I couldn’t tell you the last time that my family’s house had a Christmas tree. And yet, growing up, the absence of one bore its way into my head and heart. Every winter, I begged for us to pick up a tall evergreen so that we could dot it with lights and shining baubles. Over time, the request faded into a bitter sort of defeat.
It didn’t make sense to pay so much for a tree we’d have to throw away after a few weeks, they said. We didn’t have relatives around to celebrate with. My parents worked long hours at their restaurant and never wanted to take much time off during the holidays — customers would react poorly, they told me. They gave gifts to others, but there was never an occasion where I had a pile of presents under my own tree.
This isn’t a story about growing up poor, although it could be. It’s not a story about religious differences, either. My parents immigrated to California from South Korea in the late 1970s, and struggled to save money at first while working in a series of jobs at gas stations, laundromats, budget motels and liquor stores. By the time I was 7, however, they had enough in the coffers to move and start a business on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.
That first Christmas in Hawaii remains imprinted on me, for two distinct reasons. First was the marvel of waking up and seeing the sun shining across a robin-egg sky, with upper-70s temperatures all day long. It was a far cry from the winter sleet, hail and mud of Dallas, the last place we had lived. Second was the fact that Santa died that day. For weeks, I’d wondered whether we could get a big Christmas tree, like the one at my aunt’s house in Texas, festooned in silver orbs and warm gold lights. We’d never bought one of our own, because the Texas branch of the Kim clan gathered in the same place each year, so why would we?
But, week after week, despite my dad’s assurances that we were just waiting for trees to go on sale, no such evergreen arrived. Instead, on Christmas morning, my dad approached me with his hands behind his back. “It’s been a crazy year, with us moving here and you starting school with a bunch of strangers,” he said. “And your mom and I, we’ll get a tree next year. But, you know that Christmas isn’t really Santa doing the work, right?”
Even as a 7-year-old, I wasn’t naive — the suspicion had already been stoked by Claire, the chief cynic of my kindergarten class in Texas. I looked at my dad and nodded.
“I know it’s hard to get situated, but life is going to be good here. And, well, your mom and I, we ran out of time to get you much, and it’s not wrapped, but I was told you would love this,” he continued.
He revealed his hands. In them were a Game Boy Color — my very first game console — and a copy of both Mortal Kombat and Pokémon. I probably squeaked my excitement, though I can’t remember. Whatever pain or regret I had about emotionally bailing on Santa disappeared.
A pragmatic Christmas, one sans the pomp and circumstance and glitz and noisy gatherings, seemed perfect at that moment. It was just the three of us, in Hawaii. But as the years went on, I picked up a bad craving for the “typical” Christmas depicted in films, TV and my friends’ own homes. Some of them had lavish mansions with a centerpiece tree that seemed straight out of Bloomingdale’s, while others lived in modest two-bedrooms with barely enough space in the living room for a tree. Whatever the case, they all seemed to celebrate the end of the year with more warmth and familial bonding that I did, all around that damned tree.
Instead, my parents and I learned to do a polite kind of dance where I acknowledged they didn’t want to spend time and money on decorations and foreign customs, and they in turn compensated with my choice of gift. Throughout the year, we’d keep track of the money I spent on luxuries like the occasional video game or cash for a movie and dinner with friends. Some years, I didn’t ask for a gift because I knew I’d asked for too much in the months leading up to the holidays. Other times, I scrimped and saved and talked my way into a big haul, like the year in which I landed a PlayStation 2 by eschewing vacation and a birthday party. Essentially, Christmas became a clever transactional activity, rather than a symbol of reconnection with family as time passed.
And, as I matured into young adulthood, my weird ritual served to exemplify a small, nagging feeling of loneliness about why my holidays were different from others. My parents worked their asses off to provide me a comfortable life, but 70-hour weeks weren’t conducive to making a lot of friends or keeping in touch with relatives. When I was young, I thought my parents just didn’t care to do so, but it wasn’t ever the case.
“We think about it all the time, you know,” my mom tells me on the phone. “We’re not clueless. You wanted a different kind of Christmas, with a lot of people in the home and popping champagne and talking about who brought what dish, and having a mountain of gifts to look at. But your dad and I, we were so focused on surviving the holiday season in terms of business, that we just wanted you to feel that we tried. Thank God you were independent from a young age.”
A lot of people struggle with the holidays because they feel like they can’t live up to expectations, and my parents felt the same tension even if they never mentioned it to me growing up. The internet is swollen with stories of working people being overwhelmed by the cultural and social demands of the holidays, and the older I get, the more I’m tempted to see the whole thing as a crock — turns out giving gifts stresses people out even more than it allays them.
“I hate the tree and all the crap and decorations. I work 60 hours a week, take care of four kids and am fucking exhausted just trying to keep my house clean. I don’t have time to drag out a plastic tree and stick plastic balls on it. Then it sits for a month, you have to keep the puppy from eating the ornaments and then you take it all down and put it away,” one redditor declared. “Fuck it, for real.”
But I’m also thankful for all the people who saw me — a budding cynic about Christmas culture and traditions — and taught me to love the holiday spirit again. It’s mostly been significant others who have led me, by the hand, into spaces where the celebration looks just like the image that’s been in my head since I was a child. I won’t ever feel the raw, uncut power of tearing past wrapping paper and seeing the perfect present as a kid. Yet somehow, falling in love with the rhythms, routines and party energy of Christmas as a grown man has allowed me to see past the things and touch the feelings I missed when I was young.
The holidays, after all, remind us deeply of what we have and don’t have. Being broke at Christmas hurts most of all because you feel powerless despite the demands you feel around you — even if those pressures are ginned up in your own head. As writer Brit McGinnis noted in an essay about lying to oneself about money at the holidays, “It wasn’t about other people, though. It was about my wish for a better career at that time. I wanted to be the kind of person who bought gifts for people indiscriminately and not worry about it. I insisted upon that even though the facts didn’t support my endeavor. As Ira Glass once said, everyone is who they really are at Christmas — only more so.”
I’m not worrying about money, thankfully, but the notion of being more generous does come to mind. I’m often forgetful about gifts, especially for people I like but don’t spend much time with. But I figure that’s okay if I make an earnest attempt to reach out. The young version of me figured out what the old version would still be missing. It was never really about the big tree and the pile of gifts. It was the hope that those things meant someone was thinking about me — and me about them.