Pulse: Social Diary: Wreck the Halls

Disaster stories have become as much a part of the holidays as gifts and eggnog. Why do we keep putting ourselves through all the grief?

“I just remember my dad getting drunk,” my friend K. recalls of yuletides growing up in Bucks County. “One time when I was a toddler, my mom had been out, so my dad was in charge, and when she came home, he was bombed, and I was trapped under the Christmas tree. I think it had fallen over on me.” That’s the holidays — it just wouldn’t be a celebration without something weird (and occasionally dangerous) happening. It’s amazing that any families still get together and do the whole turkey/Bing Crosby/good china thing. Because if there is one holiday absolute, it’s this: Something’s going to go wrong.

But if you think about it, if there were no Grinch or drunken relatives, if the tree lights you saved from last year actually worked this year, the holidays would be just plain boring. And let’s face it — no one expects good food. “My parents always host a dinner for 50 relatives. We cook the turkeys, make the stuffing, and everyone brings a side dish,” says B., whose family convenes in Villanova. “A couple of years ago, someone who was supposed to bring bread brought a loaf of Wonder Bread. [Note: This is not considered bread in Villanova.] And the person who was supposed to bring a green vegetable plopped two cans of peas, still in the can, on the counter. Lovely, just lovely. Am I really related to these people?” muses B. But at least the peas made it to the table, unlike our friend L.’s pies. “The first year I was out on my own,” L. remembers, “I decided I would contribute to the dessert table at my aunt’s house. I made cherry and blueberry pies, and they looked delicious,” she says proudly. She dropped them off at her aunt’s early Christmas morning — only to discover upon her return that a group of squirrels had eaten them. “There was no room in the kitchen, so she’d put them on her deck.” (L. still wonders — why her pies out on the deck? What’s Christmas without some lingering resentment?)

I can clearly recall the time our dog ate the turkey off the buffet in the ’70s, and the time my sister and I ran out of gas on Christmas Eve. (It’s amazing how few gas stations are open.) Most recently, two years ago, as we were sitting in our living room over dessert, the scent of something burning wafted in. We checked the kitchen — nothing. Suddenly we noticed that our beloved cat Spike had wandered into the living room, his tail smoking. He’d been hoovering crumbs off the dining room table when a votive lit up said tail. Naturally, this forever marked Christmas 2005 as The Year the Cat Caught Fire.

Of course, the screwups are what give us something to talk about the following year, a shared history of “I can’t believe that happened in 1983”-ness to bond over while passing the stuffing. This may be part of why we keep having family dinners, rather than, say, fleeing to the Caribbean. Still, no disaster has ever topped our friend F.’s. “Some years ago, I was at a family Christmas party, and everyone was drinking too much jug wine,” he says. “The evening before, I’d had a particularly lengthy oral sex encounter with a girl I was seeing, to the extent that I was nursing my mouth as we were all sitting around getting drunk. My cousin asked me what was wrong, and I replied, ‘Too much cunnilingus.’” A very long stretch of silence ensued. Finally, an older relative asked, “What’s cunnilingus?” As one might expect, F. says, “We never had Christmas dinner at that house again.”