By John Ortved
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Tolstoy got it wrong. All happy families are not alike. I have proof — in a Pontiac 6000 Safari, being driven up Mount Pleasant Road on the morning of December 25, 1995.
Altogether, Mount Pleasant is a lovely street, acting as a vein lined with residential neighborhoods, stretching from the North York, Toronto’s northern periphery, all the way to Bloor. The strip with which I am most familiar is carved into a ravine, a quarter mile slope that, if it were a ski hill, would require bribes or more likely trickery for me to attempt. My friend Eric once claimed the hill had gifted him enough torque, on his bicycle, for a police officer to pull him over for speeding. This was clearly a lie, but Mount Pleasant was steep enough to make him think it was believable.
My own memories of Mt. Pleasant, even the invented ones, do not involve the descent, but the climb. In high school, I worked at a bar downtown, and each night after close my 21-speed bicycle and I would have to confront that hill. More times than not, I had to dismount, hoof and push. That ascent; it was daunting. It was the last leg of the walk from my mother’s house to my father’s — the ‘fuck you’ icing on a cake of forgotten retainers, missing sweaters, and teenage hostility. It was just a hill, but it was also divorce, which brought my sister and brother and I there, in 1995, as we traveled from one Christmas — our mother’s — to the next, at Dad’s.
I remember two things very clearly about that day. One, it was cold. While the Pontiac 6000 had heat, the drive was a short one and she would need some time to unthaw after a night in the Canadian winter. Two, the question I posed my siblings as the occasional car passed us by: “Do you think the only other people out on Christmas morning are also the children of divorced families — driving to the other parent’s house?”
As intended, it made my sister laugh (Allie has a great laugh — it’s mirthful and without guile; very Christmas-y, now that I think about it) but altogether, it was not a terrible question. Who are these people? The most sensible answer is non-Christians, or halfies — like us — who had gone with the other side of the fraction. Who else? There’s workaholics, I guess; vital service people like doctors, nurses and firemen; murderers. But that’s it, really.
Divorced family Christmas is not that different from your Christmas. In fact, if you have young kids, and you’ve just jabbed with the news of a split, it’s a solid two-punch to follow up with. Bad news: dad is about to move to an apartment where he won’t have a cheese grater, or curtains, for a solid year. Good news: two Christmases! But it also provides a highly literal divide for the time of year best known for cohesion. Your split family is together, in two parts. It’s a paradox: more Christmas, but also less.
But this contradiction, learned early, opened me up to the possibility that none of this was at that real to begin with. The institutions around which we cohere — the tree, the turkey dinner, the songs, the gifts, Christmas itself — are invented. It’s what allowed my mom, a Jew, to participate in the festivities, wholeheartedly, for most of her life. And it’s what allowed us, Christmas celebrants to a severe degree (my family enjoys Christmas the way the Kardashians enjoy corporate partnerships), to partake without setting foot in a church.
This is not a muted yawp of atheism, but instead a much more liberating call for belief — not in a god or a vague notion of a Christmas spirit — but in our own ability to come together and create meaning out of something less than whole, or even nothing.
It’s not just Christmas, either. As a foreigner in New York City, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to “friendsgiving” celebrations. At one of those, I sat with Canadians and Americans on a bench in a Brooklyn backyard, passing around joints, the crisp afternoon air making the smoke thick like foliage. A hand batting the cloud in front of it, until a face emerged — red curls and red eyes.
Me: “Hi, Jen.”
Her: “Jen; high.”
It wasn’t turkey, or Toronto, or my family, or my other family, but I remember it feeling like home.
My double Christmases taught me be to be a cell. Divided? Good. There’s more life to be made.
That is how I know we were, in our own way, happy in that car, on that trip. It’s here that the hubris of someone who claims to have had a happy Christmas, a happy childhood, a happy family, is checked by another paradox: perfect nostalgia depends on imperfect memories. We have to make those, too.
A hill. And old car. A cold morning. A joke. My family. Mine. All mine.
That said, I’m happy to share.
John Ortved is a New York City-based writer who watches altogether too much TV. His articles and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, the New York Times and Vogue. You can twitter him @jortved.