. To be taken in liberal doses. I feel better already.

  26. Dude, ouch. I'm off to hug some children.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  27. That was an excellent story and an interesting peek into the world of John's childhood.

    Merry Christmas, John.

  28. And that's why I dislike my blood relations so much. Well captured bitterness there.

  29. Hi John,
    I see my cynical twitterings on the Yuletide spirit have rubbed off.. ha ha!
    Love the teenage shrugging voice in this..some wonderful lines "It’s a crepe paper massacre on Christmas Eve"

    A joy as always. (or joyful and triumphant perhaps!!)

  30. It is sad how many people think Christmas is more about receiving gifts than in just being together. That line about the perfect gift for dad was perfect, John. It told me everything I needed to know about the father. I can relate. I personally think opening gifts with other families or friends is one of the cruelest thing a parent can do to the children. It leaves too much open for comparison and guilt and resentment. I refuse to do that to my children. Thanks for sharing.

  31. It's about time Cedar learned Christmas was about giving as well as receiving!

  32. Nice piece. So glad that my experience has not been like that, but conscious of how tough Chritmas can be for some - for this and other reasons.

    Inspired to do some Christmas Flash in coming weeks

  33. Scribbler, I would happily go for some egg nog and schmaltz. It's the rotten behaviors that get to me.

    Kirsten,thank you kindly. Any element in particular stand out as strongly realized for you?

    Adam, how many did you manage to hug? What's your high score?

    Chuck, and a happy New Year to you!

    Raven, what's the worst that's come from your blood relations? I wish this was the worst to come from mine.

    Tom, less anybody's Twitter feed and more just one family story that keeps coming back to me. Glad you enjoyed it, though!

    Stephen, that sounds like wise parenting to me. And you're dead-on about that father.

    Icy, is it Charlie Brown time?

    Dave, it's wise to make Christmas, and any other day, as good as you can. Consciousness can make us behave better, or so I like to believe.

  34. I always admire how you mix it up with regard to style, and I enjoyed this story very much. It felt very cinematic to me in a good way, I felt like I had a very clear image of Cedar and of your tone and expressions. Reading your reaction to people's comments, I'm happy to learn your outlook on the holiday has changed in recent years, but I don't think you should feel even the slightest bit guilty about this exchange you've shared with us. Teenagers the world over have been known to act much, much meaner to younger family members from time to time than you were with Cedar.

  35. This is tough and I'm gathering from the comments, not fiction. Well told in any case, with humor and with no sign of self pity. Cousin Cedar may be forgiven for childish greed (if at some point she's learned it's not all about her) but the insensitive aunts and uncles, maybe not. Hopefully your future Christmases have and will fair better. Merry Christmas John!


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