In December of 1984, the English pop-duo sensation, Wham!, released their hit song “Last Christmas”. You can’t escape the holiday season without hearing George Michael’s synthy and sensitive vocals in line at the deli counter or at the dentist’s office. The lyrics, written by George Michael while returning to his childhood bedroom, have been covered by a variety of artists from Carly Rae Jepsen to Crazy Frog. In the 2000s, I grew up learning different words to the chorus.
On December weekends, my family began our Christmas cookie baking showdown. Each year it was the same, from thumbprints to chocolate chip cookies with walnuts. Chopped nuts have never made baked goods better, despite my mom’s insistence.
Peanut Butter Blossoms were my favorite. The most exciting part wasn’t the actual baking, but the race to unwrap the Hershey Kisses during prep. At eight years old, I was the returning champ and couldn’t let victory slip through my fingers. My mom, brother, sister, and I took our spots around the kitchen peninsula while my dad sunk into his red leather chair in the living room. The cushion let out a resonant fart.
I studied my Kisses. They glimmered in their red, green, and silver foil wrappings. Bell-shaped celebrities taking a break from their annual commercial gig. We tucked our hands to our sides as my mom shouted, “GO!”.
My pinch-and-pop method worked flawlessly. I threw the naked chocolates in the bowl one after the other like an elf on the toy assembly line. A shred of the tag made it into the bowl.
“Doesn’t count! No stray papers!” said my sister as she struggled with her first few. I snatched the tag and flung a few more Kisses into the bowl. A final chocolate popped from its foil and into the bowl, “DONE!” The crown was mine yet again.
Defeated, mom turned up the volume on the Bose radio. The big band flare of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” crackled out of the speakers. Dad tiptoed into the room like the Grinch and stole a couple of Kisses from the bowl of ready-to-use chocolates. Caught with a brown-stained grin, my mom made him help us form dough balls between our palms and toss them through a flurry of sugar.
My mom scolded my sister, “You’re rolling the balls too big. Smaller than an inch! Once they’re on the pan, everyone starts using them to scale.” She tilted up the parchment-covered cookie tray which had a row of inconsistent dough balls like some cookie solar system. Mom ripped chunks of the larger planets to even them out and tossed the pan into the oven.
Percussive drum hits began to underscore George Michael’s ooohs. The opening of “Last Christmas” transported us to the 1980s. My dad moved to the center of our kitchen floor and took up the vocals, Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. He added dance moves and over-exaggerated his facial expressions to match Michael’s powdery sound. He continued, “but the very next day, you gave it to Ray“. My mom and sister laughed at my dad’s lyric switcheroo. My brother sang the altered lyrics the next time it came around. I copied my dad’s dance moves. The oven dinged. The cookies were ready.
Another year, another Christmas. We were crammed into my dad’s 2008 Chevy Trailblazer. I sat hump between my brother and sister as I adjusted the placement of my shoe to avoid a baked bean colored stain of blood. Deer season had been a success, but now it was time to hunt for a Douglas Fir. We only purchased this variety of tree because it carried the same first name as dad. Bets were made to see if he could haggle the price down a solid ten dollars with the volunteer tree salesman for the Keystone Oaks Marching Band Fundraiser.
“Last Christmas” pulsed from the speakers. A change from Dad’s preference for Rush Limbaugh radio. We all begin to sing the Praskovich family lyrics.
Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it to RAY.
Oh, Ray. I dreamed of this nonexistent character we created. How lucky he was to have received a heart from the song’s unnamed “you.” Things started to click. Does that mean this is a boy singing a song about another boy? Boys liking boys is ridiculous and very funny. These realizations came to an impasse as my own curiosity in men bubbled. Namely, Bernard the sardonic elf from The Santa Clause.
I stopped singing and watched as everyone in the car jammed. This wasn’t humor, but mocking.
My mom eventually had enough, “Can we turn this song off? It’s disgusting. It has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. George Michael makes me sick.” In my family, being gay and celebrating Christmas weren’t supposed to intersect.
If possible, my mom would be fighting on the frontlines for the War on Christmas. I can see her plucking the Star of Bethlehem from the night sky and turning it into a razor-sharp projectile to maim those who dare wish you Happy Holidays. In recent years she told me, “They don’t want us to celebrate it anymore. They want us to be afraid. To be secular. Well guess what- I’m not afraid.”
I soon discovered that George Michael was arrested in a bathroom by an undercover cop for lewd behavior. Cruising. Not the kind involving boats and all you can eat buffets. This new meaning was added to my mental dictionary.
What was the big fuss? It’s not like Wham!’s song was about urinals and foot tapping. Tons of tunes played on 94.5 had nothing to do with baby Jesus. Why didn’t she get mad when Frosty the Snowman fought with the traffic cop? Why didn’t she change the station when poor “Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer”?
The only song my mom hates with the same fervor is “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg about two past lovers who bump into one another in the grocery store on Christmas Eve. The first line of the song will instinctively make her gag. I guess a vague sense of adultery is on par with coded gay love?
I rejected that song as well. If I hated it as much as my mom, she would not catch on that I was a little gay who really loved Christmas. I x-ed out each day on a handmade countdown calendar that was taped beside my bed. My bedroom was decked out in wall-to-wall twinkling lights. I slept with them turned on. A perpetual glow sparkled beyond my eyelids. If my room burst into a technicolor inferno, my fire-fighting father would extinguish the flames.
Every time “Last Christmas” came on the radio from then on, I started a loud conversation:
“What I don’t understand is who do non-Santa-believing-parents think delivers presents in movies where Santa actually turns out to be real?”
“I have an emergency. We are all out of hamster bedding, can we go to the store immediately?”
My questions had to just cover the decibels to avoid hearing the lyrics. I didn’t want to be perceived as a joke. How could I talk about my romantic longings if all they were going to do was laugh at me and tune into another station? Between this and the cursed “don we now our gay apparel”, December was twenty-five days of a stealth operation.
I slipped through the cracks of coming out while I was eighteen. One Sunday, I simply brought over my boyfriend for dinner and established a new status quo. We were never a family that talked openly about our emotions, so the action felt easier and more efficient. I wasn’t met with mocking or laughter, but rather a home cooked meal around the table.
In a year where the holiday season has been turned on its head, I am reflecting on, well, last Christmas. In 2019, I spent the month doing all my family’s classic traditions. Making peanut butter blossoms, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” around our janky Advent wreath before Sunday dinners, shopping in the Strip District on the morning of Christmas Eve, and searching for a pickle ornament in my parent’s living room. The 25th was split between time at my boyfriend’s Mother’s and my parents’ house opening gifts and catching stray scenes of A Christmas Story throughout the day.
This year has been a taxing year for us all. For me, it has added a fracturing pressure to the relationship with my family. Just this past week, my sister told me a cross I must bear is “same sex attraction” with all the piousness of a conversion camp counselor.
Was 2019 not only the previous Christmas with my family, but also the last in terms of finality? It will be strange not going through the same ornament box we’ve had since I was born and unwrapping our favorites as we hang them from the tree. Should I stop worrying about the future and whatever hope, heartbreak, or healing it may bring?
2020 has shown me the strange beauty of creating new traditions with my boyfriend and making magic where it has dimmed. I know what I need to do to ignite that love of this season.