This is part of my series of autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes about my conversion to, and later deconversion from, Pentecostalism.
Date of writing: 4 October 2016
Time frame: roughly 2001-2010
Keywords: Christmas, disappointment, nmil, npd, Catholicism, introvert, ISTP, anxiety disorder
When I was a little kid, Christmas was easily my favourite time of year. Hot on the heels of my birthday, Christmas brought with it warm summer weather, Advent activities at my Catholic school, and just that heightened sense that something was very important about the whole season. As I got older, it took on extra significance as I played flute in the church Christmas services. It always seemed especially magical and spiritual and like the pinnacle of the year all brought together in this drawn out celebration of another school year gone, and all the trappings of cultural and faith symbols and transcendent music and wonderful food and fun company that went with it.
I don’t know when I first started dreading Christmas. I guess the first warning signs happened around the time that I was engaged. Or maybe it was the first Christmas after we got married.
When I got engaged, Christmas suddenly became complicated.
The traditions for my entire life thus far had been set in stone and I wasn’t interested in fixing what was most definitely not broken: I grew up with Father Christmas leaving presents in a pillowcase under the tree – the tree was, of course, real pine (which I liked despite it triggering my skin allergies). Where I grew up pine trees were considered weeds. The local fire brigade would drive around, cut them off the road sides, and then sell them as a fund raiser. I grew up attending Christmas Eve mass, or going to a birthday picnic at a beautiful park just out of town, as one of my family member’s birthdays fell on that same day. Mass was a chance to catch up with my school friends, and play my flute, and just immerse myself in the spiritual wonder of it all without really comprehending its meaning. On Christmas morning my sister and I would get up at some ungodly hour, gorge ourselves on the lollies left by Santa, check that his reindeer ate the hay and carrots we left out for them (a tradition that continued well into my teen years). We would play with our new toys or read our new books.
Mid-morning we would get dressed up and head to my maternal grandparents’ house for a family lunch with all kinds of roasts and a group photo and orderly present-giving arranged from youngest to oldest, with everyone watching to see what everyone else received. Eventually we would haul ourselves away from the food and merriment and had a short time to regain our energy and change into less formal clothes before heading to my paternal grandparents’ Christmas dinner. That side of the family is enormous (Catholics!) and mostly loud and extroverted and while the venue for Christmas dinners changed from year-to-year, eventually they started being held at my grandparents’ farm. People would bring tents for an all-night bonfire. Present giving was haphazard and due to the family size there was (still is) an opt-in kris kringle/secret Santa, and all kids under a certain age got a book from grandma.
On Boxing Day we would get some much-needed recovery, and enjoy our new gifts, though sometimes we’d head over to mum’s family’s place again to help eat the leftovers and play board games.
In short, it was great. I have a lot of happy memories from those times. I won’t naively pretend that it was all smooth-sailing, and the adults didn’t always seem to find it entirely fun, but overall it was a positive annual chance to catch up with the whole family. Christmas was a lot of fun.
Then I got engaged.
Suddenly it got more complex. The (soon-to-be) Husband had his own set of loose traditions that he also expected to fulfill. His Pentecostal family watched the (insert derogatory opinion here) annual Carols By Candelight on tv while commentating on how ugly the performers that year looked. They also happened to know a number of the performers, who often seemed to hail from the Pentecostal megachurches (Pentecostal churches do seem to churn out more than their fair share of prominent Australian performers). They would exchange gifts within their immediate family and the oldest son’s in-laws, very conservative pastors of a small Pentecostal church, and who, I could never tell, were either invited or somehow invited themselves. Christmas morning they went to church. Christmas lunch they went to the MIL’s extended family event and then on Boxing Day they’d head west to visit even more extended family. I eventually realised that none of the extended family were religious. Some of them had vague affiliations with some old liturgical denominations but none of them had entered churches in recent times outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals. It was just The Husband’s immediate family that were devoutly Christian.
At as I imagine happens in a lot of families, the soon-to-be-married couple found themselves at the centre of a familial tug-of-war.
In our case, that has lasted for 15 years now, with no sign of abating.
It was the Christmas after we’d gotten engaged, about a month before our wedding. I wanted to follow my usual routine, so we agreed to go with our own families’ usual plans, and meet up during the day. Somehow I ended up at The Husband’s house (either my dad was attending a Christmas thing in the city or I got there some other way – I don’t quite recall).
What I do recall is stepping into the door of The Husband’s family home where his family and their in-laws had been eating a heck of a lot of desserts.
Keep in mind, I barely knew these people at this point. I was also four months pregnant and feeling constantly nauseous, and vomited frequently. I am also a very reserved, quiet person. I struggle with body positivity – I am very self-conscious a lot of the time. My body is my own and I don’t invite other people to view it. Some people call it “cold” or “frigid”. I call it being an ISTP introvert who experiences hugs from people I’m not close to as a form of emotional trauma. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I am in no way touchy-feely (unless we’re talking animals – I’m the sort of person who’ll spend a party playing with the host’s pets).
I had barely stepped indoors, still feeling anxious and uncertain about the future in laws. That’s when the MIL ran at me with all the grace of a toddler hepped up on sugar. My fight-or-flight system fired up, ready to either run outside or swing a punch. But pregnancy nausea was too much and before I knew it this … person… with flailing limbs and over-exuberant voice, LIFTED UP MY SHIRT AND BLURTED HER LIPS ON MY STOMACH.
I feel sick even just writing it, and it’s been over a decade since that happened. It’s so ridiculous I can barely believe it except for this: from that moment onwards, it was the first moment in a subsequent decade-long pattern of behaviours in which my own personal boundaries and values (physical, emotional, spiritual, political, financial, and intellectual) were repeatedly violated by a few members of The Husband’s family.
That is, as insanely abnormal as this is as a form of social interaction between a MIL and her son’s fiancé, it was just the beginning of a whole lot of similar scenarios. Like the countless times she “accidentally” walked in on me in the shower. The times she would make me stand in my underwear to ostensibly measure me for clothing she never made. The times she would ask me really inappropriate questions about my body, my sex life (with her own son!!), and so on. I was so profoundly disturbed and shocked, having never in my life met anyone like it, that for a time I went along with it out of a desire to get along with The Husband’s family. I sometimes wish that in retrospect I’d up-front put on the cold front, something I now realise that I can do at a masterful level with my mad ISTP skills, and told her not to touch me again. I wish I’d said a lot of things back then. It might have saved me some grief in the long run.
When it happened I was so shocked into terrified paralysis I couldn’t respond. A rabbit in the headlights.
Now I have a better vocabulary for what happened: an unconsenting act of physical closeness, not necessarily intended as sexual but most definitely experienced by me as equal parts frightening, disgusting and repulsive. An absolute abuse of my physical boundaries. A complete lack of sensitivity to the already known fact that every single day of that pregnancy I was so violently ill – right up until the birth – that sudden stimuli (whether weird smelling food or the vibration of a heavy truck driving past or a boundaries-less person roaring past my once well-defined personal space to do something I experienced as an assault).
But at the time, as a quiet, reserved, pregnancy-sick person, it was both terrifying and shocking. It also gave me a message I was only able to articulate years later after a lot of therapy and reading about personality disordered people. That message was that I did not exist. I was just a vessel for the carrying of a future grandchild. I was just an extension of MIL’s physicality.
I was not me, and I did not have any rights to personal bodily autonomy or integrity as far as the in-laws were concerned. Thus began the transformation of Christmas from my most favourite to most-dreaded time of year.
(The Ruining of Christmas will [hopefully] be continued…)