Tom Dougherty

I love Christmas. I relish making gifts for friends and family. I donate to charity and craft homemade Advent calendars. I bake armies of gingerbread men to fight my armies of sugar cookies, and then eat them all to avert war because I am a pacifist. Nothing can compete with the joy of Christmas.

When I was growing up in Idaho, my mom and I would trek through the frostbitten foothills behind our house every December in search of the perfect Christmas tree—the largest sagebrush we could find. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we would make regular pilgrimages out to our tree with gifts of ginger snaps, rice, and hot dogs, and each night coyotes rewarded us with serenades more haunting than any Christmas carol.

So naturally the editors of The Stranger decided to destroy my love of Christmas. I am their worst enemy, you see, and so they couldn't let me enjoy Christmas in peace. Instead, they sent me to suicide hot spots, support groups, caroling expeditions, the Seattle Men's Chorus—anyplace where the Christmas spirit might give way to despair and isolation, I was ordered to go. It was only after my seventh excruciating hour spent humming Christmas jingles inside a Nordstrom bathroom stall to keep from chewing my tongue off that I realized the editors of The Stranger probably just wanted me dead.

My first assignment: attend a gay chorus Christmas show at Benaroya Hall. Hoping to avoid going alone, I sent invitations to a few of the HurryDaters I met last week—all heterosexual males. "Hi!!! I was wondering if you'd like to accompany me to a Christmas concert performed by the Seattle Men's Chorus tonight? It would be so fun to see you again! ;) Can't wait to hear from you!!! —Cienna."

By the night of the concert, though, my only response had been a polite "no."

So I took my roommate Craig. The singing was joyous, and the costumes appealed to my aesthetic sense of tight and appalling. Craig is a former choir man himself and was able to comment on various songs and singing styles that I didn't bother to remember. Still, the overall package was festive and impressive; my skills as unofficial Ambassador of Christmas were not needed.

"Look at that middle elf, Craig. He's pretty hot."

"They're all gay, Cienna."

"Not every single man who sings in a choir is gay. Maybe some of them would be willing to come caroling with me?"

"Your vagina's high-pitched whine only works on stray dogs and ushers here. Put it away."

I don't know why the editors of The Stranger thought the men's chorus would be a torment to me. I actually enjoyed it. It was an older crowd, successful-looking gay men and their families, and not generally the kind of gay men who write for or read this paper. But there was nothing horrifying about the concert. It was Christmasy and gay. I had fun.

When I returned home, I e-mailed my HurryDaters: "Hi! Sorry you missed the choir concert! Would you be free to go caroling with me tomorrow night?! —Cienna."

By the following night, I still hadn't received any responses from my HurryDaters about caroling. It didn't bode well for me. I was 14 the last time I had been caroling. I had thought it would be fun to arrange a party of merry singers and hit Boise spreading joy. However, spreading joy isn't nearly as interesting and fun as inflicting humiliation when you are a teen. My friend and neighbor, Eileen, was inspired to start a caroling group of her own.

She invited the same crowd of people that I had, and set the date for the same night. Now, Eileen had bigger tits than I did, which the other kids mistook as sacs of Christmas spirit. Other girls wanted to be her, and all the guys wanted to ejaculate on her face. I wound up caroling alone. The second time Eileen's entourage crossed my path that night, she was overcome with Christmas spirit (which was already set to bursting in a push-up bra two sizes too small) and invited me to join them. What I really wanted to do was slice off Eileen's tits and mail them to some titless orphan in Africa so Eileen would be a flat-chested loser who no longer had the power to ruin my life.

Instead I politely declined, and walked home alone.

Now I was being forced to go caroling alone on Capitol Hill—home of hipsters and cynics and Wiccans and Jews and homos—and I still hadn't gotten my breasts. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a solitary, flat-chested girl singing door to door at Christmas, or so my mom told me when I trudged home so many years ago. I was afraid my Christmas spirit might flatline after a repeat.

Craig was preparing to meet friends for drinks when I got home from work to begin my rounds of caroling.

"You look upset," Craig said.

"I've been stood up for two dates in two days," I said.

"My God, who will love you now?" He stroked my hair. "Would you like me to hunt them down and shit on their bed pillows?"

"No. I'm just a bit disappointed. Maybe they're all busy with their wives and families or something."

"I know what'll cheer you up," he said.

"You're giving up drinking to go caroling with me?"

"Postponing. I am postponing my drinking," he clarified. "And I called Bobby. He's coming, too. I figured we should have a Christian with us for authenticity."

Bobby is a theology student who enjoys hugs, breakfast, and Scrabble. He hates attention and speaking at an audible volume, so I have no idea why Bobby hangs out with us, but I suspect it is because he doesn't know how to say no. Or maybe we just can't hear him when he does.

As we three marched through Capitol Hill, all carrying candles, Bobby proved his worth as more than just a Christian buffer. He was the only one of us who actually knew the words to popular Christmas carols. I was rustier than I thought. After some brief conferencing, we established that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" were the two songs we all knew. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was even stretching it a bit—Bobby knew the lyrics, and Craig and I could count reasonably well. It became our call-and-response carol.

"On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me?" Craig and I would call.

"Five golden rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree," Bobby would respond as we walked down Broadway.

During our fifth rendition of "Rudolph," Craig and I pulled out our house keys and improvised sleigh bells. Bobby didn't have keys, so I gave him a can of pepper spray from my purse to shake. Strangers paused and smiled. People offered us cigarettes. Even more flattering, we were invited into the Kincora Pub to perform when we took our act to Pine Street. Guns N' Roses backed us up on the juke box and Bobby nearly pepper-sprayed a pool player while giving away hugs, but we got through our entire set.

As we left Kincora we were approached by four Indians—that's how they identified themselves—asking for spare change. Two of them appeared sick. One man's right fist was crusty with blood, as was the right side of his face. It looked like he had gotten into a fight with himself. We didn't have any change so we offered to sing instead. The battered man joined us and outperformed us all.

"Hey, would you like to hear a Christmas joke?" he asked when we were finished. "What is the fastest animal on Earth?"

"What!?"

"A dog running across a Sioux reservation."

"Oh," said Craig.

"I love dogs!" I said.

"We're going home now," said Craig.

He blew out my candle and we walked Bobby back to his apartment. However, my assignments for the night were only half completed. And while caroling, like the Men's Chorus concert, actually turned out to be sort of fun, there was no way my next assignment would.

"Want to go on a walk?" I asked Craig.

"No."

"I'll buy you coffee."

"No."

"I promise it'll cheer you up..."

"No."

So that's how I ended up alone on the Aurora Bridge at 11:00 p.m. counting Christmas lights. If anything would cure me of my love of Christmas it was standing on the most popular suicide spot in Seattle and staring at the sad little houses decorated for Christmas. Fortunately, it didn't take very long; there weren't many decorated houses that I could see. The few homes with lights had only bothered putting up a strand or two. The most festively decorated structures turned out to be the radio towers on the top of Queen Anne.

What a depressing place to commit suicide, I thought redundantly.

According to the Crisis Clinic, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in Washington State. Every 42 seconds someone attempts suicide, and every 18 minutes someone prevails. Women attempt suicide two or three times more often than men, but men succeed at it five times more often than women. And the offings pick up speed around the holidays. Ho ho ho.

I'm not the type to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge alone in the dark. First of all, I'm terrified of heights. And if I ever plan a suicide, I'd better have an audience—along with fireworks, presents, and 20 weeping virgins. Just like on my birthday.

But I could see why the Aurora Bridge was a popular suicide spot. Simply standing on the bridge would firm up anyone's resolve for suicide.

They finally got to me, I thought. I was depressed when I left the Aurora Bridge—not suicidally depressed, just masturbating-alone-to-Johnny-Cash depressed. On my way home I began to feel better. I suddenly had a craving for holiday fudge. I decided to make a batch for tomorrow's assignment: an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting/Christmas party.

I spent the following evening toiling over a batch of fudge and checking my e-mail to see if I had a date for my AA Christmas party. I'm an optimist, I guess, so I kind of hoped one of my HurryDaters would jump at the chance to attend an upbeat, preholiday AA meeting.

"This fudge is damn good," said Craig, swiping his fifth chunk.

"Save some for the alcoholics," I said. "Hey, will you come to this AA Christmas party with me tonight? I'm dateless again."

"I drink practically every night, Cienna," Craig replied. "I would have nothing in common with those people."

Going alone was probably for the best—it turned out to be a regular AA meeting and not the Christmas party I promised Craig. My fudge was a hit and the alcoholics told me I was welcome back anytime.

"Our door is always open," they said.

I had so much fun spreading Christmas joy to Seattleites in recovery that I resolved to visit a Sexaholics Anonymous meeting the following day. Fuck The Stranger, I thought. This wasn't turning out to be too hard—so long as I stayed off of bridges, I would be okay. I was out of fudge but had a fistful of candy canes and a buttload of enthusiasm. Nothing could dampen my spirit.

It didn't come as a surprise that not one of the HurryDaters I invited to my lunchtime SA meeting responded, but I wasn't nervous about attending a recovery meeting alone. Hadn't the first one gone well?

The meeting was held in a church basement. Not having had any experience with self-help groups outside of the previous day's AA fudge bonanza, I suppose I was expecting it to be less like an "emotional refuge for sexual deviants," and more like a "book club." I am very popular at book clubs.

The group consisted of a handful of middle-aged men, their sexual baggage, me, my perky (albeit small) breasts, and a purseful of candy canes. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt like I had shat in their sacred space. Not only was I the only female, and seemingly half their age, but I was the only outsider. I refused to glance down and see how my personal discomfort and the cold basement temperature were affecting my nipples.

Worse, I had no idea how to spread Christmas cheer in this environment. The meeting commenced with a list of group rules: There would be no personal tangents or unrelated topics discussed. Stories could not be tasteless or graphic—if any group member felt uncomfortable with the amount of detail given, they could raise their hand and Make It Stop Please God. The goal was to discuss sex and our reactions to sexually perceived situations in the least-arousing way possible.

We broke the ice by stating our names, and how long we'd been "sober" or "dry" or "clean."

"I'm Cienna, and I'm a sexaholic? And I've been dry since... I guess Thanksgiving."

The least-sexy holiday of the year next to Mother's Day, I thought. Does anyone get laid on either of those holidays? Me, but just that once. And it wasn't good.

"Welcome, Cienna."

As we went around the room, instead of remembering my companions' names, I noted that almost everyone was having more sex than me. What I couldn't figure out was if that meant they were the failures, or I was.

"Let's keep our Bible reading short today, so everyone has a chance to share with the group," our moderator said.

Wait a minute—share? All I had to do at AA was pass out fudge! I didn't have to share!

Share time began. I can't share with you what they shared, because that would violate the whole anonymity thing. Besides, I'm not sure I remember what anyone else said because all I could think was, "Oh, fuck! I'm going to have to share!"

But share what? The fact that I am not a sex addict, but a well-adjusted girl who cheerily crashes self-help groups at Christmas time?

Men were sharing, one by one. My number was coming up. I wanted to pass out my candy canes and escape—but it was too late. I had called myself a sexaholic and now I felt all competitive about it...

Shit! Should I tell the truth? No, someone would whip out his dick and bitch slap me with it if I did that. Should I take the easy way out and continue to lie about being addicted to sexahol?

WWJD?

And, hey, why the fuck hadn't I had sex since Thanksgiving?

I decided to keep my mouth shut in the hope that we'd run out of time before I was forced to speak. What I really wanted to do was scream. To avoid arousing each other, the sex addicts talked about the human body in vague terms, and this vagueness was more disturbing than any graphic descriptions of "tits" or "round, tight asses" could be. The many non-arousing euphemisms for female parts were making me uncomfortable in the extreme. Please, fellas, just call it pussy!

Although, to be fair, any 22-year-old female stuck in a basement full of middle-aged sex addicts would be uncomfortable no matter what was discussed.

As the hour ticked by I made empathetic cooing noises, and discreetly clutched a candy cane to be stabbed into my eye socket if the situation got any more excruciating. Finally it came down to me and a guy in a leather jacket. Everyone else had shared—some twice—and the room was silent and expectant. I stared pointedly at the jacket. He crossed his arms and stared back. I didn't know support-group etiquette, or if I could leave without participating in share time. Then I began to worry I was being a big pussy, so I jumped in.

"My name is Cienna, and I am addicted to sexahol," I improvised, "and I dated 11 men in one night last week. And that was very wrong of me." It was the truth: I had dated 11 men in five-minute installments for my last assignment.

"Thanks for sharing, Cienna."

"Why aren't you shopping?" A large woman scolded the man slouched next to me. "Don't you realize there is an entire store in front of you full of presents for your wife?"

He laughed nervously. "I've got it under control," he said. "My wife shops for herself, and then I pay the bill."

The hefty woman turned on me. Her body had the graceful shape of a Christmas tree, and her left nipple was punctuated with a flashing Rudolph nose.

"And how about you? Why aren't you up shopping for your family?" she asked me.

"Nordstrom isn't really their style," I said, which is true. My brother requested a George Foreman Grill for Christmas. My mom is expecting a new tool set. I would pick up all of the gifts I needed at Sears on Christmas Eve, as usual. But I was nevertheless sitting outside the Nordstrom fourth floor restrooms, observing the commercial side of Christmas. I had been ordered to sit by these bathrooms for 11 hours—from the moment the store opened until the moment it closed—and offer glad tidings of peace and joy to holiday shoppers as they merrily trotted in to take a shit. Why? Because The Stranger wants me dead.

Shoppers constantly stepped on my feet. Married men checked out my breasts. Every child was a shrieking monster. After my first half hour, I was a nervous wreck.

Hours passed, somehow, so slowly...

From my chair I stared at a small forest of bright-white-plastic Christmas trees, adorned with garishly colored bulbs that resembled Easter eggs more than Christmas decorations. They hurt to look at in the beginning, but after three hours I was quite sure they were making my eyeballs bleed.

A mother and daughter stopped in front of me. One of them stood on my left foot. Their bags were nearly resting in my lap.

"I fucking hate Christmas shopping," the teenager said.

"Don't say fuck at Christmas."

"God, I want to kill myself."

"Shut up and watch our bags," her mother said. "I need to visit the restroom."

I empathized with the teen. After four hours in the same goddamn chair, Nordstrom was killing my holiday spirit more effectively than suicide could.

At hour five, I began to hear voices.

"Hello."

I turned to see a little girl standing next to the wall and staring at me. She looked to be 6 years old, or a hard-lived 4.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I'm a wall elf," I said. "I'm taking notes for Santa Claus." I flashed her my journal and prayed she wasn't old enough to read my scribbled notes on Sexaholics Anonymous.

The girl smiled, turned into a lizard and went to chew her mother's face off in Williams-Sonoma.

By hour seven, I had no fingernails and I began to fear losing control of my bowels. So I retreated to the women's bathroom and locked myself in a stall to play spider solitaire on my laptop. I was cracking.

The restroom was pleasantly tranquil. I queued up some Kylie Minogue on my computer and tried my best to pretend that I wasn't crouched alone in a bathroom stall at Nordstrom soaking up the holiday spirit as people grunted, shit, and gossiped on all sides of me. I pretended I was in fact somewhere sandy having sex. On Mother's Day.

Two high-pitched girls entered the bathroom and squatted in the stalls next to me, derailing my fantasy. "I'm one of those people who is really cranky if I don't get e-mail," said one girl.

"Word," said her friend.

"Is Alyson's hot cousin coming to Boise for Christmas?"

Oh my God, I'm from Boise!, I thought. Maybe I knew them!

"I'm from Boise!" I called from the next stall. "What high school did you go to?"

There were 20 seconds of silence. I realized the bitches weren't going to answer me. I squatted down and peeked beneath the stall to my left. I could see white socks, black clogs, and a bad case of razor burn.

I never would have been friends with feet like those.

Only four more hours to go.

The next morning I rose bright and early to search out a "misery tree" before attending services at a local megachurch. A misery tree is a Christmas tree decorated with the wish lists of underprivileged children instead of ornaments. The unofficial title of "misery tree" describes how you feel after reading even one card. Although it is well intentioned, the misery tree is the most depressing invention in the world, and my assignment was to read every last card on one. I ended up beneath a misery tree in South Seattle. It lacked ornaments except for a few strands of Christmas lights, although the tree's branches were far from bare.

Misery trees are stuffed with small cards detailing the first name, age, and desired gift of a child. Children ask for normal kid things such as Barbie dolls and racecars to necessities such as notebook paper for school. I took a card for a child who requested The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I resolved to slip some cash in between the pages of my humble gift.

From the misery tree I raced to catch Saturday-afternoon services at the University Presbyterian Church in the University District. The UPC qualifies as a megachurch, the goliath of the churching industry, with over 4,500 members. Their website offers sermon series, study guides, and Sunday radio and internet broadcasts. The church itself feels like a pavilion.

When I arrived the pavilion was packed with Nordstrom shoppers—screaming children, lumpy women, bored men. I found a seat in the back, and brooded about the plight of poor kids at Christmas.

I didn't register a single word spoken during the service. Instead, I balanced my checkbook and tried not to be attracted to Jesus. After church, I was handed a Krispy Kreme donut. It was delicious.

I suppose The Stranger assumed that if the Seattle Men's Chorus and the Aurora Bridge didn't do the trick, then spending some time with actual Christians at Christmas would. But they forgot that I am a Catholic-school graduate. I have had years of experience ignoring God and Christians in church.

That night I faced my penultimate task: Spending the night at the Hotel Vintage Park, a luxury downtown hotel. At first it sounded like I was getting a little reward for making it all the way through the Christmas mind-fuck I'd been subjected to—until I heard the details of my assignment. I would be checking into room 214, a dismal room tucked away in a back corner of the building, where a mysterious woman calling herself Mary Anderson committed suicide by drinking cyanide in the fall of 1996.

"Why room 214?" the desk clerk asked when I checked in. "We get a lot of requests for it, which is strange because it's the worst room in the house."

"Sentimental reasons," I replied.

I wound my way to the back of the hotel until I came to room 214. The room was indeed cramped and dark. The window showcased a stunning view of a stone wall. I collapsed on the bed and contemplated the gift.

I had been given a package—a wrapped Christmas package—with strict orders to open it in my hotel room, alone. This was my final task. What the fuck would I find inside? Cyanide? Razorblades? Veal? I gingerly peeled back the wrapping paper and opened the box.

Inside rested a single dreidel.

I tossed my dreidel in the sink and went to sleep in a dead woman's bed. It had been a long day—it had been a long week—and I was tired. The ghost of Mary Anderson left me alone while I slept. The poor woman probably empathized with me.

The next morning I awoke and checked out of the Hotel Vintage Park. My season in hell had officially ended. I went home and fried myself some celebratory eggs.

So what did I learn, other than that the editors of The Stranger would pay my grandma cash to kick me in the ovaries, if they got to watch me scream and then write about it?

I learned those same editors aren't as clever as they'd like to believe. Family is the source of most people's holiday fear and loathing, and somehow they didn't think to involve mine.

And so I'm taking it on myself. I will be spending the holiday in Northern Idaho with my family, far from Nordstrom, bridges, and people addicted to sexahol. Family—it's where real despair begins.