Every “holiday” season (that is, Christmas season) I feel overloaded by anxious posts from other psychosocially disabled — neurodivergent — etc. people. These posts all attend to a deep fear of “ruining Christmas.” I’ve felt for years now that the (I consciously avoid using the word “pathological” here) fixation on Christmas as a moment of terror and misery both for disabled people and for our family members is a subject worthy of investigation.
The “Christmas” holiday has, over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, been transformed from a mere religious holiday to an ideological orientation, an artists’ statement one might stamp on their own lifestyle. On a surface level, one might see this in the idea of a “war on Christmas” and particularly in those Starbucks cups. But the most dangerous expressions of this Christmas-ideology appear benign. I’m drawn to using the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story” as an example. The useful thing about analyzing this movie is that its plot and imagery are completely divorced from any pretense of Christian religion. It presents a wholly-commodified Christmas that does not match “american christian” culture but rather, specifically, the culturally christian middle-class whiteness which worshipped the buying and selling of commodities first and foremost. The life glorified in the film is socially and culturally contained, only addressing the existence of a world outside the town in which it’s set once. These two moments are reflective of a contradiction of u.s. capitalism: an inexhaustible desire to consume the other, while at the same time having to shun the other in order to maintain its fragile myth of exceptionalism. Ralphie and his family meet the outside through trips to the mall and mail-order prizes, as well as via “Santa” in the Christmas climax of the film. Conversely, Ralphie and his family also encounter the “other” in the infamously racist last scene of the film, in which they dine at a Chinese restaurant and are serenaded by a group of cringily caricatured, heavily-accented Chinese waitstaff. The presumable punchline of the scene is that the food Ralphie and his family are served and the way the waitstaff speak are both unpalatable in that they disrupt the white, midwest-american christmas narrative. The juxtaposition between the “all-american Christmas” and the “(perpetually-) foreign” waitstaff is meant to be the film’s closing gag (and reader, I did gag).
Now that I’ve established the role Christmas has in stabilizing normative american selfhood, let’s consider disability, and specifically, for this blog post, psychosocial disability / neurodivergence. Any narratives of non-normativity ruining Christmas must begin by presupposing a perfect Christmas. Presumably, this perfection can be found in the advertisements (on T.V., online, even still in catalogs –– consider the ubiquitous well-stocking’d, lit hearth which can be found in advertisements from L.L. Bean*, Land’s End, and other stores). Popular perfect-Christmas images circulate, at this point, from October through the beginning of January. Whether we truly believe that Christmas perfection can be achieved, we are still inculcated by a series of images that reify the idea of what Christmas should be. Again, Christmas turns from a holiday to an ideology –– if we merely purchase the correct products, engage in the correct “pro-social” and expected behaviors, listen to the correct songs, and engage in the discourses of “the holiday season,” we may too partake in the cult, as it were, of Christmas.
This can explain both why the anxiety of fellow psychosocially disabled / neurodivergent people reaches its peak at Christmastime, and why the impossible standards set by ableism reach their most bizarre at the same time. It’s not as though those two can be separated from each other –– to paraphrase Sartre, it is the abled bodymind that creates the disabled bodymind. Of course disability would be magnified at Christmas: this is a time in which norms of behavior and relation have been so heavily culturally codified that any “transgression” becomes more glaring than it would be otherwise. Psychosocial disability / neurodivergence can be understood as a failure or refusal to comply with the societal norms that keep the world predictable, safe, and “ordered.” One might also call this timeless sense of order “tradition,” and in doing so we can see its connections to Christmas as a social practice. Disability is suddenly thrown into stark relief against the thick outline of Christmas expectation.
I found an example of such a phenomenon in this 2015 blog post, titled “Don’t Let ADHD (or Autism)** Ruin Your Holiday.” The author, Penny Williams, recounts what could have been a disastrous Christmas, in which her son, who has ADHD, gets up early and begins to open his Christmas presents before his parents are there to watch. No explanation is given as to why, but she concludes that this early-gift-opening “would surely ruin Christmas.” She responds to her son’s enthusiasm with anger and disappointment. It appears that she’s personally offended that her son did not wait to open the gifts in front of she and her husband.
Curiously, her son’s forthcoming response to his mother’s misery is cited as a possible pull-quote. When Williams exclaims: “‘What are you doing!? You know you were not supposed to open anything without getting mommy and daddy! I am so very disappointed in you! What did we say would happen if you opened presents without us?”” her son responds, as would be expected, in shame. He responds by acknowledging what I assume was a pre-stated threat that she would take away his gifts if he opened them early, and then shouts “‘I am so stupid.’” The text of the suggested pull-quote is placed in brackets below. It suggests what one should tweet if linking the post:
Though I’m not going to address it deeply here, we can see in the way Williams parceled out her pain in an easily-tweetable way an observance of a time-honored Christmas tradition: the commodification of family life. What I would like to point out is the way in which she frames her son’s outburst, and the way she “unframes” her own, so as to encourage the reader not to understand her’s as an “outburst” at all. From the start, Williams gives the audience the required cues to frame all of her son’s behavior in a pathologizable manner. “Namely,” she does this with the nickname she gives him for anonymity: “Ricochet.” Presumably, this is meant to convey the way in which he, imbued with an “excess” (compared to what?) of energy, appears to ricochet off the walls. Although it’s certainly proper form for her to anonymize the child whose disability she is exploiting for followers and possibly money (although I’d rather her not exploit him at all) this anonymization could just as easily have been done with a simple pseudonym or initial, or with the initialism I see used often among mothers who write about their families: “DS” (for “dear son,” the use of “D” is typically mirrored in regard to all other family members). And yet she chooses Ricochet. Why? I argue that this word and its chaotic connotation primes the reader to view her son in the way she wants him to be seen: a disruptive force in her family’s life***.
This brings us to the second curious aspect of the quotation. She describes her son’s (to keep with the clinicalizing theme) negative self-talk as a result of “#ADHD ruin[ing] Christmas”. Yet, it was not “the ADHD” (as though ADHD is an isolable entity that can be simply exorcised via “good parenting”!) that caused her son shame. It was her. The diagnosis becomes an easy label on which society -– in this case, parents –– can project their own faults; by ignoring the ultimately social nature of disability, they believe they can turn to biology to explain their child’s negative responses to their parenting decisions. So it was not her outburst (which would not be called an outburst, but rather a reprimand) that ruined Christmas, it was “the ADHD” she believes is located in some cubby inside her son, waiting to be removed in order to save the holiday.
Christmas is never what we want it to be, not precisely. If we are raised to believe the advertisement-Christmas and the Hallmark-Christmas are ideal, then naturally, our imperfect reality will never live up to it. Because of the prevalence of these idealized images, though, our “real” Christmas becomes “less real” than the idealized images we’re fed. What we categorize as disability, or Otherhood writ large, does not expose some fault within the person marked as such, but instead exposes the wide, gaping cracks in normative society that we refuse to see. In “A Christmas Story,” the snow-white Midwestern Christmas, in which not one person of color is shown, is diverted from its course in the Chinese restaurant. To compensate for the simmering fear of “invasion” white people experience at the sight of Asian people in america, this disruption of the idealized Christmas is played for laughs, and the fear is neutralized by cheap, racist attempts at humor.
In Williams’s post, on the other hand, the disruption is injected with decidedly negative emotion: Christmas has been “ruined” by a metaphorical “invader,” the ADHD. Again, we have an invader –– that is, the real world –– disrupting an imaginary normscape****. The disabled bodymind is, to the (temporarily-) abled bodymind, a constant reminder that the seemingly-untainted lifestyle of the normal subject exists only in the shadow of disabling rupture. Normal life is the unsuspecting beach town which has yet to realize a cartoon-tsunami wave hovers above it, waiting to drop.
*Note the use of “heirloom” as a product-descriptor, too.
**Ironically, although this calls attention to the many similarities between autism and AD(H)D, its conclusion is not to question the validity of such discrete and charged diagnostic terms for what amounts to similar lived experiences, but instead to expand the number of “disability parents” that this article is meant to inform.
***Alternatively, some “disability parents” see “the autism” or “the AD(H)D” as an independent force that infects the brain of their child, that ideally should be exorcised for the good of the family.
**** Full disclosure: I just made this word up.