Horror · Third Culture Kids · Trauma · Travel

Christmas in a War Zone

The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney… his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.
Kate (Pheobe Cates), Gremlins

For many people, myself included, Christmas lights mask the darkness that the holiday season brings. Kate’s story is the worst Christmas tale I’ve ever heard, and it puts my own Christmas horrors into perspective. There’s nothing like a scary story to remind you of how much worse things could be.

In 2007, during a Christmas visit to a still civil war-torn Sri Lanka, I found out that my father had been cheating on my mom since before I was born. How? He brought The Other Woman to Christmas Karaoke while my mom stayed home watching his dogs.

As the story unfolded, it turned out that my younger sisters had known about The Other Woman for fifteen years and conspired with my father to keep the secret. Lines had long ago been drawn in the sand, sides had been picked.

Thus began the disintegration of my family, taking with it the happy Christmas memories of my childhood. Finding out about my father’s double life was a betrayal of my mother and made my whole life a lie. I have not spoken to my father or my younger sisters since that Christmas in a war zone.

Last year, in a bout of holiday frustration and depression, I told my husband that I was converting to Judaism. I needed to make a new tradition, something wholly unrelated to the Christmas tree that now symbolizes my deconstructed family, the lie that lived under our home like a forgotten World War II artillery shell, exploding and shattering the guise of our familial togetherness.

These days, Christmas movies make me cry and I can’t stand the sight of any of my childhood favorites — with the exception of It’s A Wonderful Life — they remind me too much of the false security I had while wrapped in the folds of a yuletide, thinking that my family was sacrosanct, never imagining how thin the veil between the truth and my father’s lies was becoming. I’ve since replaced “family” favorites like Scrooged and Holiday Inn with A Nightmare Before Christmas, Elf, and the holiday specials of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friends. I now spend the holidays with my husband’s drama-free and mellow family, a perfect foil to the madness of my own.

Gremlins was one of few Christmas movies I was able to watch this year: Their Christmas in a monster-infested war zone resonates with the explosive last time my family was and ever would be together. Kate’s story comforts me, reminding me that there are far worse things that can happen at Christmas time.

For everyone to whom the holiday season does not bring the warm fuzzies, I raise my glass to you. Happy Festivus!

Do you have any holiday grievances you’d like to share?

©2011 Sezin Koehler-Costanza

One thought on “Christmas in a War Zone

  1. Thanks for this honest post, Sezin. So surprised I’m the first to comment since I know we’re not alone, but perhaps we are breaking a taboo by admitting the holidays are not our best time of year? My favorite day of the season is January 2nd – when it’s all over. My father died right before Christmas when I was 16. My happy childhood memories weren’t shattered like yours, more encased in a time capsule, with the holidays never to be the same. Not that I don’t enjoy the gatherings of family and friends, the overeating and drinking, the generosity of those I love. But I’m relieved and amused to live in a country now that has absorbed Baba Noel, decorated trees, lights and Jingle Bells into its New Year celebrations. Absurd maybe, but forced gaiety and overspending is not required.

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