12/24/2006 08:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Joyful Christmas, Hellish Christmas, Dada Christmas

I went on a Christmas caroling outing in Pennsylvania a week and a half ago, organized by a neighbor I like. A group of about 30 of us were squeezed onto a flatbed, seated on three rows of hay and dragged by a tractor. Isn't that quaint?

I went because I like the neighbor who asked me, and I enjoy singing, and I thought it would be odd. I must say I found a lot of the traditional carols were just too religious for me to totally enjoy, I have become so much a nonbeliever. Though I give credit that when we did sing Silent Night, for once it wasn't dragged out endlessly and moved with an appropriate energy that let the melody be pretty rather than torturous.

As we were dragged along the neighborhood by this tractor, some neighbors joined us, making it more crowded. Joining the group was a father and his four year old son, who squeezed in next to me. The little boy had clearly studied the songs in advance, and really liked the whole of idea of singing these carols. He had his own Christmas song book with him. The rest of us had several Xeroxed sheets of lyrics, with each of the carols given a number. So my neighbor would announce "Number 8" and it would be Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which the little boy couldn't know until we started singing. So, though he was a bit shy, I fell into the role of telling him which carol title the called-out number stood for, so he could find it in his book in time to sing the first phrase. His enjoyment of this communal singing activity, as we were all dragged around the neighborhood by tractor, was very sweet.

And now, rather like a movie that has been triggered or bullied into flashback, let me reminisce about three Christmases from my past: happy Christmas at age 6; Christmas as hell from ages 7 to 13; and Dada Christmas, on Christmas break from college when I was 19.

The happy one first. I was 6 and I still believed in Santa Claus. My mother adored theatre, and had told me about the musicals she'd seen and loved. (She saw the original Oklahoma for instance.) So I always had a love for theatre - some of it possibly carried over from a previous life, for all I know. I wrote my first play when I was 8. (Very short, admittedly, and based on the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy has a baby.)

Anyway, I was in this toy store, and I saw this unusual "toy" that, alas, I can't imagine being made today. It was from Disney, and it was a small stage, made of tin, about a foot and half long, and about as tall. And it was sold with little Disney rubber "people" about 4 inches tall - Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, Snow White, etc.

I was entranced with this object and the people. And though I wasn't aware of my mother noting my reaction, she did, and Christmas morning I had this wonderful gift wrapped under the tree. I was so AMAZED at Santa Claus' actual ability to know what I wanted. A toy stage with little people on it seemed so SPECIFIC for him to know.

From age 6 to age 13, I would play by myself up in the attic with this stage and these little people. I would make up stories, sometimes based on a title I would see in the TV Guide - thus I did my own version of Dinner At Eight, with no knowledge of that play or movie, just the description that it was the story of a group of people who had been invited to dinner.

I listened to my mother's recordings of Broadway musicals, and after a while had many of my own. And as I got to know the current movie actors through TV or going to the real movies, I started to fashion the Disney figures into real actors and actresses.

Mickey Mouse with a moustache drawn onto him stood in for Clark Gable, when I did my long version of Gone With the Wind. I was enamored of Maureen O'Hara as a child, so in my head I somewhat strangely cast her as Scarlett O'Hara rather than Vivien Leigh; and thus Maureen/Scarlett was Daisy Duck with red clay on her head for hair, and clothing made from clay as well. (For glamorous night club singers, tin foil made a great, clinging evening gown.)

When I did Oklahoma, I used the soundtrack album of the movie, and I saw that Gloria Grahame played Ado Annie. I felt Minnie Mouse's slightly squished face looked more like Gloria Graham than did Daisy Duck's broader, big-lipped look. (Well, big billed look, but it passed for lips.) Donald Duck stood in for the slightly leaner looking roles - he was Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind, but then he stood in for Alec Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai as well. I saw Bridge on the River Kwai when I was 8, and was riveted by it. I still am. Don't know what kind of 8 year old I was to get so engrossed in Bridge on the River Kwai but I was.

Around the time I was 9, my mother's brother Barry, who was a stage designer, made me a substantial, painted wooden toy stage to take the place of the tin one. It had a functioning curtain that opened and shut, and it had foot lights recessed beneath the stage using Christmas lights (which you could switch so that sometimes it would be white light, or you could make it be all red or all blue, etc.)

My uncle also made me a few fully painted scenic backdrops, made of cardboard. A field, a living room. A tropical island, good for South Pacific. By this time I no longer believed in Santa Claus, and it was clear my uncle had made me a really terrific, creative gift.

Later my father, who was an architect and could draw well, also made me some theatrical backdrops. I remember in particular he made me an elegant backdrop of the King of Siam's palace in The King and I. I had seen the musical live at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and I had seen the Deborah Kerr-Yul Brynner movie as well; and it was and is one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. I would make up the dialogue out of my head, moving the characters around the stage; and when it was time for the songs, I would play the record, and move the figures around when it was suitable, or let them stand stock still if it was more that kind of song. Daisy Duck was Deborah Kerr, and Donald Duck seemed more bald than Mickey Mouse, so he was Yul Brynner.

When I was 13, and about to enter 7th grade at this Benedictine prep school in Morristown, N.J., I decided I had become too old to keep playing with these little figures. And so I stopped.

Though during my rather depressed college days, once my mother looked over at me during Christmas break, and, feeling very discouraged by how much I wasn't functioning well at college, said to me, "You should never have left the attic. You were happy there." Luckily, we both laughed after she said that. She had a good sense of humor, thank goodness.

Well that was such a sweet memory, I don't want to do long versions of the other two kinds of Christmas, especially not the second one.

But "hellish Christmas" - basically, my parents fought constantly during my childhood because my father couldn't stop drinking too much, and my mother kept trying to change him endlessly. I was an only child in a small house, and being around their eruptions made me constantly tense. And holidays, especially Christmas and New Year's, were especially combustible, because everywhere we turned there was alcohol being offered - at office parties, and at all the relatives' houses. And if my parents didn't fight Christmas Eve, they'd fight Christmas Day. If we somehow got through those days without fighting (which was rare), then they'd certainly fight on New Years' Eve. Add to that, there were numerous other drunk people on both sides of my family, not to mention my best friend's mother - my life at a certain point felt like "Alcoholics-a-poppin'."

I wrote about my parents' troubles in my unabashedly biographical play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and I ended up playing myself (more or less) when Joseph Papp produced the play in 1985. My character (whom I called Matt in order to get some minor distance from playing myself) had this speech about Christmas:

Holidays, an essay by Matthew Hudlocke. Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman. It was Sir Ethelbert's hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things - the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, Beowulf's defeat over Grendel - that the population at large would fall into a deep depression. Holidays would regulate joy so that anyone who didn't feel joyful on those days would feel bad. Single people would be sad they were single. Married people would be sad they were married. Everyone would feel disappointment that their lives had fallen so far short of their expectations.

A small percentage of people, sensing the sadism in Sir Ethelbert's plan, did indeed pretend to be joyful at these appointed times; everyone else felt intimidated by this small group's excessive delight, and so never owned up to being miserable. And so, as time went on, the habit of celebrating holidays became more and more ingrained into society.

Eventually humorists like Robert Benchley wrote mildly amusing essays poking fun at the impossibility of enjoying holidays, but no one actually spoke up and attempted to ABOLISH them.

So until my parents separated when I was 13, I found Christmas nerve-wracking. I was on constant alert, and unable to control my hyper-vigilance looking for signs of psychological tension between them that could explode in seconds into full fledged marital warfare. (My father drank, but my mother was also very confrontational. I am sometimes confrontational as well, especially in some of my writing. I think it's a valuable character trait to have, but it's also a dangerous one.)

When I was in college, my mother finally had to sell the house I had grown up in. I wasn't able to be home to help throw things out, so she called and asked if she should throw out the wooden stage and the Disney characters. I said yes. After all, I was now 19, I hadn't used them since I was 13, she was going to be moving to a smaller rented second floor of a house. I must say, I sometimes long to see those figures... but I certainly remember them.

My mother was a lovely, vibrant person, and she wanted to enjoy Christmas when I'd come home. I just didn't have the stomach for it much of the time. During my Freshman year at college, I did decorate the tree with her. But during my Sophomore year at college - a bad time for me, in retrospect I was in a debilitating depression that did not lift for two years - I just could not bear "trimming the tree."

This disappointed my mother, and so I said - look I don't want to do a traditional tree, let's do a Dada tree. And I started to hang kitchen utensils on it - spatulas, and slotted spoons, and pot holders, and socks, and a wig she had, and Lord knows what else. My mother kind of got into this nutty version of tree decoration almost immediately, without a moment's hesitation, and we rather bonded over making this silly, highly untraditional tree. It was, oddly, a sort of good negotiation between us of how to have fun.

(By the way, my depression improved due to free psychological counseling at college. I lucked out with a very helpful therapist-in-training, who saw me for two yeas and ultimately helped a lot. Baby boomers were lucky; our parents' generation had been told that to talk about your problems was weakness. My mother, to her credit, didn't hold that belief.)

I start rehearsals in New York City the day after Christmas with real live actors, rather than rubber ones that are 4 inches tall. I love working with actors, I enjoy the intricacies of what goes into crafting performances. Though I'll always have a soft spot for the Maureen O'Hara/Daisy Duck performances I saw in my attic when I was little.