I absolutely adore my family, and I will drop just about anything so I can attend a family get together. The fact that it's Christmas just gave me an excuse to bring a really stupid White Elephant gift, and gave my brother an excuse to make his world famous Brined Barbecue Turkey.
This year's Wheaton Family Christmas was exactly like any other of the always-awesome Wheaton Family Christmas (WFC?) gatherings, with one exception that was so painful, I wrote an essay about it for Salon.com called The Real War on Christmas
This year it looked as though it would be a typical family gathering. But that all changed when I walked through the living room on my way to get some eggnog. I asked my younger sister, who was flipping through the channels on the television, what she was looking for.
"I'm trying to find Court TV," she said.
"Why?" I said.
"Because the governor is supposed to announce whether he is granting clemency for Tookie Williams at 3 p.m.," she said.
I was surprised to hear she cared, because my sister has always been pretty nonpolitical. "I don't think he will grant clemency...," I began to say. But before I could add, "because he's going to try to win back his hardcore base with this," she spat at me, "He'd better not!"
My sister was a death-penalty proponent? That was news to me. I didn't want to upset the family gathering, so I decided to just let this one go.
"OK," I said, "I guess we'd better not talk about this."
But just then, my father walked into the room.
"Wil thinks Tookie Williams shouldn't be executed," she said.
"What?" My dad said. Not to my sister, to me.
Here we go.
"Well," I said, "I don't believe in the death penalty, so..."
You know those optical illusion drawings, where you're looking at a smiling man, then suddenly he's become a werewolf? Faster than you could say "Fox News," my dad was screaming at me, Bill O'Reilly-style.
"... an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! He killed four..." he stabbed at the air with four fingers on his left hand, "four people in cold blood and deserves! to! die!"
I briefly made eye contact with my stepson, Nolan, who sat just behind my father on my parents' couch. His face flushed and he quickly looked away. My sister had stopped her channel surfing on a shopping network, and he looked awfully interested in putting a sapphire ring on easy-pay. While my dad continued to scream about biblical vengeance, I went into shock. Just minutes earlier, we'd stood together outside on the deck and laughed with each other as he congratulated me for a great finish I'd had the previous day at a poker tournament in Las Vegas. In fact, I'd cut my trip short, specifically so I wouldn't miss the family Christmas.
What a difference five minutes makes. While he screamed at me, I wanted to ask, "Who are you, and what have you done with the man who raised me to be tolerant, patient, peaceful and charitable?" Instead, I said, as calmly as I could, "Dad, I just don't believe in the death penalty. It is unevenly applied to poor people, and clearly doesn't work as a deterrent..."
"It doesn't work as a deterrent because they allow these scum to stay alive for 25 years before they give them what they deserve!" I hadn't seen my dad this angry since I was a sophomore in high school and my friends and I woke up my mom after midnight one night because we got a little worked up in a Nintendo game of "Blades of Steel."
"Dad," I said, "living in prison for 25 years isn't anything to be happy about..."
"Like hell it isn't!" he bellowed. "They get satellite television, and weights, and free meals, and jobs, and a library..."
"And raped, and beaten by guards, and sold as slaves by prison gangs," I said. "That really sounds good to you? Because it sounds like a pretty lousy life for violent criminals, which is exactly what they deserve."
He violently shook his head at me and drew a deep breath. "The victims' families get to watch that animal die! If they don't get to watch him die, how can they get the closure they deserve?" Before I could reply, and he could launch into another round of talking points, I was unintentionally saved by my brother, who called our dad to come outside and help him with the turkey on the barbecue.
He turned quickly, and stormed out of the room, followed by my sister.
To read the rest, you can get a free day pass to Salon by watching a quick advertisement. (Make sure you have cookies enabled.) You'll also get access to everything else that Salon offers for the day, too. I've been a subscriber for years, and my Salon subscription has out-lasted subscriptions to Harper's, Esquire, and The New Yorker, for what that's worth.
I hope you'll take the time to read the rest of my essay, and share your own stories about The War on Christmas (from whatever side you're on.)
I'm pretty sure this will stir up some very powerful emotions. Please think carefully before you post your comments.