Introducing My Son To The Old Christmas Traditions Of Poverty And Family

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“…by far the biggest Christmas miracle of them all has to be when LAPD Sgt. Al Powell puts five shots into the torso of the presumed to be dead Euro-Trash Terrorist, thus saving John and Holly McClane at the end of the Greatest Christmas movie ever made: Die Hard. God bless us, every one.”
“In Defence Of Scrooge”; December 25, 2007

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“Despite a commonly held myth that the Christmas season has the highest suicide rate of all the seasons, studies have proven that across North America, suicide rates are actually lower at that time of year. Studies suggest that while the holidays can bring up some very difficult emotions, they also tend to evoke feelings of familial bonds and these feelings may act as a buffer against suicide.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association

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This has turned into a very strange Christmas.

Over the past few days I’ve been introduced to the Christmas traditions of the two families I’ve become tied to thanks to my newborn son.

I spent an hour on Sunday with my girlfriend’s family. Because their oldest daughter was visiting before she moves across the country, they moved their celebrations up a week. So I got to be there when my girlfriend received her traditional envelope full of cash from her father, who then went back into his den to continue watching a Discovery Channel documentary on airplane disasters. My girlfriend also received a giant lump of Christmas passive-aggressive coal from her mother.

Then, on Monday, I found out my girlfriend’s ex-husband will be spending Christmas by himself because his entire family have completely given up on him… except, of course, for the four mandatory hours he’ll be spending with his son. Otherwise he’ll be spending Christmas Day waiting for his friends to get finished with their Christmas traditions, so they can go out to a bar and get drunk.

…the life of a small town hustler. Tonight (Tuesday), after his court-ordered three hour visitation, his four-year old son came home with a special gift from his father… a $20 poker chip from a casino in Montreal. Still no child support, but he’s teaching the kid how to bet. Merry Christmas.

This is the first time I’ve had to make a schedule for Christmas. My girlfriend and I have been coordinating the different families so they can all have a chance to meet our new baby.

Our own Christmas, our first together, will start the day. Then she’ll take her oldest son around to the aunts and uncles who have disowned his father, then to her parents home for an hour before daddy-dumbass takes over for the afternoon. Then we’ll take him back to my parents’ place for Christmas dinner, where he’ll act out on all the aggression he built up being stuck in a dark house for four hours.

While he’s sitting in the dark, thinking all father’s play Internet poker while their sons play video games, his mother and I will be sharing Little Victor with my grandparents and family.

So far my own “Holiday Season” has been frustrating. I’ve been broke since before the weekend my baby was born. I had borrowed $100 the Friday my girlfriend’s water burst, with the intention of buying Christmas presents for her and her son. But it turns out it costs a lot to feed a woman immediately before and after she gives birth. I came out of the hospital with a son and $20.

The only reason I haven’t resorted to sitting out on Main Street, in front of the convenience store, with a mug full of pens for sale so I can afford milk, is my mother hosted a baby shower for us the day my son was born.

Because all of my girlfriends’ friends are also poor, and my friends are almost entirely fictional, mom invited all of our immediate family, her art friends, all of her local media friends, all of her business friends to a local tea room. The thirty invitees were encouraged to bring clothes for the baby, as well as toys and clothes for my girlfriend’s four-year old son.

It was a who’s who of the region. Lawyers, a judge, the mayors of two towns, a Minister, the reeve, the editor, publisher and owner of the local paper… my mom knows how to organize an event.

We ended up with $2400 in clothes, diapers, toys, gift cards and, most importantly, almost $300 in gift certificates to a local grocery store.

Of which I claimed $125 worth, and that’s how I’ve been eating for the past ten days.

Unfortunately the grocery store is a lousy place to find Christmas gifts for a woman and her young son. Which is why my girlfriends’ father’s deeply weird tradition of handing out wads of cash was so important. On Sunday he gave me $100.

Which I used on Monday night to buy my girlfriend her Christmas presents.

On the assumption I’ll have a disability cheque coming soon I stuck with the basics — she has a large, white, apartment with nothing on the walls so… two large multi-photo frames, a large framed photo of some tulips, and a series of photos showing our time together, ending with a photo of the two of us holding Little Victor.

I’ll pick up something more relationship-y for New Year’s. But until the cheque does come in I’ll be living off the change I’ve been collecting.

Being broke at this time of year is nothing new for me. But it’s as frustrating as it ever was. I spent most of the nineties on social assistance, then most of this decade homeless, on social assistance or on permanent disability.

So giving was limited to the girlfriend, or a couple of relatives. Mostly mom and my brother. The six years in between, when I was working full time, I was a Christmas giving machine. Actually, at the beginning of this month, when I still had money, I bought stuff for some blog friends… but now I can’t mail it because of the cost.

A long time ago my parents started buying presents for people, and putting my name on the card. People thank me for the gifts, which I’ve never seen before, and even though the handwriting is obviously not mine. It’s a strange feeling. They also hand out presents in the dog’s name, as well as their two cats. And Santa’s.

I have a serious disconnect with Christmas as it is, but being separated from the giving process just makes things even more weird. As a poverty issue, the biggest problem with Christmas, of course, is the date. No one receiving welfare has any money on the 25th of any month.

Or the twelfth for that matter. Disability is a little different. I think the most I ever received monthly from Social Assistance was $520. And $450 of that was rent. Try having Christmas, and eating, on $70. Currently I receive monthly, from the Ontario Disability Support Program, $1079. I pay $386 in rent, and another $150 in hydro and gas bills.

My mother pays for my Internet connection ($30), but phone and cable come to $90 per month. After general food costs, I basically have $250 to get me through the month. This month, because my landlord can be a dick, I had some extra costs. So I had, roughly, $150 to last me until January.

Which it didn’t. It actually lasted me a week.

Which makes “poverty” my longest lasting Christmas tradition.

There really is no such thing as a ‘traditional’ Christmas in my family. Everything seems to reset, or fundamentally change every few years. For most of my life, in the cult I grew up in, there were no Christmases. When we escaped, my mom did her best to create some kind of Christmas atmosphere, but I had no idea who Christ was, and my father decided it was important to expose the lie of Santa when I was still a young dude.

For the first few years after the divorce mom’s income was less than $9,000 / year, so we couldn’t afford Christmas at home. She could barely afford heat. So my first ‘real’ Christmases were spent at my grandfather’s hobby farm back in the mountains of Quebec.

We’d have a tiny tree and some decorations in our apartment, but we’d pack the presents into the car a few days before Christmas and head into the mountains. From when I was eight, until I turned twelve, we’d spend our entire two week Christmas vacation there. If we were lucky my brother and I would get to help cut the tree down, but we always got to help decorating it.

Going to “The Farm” for Christmas meant snowmobile rides, cross country skiing, feeding the deer, my grandmother’s cooking, pond hockey, a remote control car, and tobogganing down the steep hill at the end of the driveway. I don’t know why there are no photos.

But it came to an end because my grandfather, to please my grandmother, who wanted a larger social life than weekends on a remote farm could offer, built himself a cottage on a lake. It was even further back in the mountains of Quebec, but the local residents were all cottagers from Montreal.

So Christmas was moved. I did not react well. I liked the cottage, but hated being there on Christmas. I was really upset for the years we had Christmas at the cottage. We moved around so much, there had been so many changes in my life — twelve years old, twelve homes, losing my friends and most of my family as a result of the divorce. Any change meant a loss of stability, and a reminder of what wasn’t there.

At the time I thought it was “Christmas” I needed. But it was the stability of tradition I was after. At this time of year I always feel that disconnect to what’s going on around me… except for the tradition where the same people gather, and tell the same stories. But even that seems tenuous sometimes.

My son is going to have a great time with us. I’m going to make sure of that.

But he’s going to have to wait until January to get his first present from his father.

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...thanks.

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About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression in 1989, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. I have an 8-year old son, and a 4-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at saltedlithium.com....
This entry was posted in Bipolar, Bipolar Disease, Bipolar Disorder, Christmas, Clinical Depression, crazy people with no pants, Health, Living With Depression, Living With Manic Depression, Manic Depression, Mental Health, Poverty. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Introducing My Son To The Old Christmas Traditions Of Poverty And Family

  1. thordora says:

    I’m not enjoying the whole being broke at Xmas thing myself…but I know how much worse it is with a baby, and in your situation. I wish I could help.

    Sounds like what you got her was very nice-thought counts Gabe.

    Merry Christmas friend.

  2. markps2 says:

    I have no money and wonder if my bank balance will go negative, fail the auto payments on the 28th. I had to spend my “lucky” money, paper bills that had unusual serial numbers on them, that I’ve kept for years. I think I have to stop paying for the internet, and use the public library access . I feel it is better to give than receive as well, as making the people you love, smile or happy is the best reward-payment. The only case where money might buy happiness.

    Besides losing the internet from home I am going to get the minimum of “pulse” dialing telephone service and save $3.00 a month or about $30.00 a year.

  3. karenintheory says:

    That baby is adorable. I hope he makes your Christmas.

  4. Soire says:

    My dad cancelled christmas twice when I was a child. Had no money for whatever reason and pretended it wasn’t happening at all. Sad. I do the “20 days of Yuletide Joy” with my kids because I never had much holiday tradition, and want to make sure they have strong memories of good times.

    This too shall pass.

  5. Bunk Strutts says:

    Late Merry Christmas to you, Gabriel. Be thankful for what you have in your hands, he is a precious gift.

  6. Dana says:

    Congratulaitons, Gabriel. Look at the proud papa!

    I hope you find joy and in sharing with Victor your favourite books, playing shinny and teaching him how to shave.

    I wish you and your girlfriend the very best.

    Happy New Year too!

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