Saturday, November 16, 2013

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Christmas with the Sullys-Guest author Caitlin O'Sullivan

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Christmas, 1992: a holiday that will live in infamy in O'Sullivan family. Not for unwearable sweaters, well-intentioned craft store gifts, or undercooked egg-based dishes (all of which would haunt later Christmases), but for the dastardly deeds of yours truly and her little brother.

What’s especially galling about X-Mas ’92 (because there wasn’t a Christmas—not the way my mother expected it, at least) was that my brother and I were generally pretty well-behaved kids, both before X-Mas and after. We didn’t go hunting for hidden Christmas presents in closets or basement crawl spaces. We didn’t need the surveillance-state threat of the Elf on the Shelf to get us to set the table, do our homework, or make our beds. (The Elf, by the way, is creepy. A doll that watches you constantly and comes to life at night, then sneaks around while you’re asleep? Sounds like something out of Goosebumps to me.)  

My brother might have counted presents to see who got the most stuff, but he wasn’t a whiner about it—he just pointed it out, made Mom feel guilty, and got on with his life.

No, my parents had no warning for what was coming. And believe me, they could have used it.
Let me provide some background: Christmas, in the O’Sullivan household, is a strictly nuclear family affair. This is because our non-nuclear family members divide neatly into two groups: they either aren’t speaking to us, or they’ve put at least one mountain range between themselves and us. (Or they’re our Texas relatives, in which case they live in another country entirely.) The O’Sullivan atom is made of four parts: Mom, our generally-positive proton; Dad, the somewhat more massive neutron; and me and my year-and-a-half-younger brother, Kevin, the fizzy electrons of the family. (If you are a chemist, you are shaking your head right now, because we make up an element that is not commonly found in nature. You are correct, Dr. Chemist: we defy natural explanation.)

While we now make a tradition of watching Bad Santa and drinking beer on the night of Christmas Eve, at the time of X-Mas, I don’t recall having any special Christmas Eve rituals or habits other than the ones probably shared by thousands of American parents—that is, the chasing of children to bed so that bikes and castles and frigging stupid made-in-China pieces of crap can be assembled late at night in order for children to discover them joyfully in the morning. We didn’t choose one present each to open the night before; like pyromaniac kids with a collection of fireworks at the beach, we traditionally opened everything in one great explosion of torn wrapping paper on the morning of Christmas Day, as soon as everyone dragged their fleece-jammied selves downstairs.
But this was not what happened on X-Mas.

No. What happened on X-Mas was this:
My brother came into my bedroom and woke me up. “It’s Christmas,” he said. “Let’s go downstairs and wait for Mom and Dad.” It was still dark outside, but that wasn’t so strange in December, so my brother and I trooped quietly down the stairs. (As I said before, we were well-behaved kids. We weren’t the kind of brats to make so much noise that they woke their parents up.)
We switched on a light or two, plugged in the tree, and looked at the mountains of presents that awaited us. They practically filled half the living room! 

We sorted Kevin presents from Caitlin presents (my brother no doubt keeping meticulous track of the numbers) and gave the wrapped boxes a few experimental shakes. Applying our knowledge of toys and our memories of what items we had circled darkest in the Toys’R’Us holiday circular, we each quickly determined which present we would open first once our parents, inevitably, joined us.
This, and our subsequent waiting, took at least three or four hours, in our minds. We looked from our presents, to the living room doorway, and back to our presents. There were so many of them. Then one of us made the suggestion. 
The identity of the guilty party is lost to time and the ravages of excessive candy cane consumption, but it was probably me. 
The Candy-Cane Eater’s Apathy

At that age, I had just the right combination of naiveté and rationalization skills when it came to delayed gratification. (If you’re curious, it’s roughly the same combination as I have today.) One of us—probably me—said, “It would be okay if we each opened one present while we’re waiting for Mom and Dad, right? We could each open a present and play with it until they came down.”
This, my friends, is the epitome of the danger of the slippery slope argument: once you have opened one present (say, a Skittles-dispensing bank) and played with it (by eating the entire bag of Skittles included with said bank) it seems like no big deal to quietly open another present while you’re waiting for your parents to wake up. And once you’ve each opened two presents…well.

The first step onto the slippery slope: the Skittles Dispenser

Suffice it to say that when Dad arrived—sent by Mom to see whether someone was breaking into the house in the middle of the night—my brother and I were surrounded by wrapping paper and toys and, shortly thereafter, Mom’s immense wrath. She retreated after only a few minutes, leaving behind a cloud of Maternal Disappointment, Dad, and two sugar-high children for whom sleeping on the couch until morning was its own uniquely hideous punishment, a combination of toy deprivation and sugar withdrawal.

No one has unwrapped a present unsupervised since.

Bio: Caitlin O’Sullivan is a novelist from Columbus, Ohio. She and her brother continue to get into trouble…just not on Christmas morning. Follow her on Twitter (@Caitlin_OSully) or visit her blog at