Pucker Up: The Grim Reaper Is Under The Mistletoe, Waiting

Cross-posted from the Angry Robot Blog today, where a very special gift awaits.

We set up our Christmas tree the other day, and the way it worked was, my wife would hand me an ornament and me or the wolverine tornado (aka “toddler”) would place it on the tree, and she suddenly handed me an ornament that looked like a ring of antlers. And I said, “Didn’t Dad give this to us?” and she said, “No, we gave it to him the year that he died.” Oh, I thought, right, right.

My father died on December 22nd.

I don’t mean this year. Or even last year. This was six years back, so your condolences, while appreciated, are many moons beyond their required date.

Snow covered the ground. Ice in the trees. Blinky lights on all the houses and shiny bauble-hung trees in the windows.

And my father had prostate cancer. It had gone through him like raisins through a fruitcake and refused to be contained to the one place: the cancer had ambition, enough to kill him earlier than any of us expected, I think, even though we knew his life was suddenly on a short leash. We drove to see him on that day, the 22nd, just three days before Christmas, and while there on our visit his liver failed and his heart stopped and suddenly he was passing on to his happy hunting ground.

He died with my finger on his pulse. I felt it go. That’s a powerful and awful thing to feel—someone’s heartbeat suddenly slow, then stop.

A rum-pa-pum-pum, then—


I don’t bring this up to bring you down, but, you see, I think about death a lot. As a writer, death is part of my arsenal—it saturates my fiction the way the cancer got its claws in my father. I don’t know who said it, but someone far wiser than me said that all stories are about death and dying and I think that’s true, at least at the molecular level.

When Christmas rolls around, my death thoughts increase by at least an arbitrarily-made-up 46%.

This is, in part, because my father died around Christmas.

But that’s not all of it.

No, Christmas, it seems, is positively pendulous with death energy.

My father lost his father during Christmas, too—and so during that season he became more pensive and troubled, and many of the holidays were punctuated with that grim act of visiting my grandfather’s grave (a man I never met, a man who my father didn’t seem to like very much, and I’d watch him there looking at the grave trying to negotiate the repair of a relationship that could no longer be repaired, a feeling I am well-aware of now that my Dad has slipped away).

That’s the personal side, but you look past that, you can start to see death everywhere. Sure, sure, I know, Christmas is about birth, about the life of that guy whose name is right there in the holiday, but shit, that’s a ruse, isn’t it?

Christmas comes just as the seasons are turning. Just as the last leaves of life are falling off trees. Just as the ground goes cold and food becomes scarce and animals starve. Just as the white stuff starts to fall from the sky like ash—

And here I am tempted to make a dramatic overture about how it looks like the ash of my cremated father but the reality is, one’s cremated remains look a great deal more ‘kitty litter’ than ‘mortal ash.’ When the time comes to “spread ones ashes” it feels more like “flinging kitty litter” and you wonder if passersby might ask why you’re tossing aquarium gravel into the lake, you weirdo.

But I digress.

Christmas is death-flavored.

Christmas is the birth of a guy whose ending we know is to die brutally.

Christmas is when we chop down a perfectly good tree and stand its corpse in our living room to decorate like a clown before its needles turn brown and fall.

Christmas is when we kiss underneath the mistletoe, the poison that Loki uses to tip the arrow that he shoots into Balder’s eye to kill him.

Christmas is all the color leeching out of the landscape until the dark earth is peppered in white and gray, the forest like bones, the sky the color of a headstone.

Christmas is a stone’s throw from the shortest day and the longest night.

Christmas is when we lose our fathers. Or our mothers. Or when we remember those who came before and will no longer share in the meal, or the gifts, or the warmth of the fire meant to ward off cold nights.

It’s a bit theatrical, of course, to suggest that Christmas is death. Or that its jolly façade hides grim and sinister trappings.

But again, I’m a writer. It’s how I do.

More to the point, this is a good – if entirely shameless – time to mention that I have a book perfectly well-suited for all these aforementioned grim and sinister trappings. Because my favorite cantankerous psychic, Miriam Black, is back—a character born out of my own frustrations and fears about death, a character who now, in The Cormorant, takes a little vacation away from all the wintry Christmastime doldrums to head down to the Florida Keys where she is drawn into a trap. A trap where she expects to be paid handsomely to tell a man about his death but instead finds a message written to her in the man’s blood, a message from an unknown enemy that reads, Hello, Miriam

Read the book and you should follow the bouncing Santa Hat.

Because no book starring Miriam Black is complete without her killing Santa Claus, am I right?

I think I am.

Please to enjoy the book.

And Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you find warms your dry thatch of a heart in this dark, lifeless, death-soaked time.


  • I know you said you didn’t write this to bring anyone down…and you didn’t bring me down…but the words “He died with my finger on his pulse. I felt it go” brought tears to my eyes. I’m sorry, Chuck. That’s some serious gut-wrench and heart-ache right there.

    As much as I love Christmas — and I’m one of those nutty people who REALLY LOVES CHRISTMAS FALALALALAWHERESMYFIGGYPUDDINGGIVEITNOW — I very much agree with you that Christmas is also death. (There’s likely some ridiculous cognitive dissonance there, but I bury beneath an avalanche of sugar cookies.) That’s likely a large part of the reason that the suicide rate spikes this time of year.

    May the light shine in the darkness, whatever that looks like, and may the darkness not overcome it.

    • Thanks, Courtney! Christmas is also totally awesome, and it has become so again thanks to the Tiny Human we have in our life (a little guy who bears more than a passing resemblance to my father, which sometimes freaks me out). Have a happy and thanks for swinging by. :)

      • Anytime! I will admit that — although I am a Christmas nut — the holiday blues sometimes get to me, too. This year, however, our own Tiny Human (of the female persuasion) is old enough to understand that there’s something cramazing afoot. Most of my joyous anticipation is related to knowing how much she is going to love Christmas morning. I can’t wait to see the look on her face. : )

        Happy Holidays!

  • Beautifully written, and well understood. The ancients of most cultures recognized the ‘dead’ of winter as a ghostly, dark time. It’s visible in the oft forgotten pasts of wintertime gift bringers, many of whom have sinister histories and habits like eating children, and carrying them away in sacks slung over on shoulder. Ho ho ho indeed. Thanks again for the bold perspective.

      • Indeed! Christmas makes it so easy for the faithful writer engaging is satanic rituals to hit the NYT bestseller list. FUCK YOU SANTA and baby Jesus and your myrrh soak milk and cookies! I’m leaving my sacrifices to Krampus, the dark lord in my manger! It’s how all the cool kids do it.

  • I’ve felt the same as you for a long time. My reasons are similar.

    I like to go to ancient places such as Stonehenge in Winter because there I feel close to all the people that have lived and died throughout the centuries. I don’t understand why, but I find that comforting.

  • Yeah, I’m definitely feeling that this year, Chuck. My father-in-law spent last Christmas in hospital with a heart attack, and died in August from the stomach cancer that was really killing him all along. So this will be our first Christmas without him – as in, REALLY without him, as opposed to him just being somewhere else.

    I’d never thought about Christmas in that way before now, but you’re right, there are many more death than life connotations to it. Probably why they follow it with all the New Year gubbins. I suppose there has to be death to make way for new life – or at least for us to appreciate it.

    Thanks for the deep thoughts – makes a nice change from all the crazy, tinsel-and-bauble-bedecked, ‘everybody-be-HAPPY-it’s CHRIIISS-MAAASSS!!’ nonsense that’s saturating everything else. God, now I sound like the Grinch, how did that happen..?

    • The holidays are that way, in that they remind us of those we lost — those who can’t sit around with us, sipping nog, eating, gifting. But I think it’s also important to over time remember the ones who ARE still here and make sure we’re all huddling together and shoving off the winter gloom and the deadly doom.

      Sorry to hear about your father-in-law, Wendy. That’s a hard row to hoe and I wish your family well this year. I remember the first Christmas after and it was a tough one. It does get easier.

  • We’re bombarded every year with HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY. Life becomes frenetic and overwhelming, most it preparing for Christmas. I think most of us celebrate the secular Christmas because we feel we have to. When I worked for the post office years ago, we got so busy that I could never relax and enjoy the holiday until it was nearly over. I love getting together with family, especially since it’s about the only time I see some of them. I enjoy the feasting and catching up. Honestly, I could live without the shopping and gift-giving (except for the children) and enjoy it a lot more. I was also brought up to celebrate the birth of Christ, though I’ve heard he wasn’t actually born on Christmas.

    Even here in Florida we are beset with images of snow and fir trees. Songs about sleigh bells and roasting chestnuts play over the radio. These are images that mean nothing to me. Temperatures have been in the upper seventies (F) so far. I guess in the North, it’s a last big blow-out before true winter sets in. Here, it starts the prime growing season–strawberries, citrus, vegetables that can’t survive here in the summer. I think it’s cool that it happens after the solstice and the days will slowly get longer.

    I know it doesn’t make us feel better to know that death is as much a part of life as birth. It hurts to lose those we love, even when we have trouble loving them all the time. It’s also hard to imagine ourselves not existing anymore except as a memory. It just is.

    I hope your Christmas Day is fun this year. I don’t know if your little guy understands what is going on yet, but I suspect he’ll have a great time.

    • I think in a way it maybe helps to remember that death is a part of life, because perhaps it helps us value it — and holidays like this one — all the more.

      The little dude gets Christmas for the first time this year, and that’s pretty exciting.

  • Splendid post, Chuck.

    I think that Christmas, while being obliquely about death, is more about the very human desire to see hope in the bleakest time. Yes, yes, it’s smarmy and kinda cheesy, but that was sort of what the festival meant to people whose lives revolved around the cycles of the sun, too. You know that this night, this long, long night, in being the longest of the year, is also the beginning of a new cycle. Because after this interminable darkness, the days become steadily longer in the inevitable march toward spring. So we celebrate, because we know that no state, not even the bleakest scene or the darkest night, can retain that darkness permanently. Dawn will come, eventually. Crocuses will peek out of the soil. And life will begin again.

    Even that baby whose birth Christmas now celebrates symbolizes this. Sure, his death was brutal. But it was temporary. Three days later, he was chatting with his buddies, drinking and partying again. Nothing gold can stay, sure, but nothing dead really stays that way, either, in the grand scheme of things. Death begets life, both biologically and, for some people, spiritually as well.

    Nothing, when lost, is really lost forever. And at this time of year, that message is actually a comfort.

  • My grandma was just diagnosed with cancer this month, and her Christmas is rife with lots of cancer pain and goodbyes, so I can kind of relate on some level.

    Christmas is definitely riddled with death energy.

  • I like the way Terry Pratchett does it in the Hogfather – all that red & white? Blood on snow, sacrifices to make the sun keep coming up. I am not Pagan but there is an atavistic voice in my head that says that is right, and the way things should be, life/death, light/dark, feast/famine.

  • No condolences, the time is past for those. A commiseration though because I buried my mother Christmas Eve morning. It was that or wait until the day after and I didn’t think my father who had fallen completely apart could stand it. The sun was bright just like this morning, the air was still, snow covered the ground like a clean, white, pristine blanket just unwrapped for the first time. Except for that gaping hole in the ground. I still see it when I wake on this particular morning and it’s been 25 years.

    Celebrate for the squidlette. My kids were the only thing that kept me going through this holiday for a long time. *hug*

  • December 24, 2013 at 12:14 PM // Reply

    The last time I ever saw my blessed father in person was the day after Christmas (he dropped dead from a heart attack 3 weeks later), and my mother died from a horrible, lingering illness only 14 days before Christmas, so yeah, I get the “death” theme, too.

    Let us not forget, though, that there is a promise of life just around the corner. The Winter must come in order that Spring may be even more bountiful – literally and metaphorically. :)

    Happy Holidays! :)

  • I get this.

    A lot.

    As a nurse by trade, the ho!lidays, in general, spike with death wishes for ‘some’ contrasted by the hope of the New Year to come for ‘others’. As in, this year, has totally been a beeyach…but, hey! I’m gonna make 2014 my Bitch! Ya’ll!

    At least, that was my mantra for 2012 after losing my sweet Daddy to a 2 year battle with lung that metastasized to bone cancer. So, I’ve so got your back on the whole…I HATE CANCER’S GUTS!

    So me and mine are wishing you and yours the best of a bright and happy holiday filled with cozy, lazy days by the hole in the wall that spews fire and warmth with a warm mug of the drink of your choice in your hand. Unconditional peace, light and love to ALL however you choose to celebrate (or not). <3

  • I’m writing words to say at my dad’s memorial celebration on Saturday night. He just died. I’m going to use some of your words, he died “earlier than any of us expected, I think, even though we knew his life was suddenly on a short leash”. Because I don’t think you ever really expect it, or know what it means — death. I always thought I’d have a little more time with him. And man, he tried to chew through that leash. He did not give up easy.

    • Kathryn –

      Mine didn’t either. He was a fighter, and usually a winner of those fights until the last one.

      I’m so sorry to hear about yours. Condolences, and hang in there.

      – c.

  • Condolences. My sister died around this time of year. It hurts, but it also makes me happy about the moments spent those I love.

  • Someone needs a cocktail. I’ve had several-do try to catch up. My father moved in with us right after Christmas time, dying the first week of February-three years ago-right where I’m sitting now. Not a maudlin recollection but I feel you about winter and death. Sixteen years ago I was nursing my daughter when I got the call that my mother had a massive heart attack and died-Feb 4th. Winter is harsh in more ways than one. This year-I’m focused on eldest daughter being accepted at her three top choices for college (ignoring tuition cost until the new year-gotta have something to look forward to). Did I mention I was already several cocktails into Christmas Eve? Happy Winter Solstice-the days get longer from here. Love your Miriam. Warmest Regards-Lynne

  • My mother died last year and I sat in the hospital ER holding her hand listening to the machines beep… until they didn’t. I started reading this post this morning until the part about feeling your father’s pulse, then I had to stop because of all the emotions it triggered.

    Needless to say, I am looking forward to the New Year when all this Christmas stuff is done. Both my parents are gone, there is no other family left, so Christmas and death ring very truthful. Thanks for not writing another “be happy cause it’s a wonderful time of year” post.

    Glad your little human has regenerated Christmas time for you! Warm holiday wishes for you and yours.

  • Christmas has never been a big thing for me (primarily because it is not that big a thing for most of the non-Christian people here in India). But I understand the connection between holidays and death all too well. My grandmother died a day before Diwali (the Indian festival of lights) a few years ago. She loved fireworks like crazy. I have never seen another adult love them with that intensity.

    Ever since the year she died, my sister and I have always cried just a little when lighting the firecrackers during Diwali. While I have always felt that lighting those crackers was an act of celebrating the life of an extraordinary woman, I have also been painfully aware that we do not remember to celebrate life before death takes our loved ones away from us.

    And now I am weeping because my mother just called and wished me a Merry Christmas and I KNOW that she will not live to see the next Christmas. She is unlikely to live beyond the next 3 months or so.

    As I said, I understand the link between holidays and death all too well.

  • Wow. Powerful. Thank you for this post.

    My stepfather was in hospice care, on a bed in the living room, and stopped breathing several times over the holidays two years ago. Hospice was required to step back but my mother, a nurse, stepped in and rescue-breathed him every time. She told him that he would not die over the holidays. She did not want his kids to celebrate his death and Christmas at the same time for the rest of their lives. She was obsessed with this notion and she was by his side 24/7, bringing him back every time, until January 2, 2012. By then, his entire family had arrived and the house was full of people. He was lucid enough to tell some stories and say his goodbyes. She worked hard to give them this gift and I believe that he appreciated it, otherwise her efforts would have failed.

  • I have a personal theory that midwinter and the stress of Christmas prep causes people to die then, if they’re going to. Two in my family, 4th December a and Christmas Day, itself. I think about death a lot this time of year too… In short, you’re not alone.

    Nice post. Loved the last paragraph.



  • Have you yet listened to Sting’s 2009/2010 album “…If On A Winter’s Night”?

    It’s exactly the kind of thing you’re describing here–that darker and colder side of the year, the metaphorical death of the old year.

  • all of those sparkly lights in the darkest month of the year, all of the food and gifts in a time of hibernation and scarcity–it’s us shaking our baboon asses at death, and at reality. And then our collective fantasy gets carted off to recycling centers and e-waste dumps (sorry, china!).

    Christmas IS a magical time of year, precisely because its a deep fantasy with an endless taproot. Knowing all that, I still love it.

  • I love how you bled all over the page with this one CW.

    On another note-I can’t wait to read about Miriam in The Cormorant in my old stopping grounds-the Florida Keys-THE place for misfits, miscreants, freaks, and anyone else who wants to run away from life. But first, I’m digging into Blackbirds. Thanks again for the freebie.

  • The holiday season is the worst, because if you have disconnection, every one else is with their families and you can feel completely isolated. Hearing your pain. Glad that you can find the joy in it again, with your little man being around. But thank you for addressing the other side to the holiday.

    We lost my grandfather several years ago, about a month after the January birthday he shared with my mother. I know that for many of the following years, it was hard for her to celebrate, because her dad wasn’t here to share it too. As someone who loved her, and who mourned him too, it was so hard to watch because there was nothing any one could do.

    It was my first Christmas away from my family this year, and I found it really hard. Luckily, some good friends (also away from their families) took us in.

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