At the start of a gentle California winter, on December 9, 1987, my father, who had raised me alone since infancy, died suddenly. I was 20. At the hospital, they'd mopped the room they wheeled him into as his lungs hemorrhaged, but lines of blood were still visible between the tiles of the floor. He was nude inside a blue vinyl bag with a hole in it for his head to stick out of, and there was dried blood from his nostrils and mouth in his goatee. My stepmother and I drove home in silence, the remainder of our lives revealed to us. The wind blew out of the hills, and the Christmas lights, which had hung around the eaves of the house unlighted all year, blinked in the night air. The next day, I sat cross-legged in the sun on the hood of my car and watched the visitors come and go. Then it was Christmas.

Christmas was always the one time my drunk and dysfunctional step-relatives and I got along; it was sacred, the last trust that was never violated. I soon stopped speaking to most of them, but Christmas still came on--the dark, beautiful carols in stores, the public air of anticipation, the lights. Those who feel the way I do about it, whose families are gone, spend the holiday pretending it's just a day off work, alone in their homes, in bars, or together in church basements or in some sunny Muslim country where it really is just a day like any other. For me, it has always carried an overwhelming aura of grief and extinction, the cold clarity of oncoming death. But Merry Christmas anyway.