Saturday, 31 December 2011

A Very Brindle Christmas

This article was jointly written by John and Jimmy Brindle.

How does your family spend Christmas? Eating a huge dinner whose duties are passed slowly down from generation to generation? Guiltylessly zombifying with well-stuffed stomachs before a blazing TV? Perhaps you all go out for a walk along the spine of a nearby hill and reflect upon the changing landscape. Whatever it is, I’m sure you have your way of doing things. That’s nice. We Brindles spent each festive season ritually fighting and betraying one another.

Tom Brindle, alias ‘Dad’, was ahead of his time. When he wasn’t collecting incapacity benefits under 14 different aliases or undergoing torturous experimental treatments, he funded his ever-growing family as a ‘Future Consultant’ for the games industry. Many tropes and trends of the noughties had their origins in the Skinnerian laboratory that was our childhood – and just as many died there. But of all his experiments, we will never forget that winter when he and Ma came up with a plan to gamify Christmas.

The rules were simple: three teams would compete in three separate areas of Christmas preparations, with one handling the tree and decorations, one cooking the dinner, and one mixing the drinks (a task very much the equal of the others in the Brindle household). Each would follow a list of objectives laid out by Tom and carefully balanced by Ma, specifying in what fashion they were to complete their duties.

The twist was that only the winning teams would get the presents. To ensure our motivation, a ten-dollar minimum was introduced for all parties, and sharing, returning or re-giving gifts after winning was forbidden; we were to submit our receipts for ceremonial burning on the 18th. The final and implicit rule was: like hell were either Ma or Tom going to lift a damn finger this year for a bunch of sentimental little twerps.

They could not have given us better reasons to be cruel. Since randomised rewards are more compelling for players than certain ones, all the children were hooked, but concerted efforts were made to game the system. The great gerrymander that giving had become was characterised by two perverse incentives - the incentive to buy what you would like to receive, and the incentive to buy what you don’t want others to get. At tense little sibling gatherings round the fire or television, Susan Brindle (age 12, Decorations) boasted that he’d bought everyone bags of coal, while the equally ill-named Doctor Brindle (age 11, Drinks) offered the ill-judged deterrent of gift cards for lingerie stores. Those with strange and aberrant tastes, usually pariahs, were now kings. “Of course I bought a whole box of nougat,” waxed Duncan Brindle (age 9, Decorations), batting his eyelashes while others hid grimaces. “I really hope we win!” We on Dinner made a pact that night to deprive him of his present and eat it right in front of him, no matter the cost.

Others tried their best to have a good time. Older brother Kevin Brindle (age 17, Drinks), smoking behind the barn, urged on his adoring team with the promise that he’d bought everyone stacks of porno mags. Wheeler-dealer Malcolm Brindle (age 11, Decorations) was rumoured to have bought fabulous prizes for his crew; we never found out what. I for my part urged everyone to buy good gifts and give them up with grace to whoever won, on the principal that it would be best for everyone. That lasted about five minutes. More common were intimidation tactics reminiscent of The Wire: “hey, brother. I don’t want to disappoint you this year. So tell me – what’s the worst gift you can imagine for yourself?”

Complicating matters were Festive Points, initially introduced as a way to track and quantify progress. They were earned for and retained by individuals, allowing the top players on the winning team to get the first pick of the presents nametagged to losing members. By ensuring competition within teams as well as between they prevented undue harmony, each player working extra hard to minimise the sting of a mistaken choice and optimize their chances of happiness. But they also created a fury of espionage and counter-espionage; we were all trying to discover what others had bought while misleading them as to our own gifts. On one morning I returned from school to find my room had been ransacked, turned upside-down in search of the receipts concealed in my boxers. On another, sneaking downstairs to glean companionship from late-night local television, I found Susan Brindle in the act of shaking and rattling the boxes.

The new rules of Christmas made us all into crooks. Life in our family was never kind, but that winter, sitting round the breakfast table every morning, we would stare at each other wide-eyed in disbelief at the depths to which we’d sunk. The worst part was that you had to assume the worst of everyone else, because it only took one to break the system. It was Jimmy’s (age 13, Dinner) impervious dreams of material plenty that made me able to do the things we did. She made me believe our dinner would be perfect: there would be cranberry-pomegranate creme brulee. There would be strange, vividly coloured root vegetables stacked six inches high. There would be olive oil that we bought from the nice part of Kroger. We would feast like pagans in the cold.

And of course there would be a heritage turkey stuffed with artisan breadcrumbs. In Jimmy’s words:

On the way back from the farmer’s market, John sat in the back of Tom's pickup truck holding onto the turkey because we had no damned clue how else to get it home. By the time I had silently coasted the car back into the driveway, I found John already had a name and a list of characteristics ascribed to the thing. He stroked the feathers along its back and I was surprised at how calmly the bird stayed in his lap without struggling. I suppose that for us such quiet, reflective moments were rare enough that even a turkey could serve as a mirror to your soul.

For the past three years I had been a secret vegetarian. Ma and Tom thought I had an eating disorder when I declined meals and pushed the food around on my plate, and tolerated it because they thought it was funny; they would have flipped if they’d known I was making ethical choices. So I was pretty sure that turkey had a soul – and if not a soul, a personality. But I saw John hesitate with axe in hand, and I saw opportunity unfolding in front of me in the shape of mystery boxes of all shapes and sizes and colours, and I saw the metallic ribbons and the sparkling wrapping paper, and I'd played enough rounds of CS with John to know how to steal a kill or six so I tore the axe from his palm and landed a blow square on the bird's shoulder (I was aiming for the neck).

It took several of those blows before the head came clean off as a bloodied projectile. I wiped my forehead with the back of my palm, only really serving to smear the blood smattered on my face. The body spasmed a bit in the cold clear light and the sight sent sympathetic shivers straight down our spines. I guess that's when I started to think it wasn't going to be a very good Christmas that year.

As things got desperate, sabotage developed. If our parents’ goal had been to get the chores done, they would have taken steps against this behaviour, but the purpose of their design was only ever to incite chaos and misery. So when Jimmy and I stepped back inside the house to find how profoundly Decorations had beaten us, they should have expected what would happen next. Maybe they did.

Holly hung over every arch and door, cast in a softly glowing golden light that twinkled in festoons of ribbon. Tiny trains whistled through the house at eye level, bearing a little ballet troupe on their winding path round a majestic tree. A group of children I'd never seen in my life (which did not preclude them actually being our siblings) sung carols in the corner, while a live polar bear cub wearing a Santa hat and a red ribbon round its neck gnawed a hunk of frozen seal fat on the living room floor.

How could our exotic winter vegetable solstice feast hold a cinnamon and orange scented candle to this? We weren't even sure if Ma and Tom were still going through their whole pagan phase. Later we would find out that our brothers had gone round to every house within ten miles and stolen the exterior Christmas lights (resulting in a light pollution code slapdown in mid-January after Tom Brindle had resolved to keep the display going all year long).

Panicking, a hundred futile plans in our heads, we shuffled silently from under the mistletoe over to the drinks table where we found a warmed pot of mulled vodka and another of the Brindle Family Eggnog. It was three parts Famous fucking Grouse to one part egg solids. “Did any of you actually taste this?” Jimmy snapped, but Nathan (age 6, Drinks) just stared at her 'like an idiot' (her words) and Brian (age 8 and a half, Drinks) only put his hands on his cheeks, closed his eyes and shook his head. We looked at each other, looked at the drinks, and knocked them back.

When the clock struck seven on Christmas Eve, and the little ballerinas emerged from their carriages as they did every hour to dance the Nutcracker in front of the tree, a match in one little hand and a sandpaper pad on one tiny leg lit a carefully eggnogged fuse trailing into those clean-smelling branches. As the dancers trundled away dry needles withered and curled in the fire, bark snapped and popped, sap boiled. Nobody ever found out who was responsible, but Jimmy and I can attest that we were in an old shed a snow-covered mile away, searching for old pots and pans.


If you would avoid the fate we spirits have shown you, read well. What are the rules of Christmas? Bill Murray’s heartwarming if manic speech from Scrooged, a 1988 retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, summarises nicely (only partially available on Youtube):

At Christmas, all is forgiven and no score-keeping allowed. All grudges are shelved and and all feuds abandoned; old members of the family come back together. Mercy and charity are the order of the day; everyone does what they can and everyone is thankful for what they have. At Christmas, the ordinary limits to how much one can eat without being considered greedy, how much TV one can watch without feeling ashamed, or what miracles one can believe in without feeling silly, are all suspended.
That’s the theory, anyway.

But it's certainly the myth that Murray evangelises. Christmas is a time of exception in which even executive grinch Frank Cross can praise his family, order champagne for 250 people, and reconcile with his long-lost sweetheart.

BILL: “How did that happen? It happened because it’s Christmas Eve, I’m telling you! I’m not crazy! It’s Christmas Eve, it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we all smile a little easier, we all cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year – we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a miracle – it really is a miracle – because it happens every Christmas Eve.”

So Christmas works by nullifying the rules we normally play by and licensing us to put aside our grasping after self-interest, our urban cold shoulders, our careful calculation of honour and shame. This state of exception is ritualised by a set of new conventions and new rules. They are not as rigorous as the rules of a game, but they are always present in the Christmas myth. There’s seasonal TV, movie favourites, giving money to carol singers, finding 50p inside a pudding, and many others unique to each family or person. Take the tree down before a certain date or the spirits inside will make mischief all the year; don’t sneak downstairs, but actually do. When a woman under the mistletoe pulls Murray in for a kiss, he says: “there’s a rule! There’s a tradition that says I have to kiss this girl on the lips! She’s just upholding the law.” Scrooge is seen as psychopathic because he refuses to make special allowances for Christmas. He won’t play along.

Who we are can be changed so easily by the rules we follow. Our Christmas created monsters; yours could lay them to sleep for a while. Often, a game is not really about reflecting the player or giving her a means of expression; it makes the player about something greater, or meaner, than themselves.

In the end the bright glow we saw as we slunk back from our shed was not the deadly blaze we were silently hoping for but just that giant, illegal light show. The house was intact, and the drinks team did their job well enough that Ma could only laugh her musical laugh at what we’d done. It was even rumoured (though not believed) that in the heat of the fire Tom had grinned at his wife, stepped right out of his wheelch--r, and carried her all the way up the stairs to their bedroom. Either way, we spent Christmas day round the ashy husk of a tree and Decorations won all the presents for getting rid of “all that gay Christmas shit” (thanks Tom). Happy new year.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John just thought I'd pop in to say that you're welcome and that it was no big deal that I wrote half your fucking article, no really, no need to thank me or credit me (I mean not that I had any expectation of either considering that other article you stole)

    Merry fucking Christmas to you too