Sometimes holiday traditions can sometimes go a little off the rails, especially in large families. Writer and actress Cynthia Castiglione shared these memories of her extended family.
My mother is seven out of 11 children: Norman, Cathy, Jim, Tim, Trish, Mary Frances not MF, Joe, Pam, David, Chuck, and my mother, Teresa Louise Brady. Meet the Brady’s.
Every holiday we gather at my grandparents' house, 23 cousins, countless aunts and uncles all packed into my grandparents suburban home, where over the course of the day everything that has been bottled up since the last time we were standing in that very same room; all the lies, deceptions, and family secrets will be aired so that at 4:00--promptly at 4--we can open presents.
One Christmas Dad couldn’t sit around the potted Christmas tree with the rest of us. He had recently been knocked unconscious while at work and his boss didn’t do anything about it. No ambulance. No medical attention. He was told to just go home and rest.
He drove through two hours of L.A. traffic to pass out the moment he opened the front door. So we sued his company and were broke because of it. That pretty much killed the Christmas spirit that year. Not that we let it stop us from doing the annual Christmas mass.
Picture four kids and two adults standing in front of a microphone in matching outfits; my mother and I in crushed green velvet dresses, my sisters in matching red. My father in a red shirt hunched behind a mountain of sound equipment playing wind chimes and my little brother in front of the three girls, decked out in a red snowman sweater.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been a church cantor. And when she is not leading a congregation through the gospel repose, she is sitting in the pew singing out as loud as she can.
The Castiglione Family’s 5:30 mass was for those that couldn’t find a seat in the church for the 5:00 service. It took place in the St. Norbert’s High School gym around a make shift alter made of fresh pine trees positioned underneath a basketball hoop.
It was the one time a year that my mother could convince any us to get up there with her and sing. We would dress up, exuding this appearance of what a perfect family was supposed to look like.
As we stood in front of the packed house that had gathered to see our special brand of Christmas magic, I glanced through that crowd and tried to feel the spirit that the was suppose to be invading through my body. Instead I felt shame.
My 13-year-old self was embarrassed by the obvious display of depression. We were faking it, with smiles and laughter that we just didn’t feel. This was all I could think about the entire mass, as I watched all those people sitting in their metal folding chairs, judging us. At the end of the service when we were leading the congregation through the last song, I snapped.
My sister Maria made a move to be the lead singer, getting in front of the microphone all of us kids were sharing. I elbowed her as hard as I could, trying to put her in her place. She went flying into the front row of the congregation instead.
Not even my mother paused singing. It probably would have been over looked if not for the running charge she took at me, taking me and my other siblings down, with the second chorus to Jingle bells still hanging off our lips.
The whole room went absolutely silent for what seemed like hours, broken only by the sounds of four children letting all of their pent up anxiety out. The foul language that poured out of our mouths was enough to make the plastic angels decorating the alter winch. Then it started, the laughter, all four us broke out into an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. And we giggled and punched and hit each other, until my parents snapped into action, pulling us apart and dragging us outside to the car by our ears.
Our parents did not speak to any of us the entire car ride home, not at dinner, or at bedtime. Making all of us feel like we were going to burn in hell.
My seven-year-old brother, CJ, broke the silence the next day by shaking me awake. He clutched a tear stained envelope in his hand.
Dear Castiglione Children;
Due to your awful behavior last night I have taken back your Christmas presents and decided to hold on to them. You have 30 days to turn your act around starting today. If you can show me that you are the loving and beautiful children that I think you can be, then I will give you presents once the time is up. Otherwise, they will go to more worthy orphans. Part of the agreement is that you will tell no one what has happened. You aren’t allowed to make anyone feel sorry for you. You did this to yourselves.
At the Brady’s the cousins all gathered to take stock of their presents while our parents were in their separate corners. I realized in that moment, as I held Santa Claus’s edict in my hands that I was going to have to lie, not only save face but to save my family from further embarrassment. I alone could save Christmas.
When we got to grandma's house I pulled my sisters and brothers outside to tell them my plan. We each picked two toys that we could brag about and went inside. But no one asked what we got. My cousins, all 23 of them, acted as if comparing our worldly posessions tradition was a thing not only of the past, but of my imagination.
As we were all gathering to open presents I looked around the room and realized that every single person on some level knew what my parents' struggles were. The Brady’s had banded together to give the one gift my family needed most that year, silence.