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I am a person with a very uneven Christmas life.

When I was a kid, the quality of Christmas – not the presents but the mood – depended on whether business at our Ben Franklin Store had been good or not so good. There were many years when our chops got busted by the K-Mart down the road and then there were years when my father’s savvy and tenacity outwitted the “Big Guys” as he called K-Mart. It was always the Little Guy (singular) vs. the Big Guys (very plural).

My mother, by doing the same modest things every year, the tree, the lights, the stockings, the late dinner, made Christmas a little shining haven for our family, all of us working in the store until the last shopper left on Christmas Eve. We always patched along, if that makes sense.

Then there were the Christmases with a husband and in-laws and then a baby. These were exotic holidays to me even though they were just a state away. Everything my in-laws did was lovely, precious. They never worked late and they were never in a bad mood. The running jokes ran all weekend, eruptions of laughter. I felt like I’d moved to Slovenia. It was that foreign.

And then there were the Divorced Christmases.

I refer to this period as my forty years in the desert. You know, when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, they camped out for forty years in the desert before moving on to the Promised Land, the idea being that there needed to be a generation born in freedom in order to get the new nation off on the right foot. Moses decided that his people needed to shed all the beliefs and attitudes and behavior of being enslaved people.

Well, that’s what Divorced Christmases did for me. In the space of nine years as a single parent, I shed all of my expectations about Christmas. Oh, I still did many of the same things. I’d go buy a big Christmas tree and then try to pull it up the stairs to our second floor flat. I remember one year being trapped with the tree in the stairway, unable to move it or turn the corner to get it into our apartment. My commitment to the tree was total, though, questioning looks from my young daughter aside. I would do this one thing from the past. Have this damn tree.

But other things evaporated. I was no longer part of any family except the tiny one I’d built with me and my daughter.

I missed everything. I missed my mother making things right. I missed my in-laws’ laughter. The price of my decisions seemed extraordinary. I drove up and down Lake Drive in our town, looking at rich people’s houses, smoking cigarettes and developing the tough outer layer that would protect me from Christmas disappointment for a lifetime.

You cannot be more alone than driving in your car smoking cigarettes watching other people be happy. Once you’ve done that a time or two, you become inoculated. You are protected from Christmas disappointment, disillusionment, depression. Divorced Christmases, you see, are gifts for the future. Just hard to see that at the time.

I basically play it as it comes. Any Christmas where I’m not smoking cigarettes and driving past rich people’s houses goes in the OK Christmas column.

Not spectacular, not fabulous, not in keeping with tradition. Just very beautifully and perfectly OK. Whatever it is. However it is.

Basically, a few years of Christmas misery gave me a lifetime of Christmas contentment. Think about that, those of you driving around and smoking cigarettes.

Your misery is only temporary.