First, school is out for two whole weeks. Second, there are presents. Don’t forget Christmas trees heavy with ornaments; dazzling light displays, and singing along to songs of the season. Oh, and the food: creamy egg nog and smooth chocolate fudge, rich butter cookies, and other astonishingly decadent goodies that appear only at this time
I hated Christmas when I was a child.
Not only that, it wasn’t until I reached my 30s that I was finally able to make peace with what’s supposed to be the most joyous holiday of the year.
The reason is simple.
I was a Jewish girl who grew up in a thoroughly Christian neighborhood.
Despite these obvious demographics, as well as the fact that my family was what I today call “California Jews”—i.e. undeniably not hard core when it came to practicing our religion—my parents refused to bring a tree, and none of its accoutrements, into our home. That included presents.
But perhaps because my mom and dad also understood that there was no escape from this all-encompassing month—Christmas was, and still is, everywhere—we did acknowledge the holiday.
In a decidedly oddball sort of way.
This meant that my mother spent weeks baking dozens upon dozens of butter cookies with cookie cutters shaped like Christmas trees and silver bells. Strangely, my brother and I also had photos taken of us in the lap of a big store Santa Claus, although we both knew that he wasn’t magical and requests to him would go unanswered. Mom mailed out Christmas cards, too, and even took a tiny glass tree out of storage that sat on top of our television set for
most of December.
There’s more to this schizophrenia.
Next to the little tree, my parents placed a Hanukah menorah.
Sometimes we would light candles, but if the hour got too late and we forgot, well, we’d make up for that the next night. If we did remember, we still never recited any prayers beforehand. You’ve probably guessed by now that there weren’t any gifts to acknowledge the Festival of Lights.
Instead, in those times before Black Friday and Cyber Monday, my mom and I would hit department store blowout sales immediately after December 25.
We’d wind up hauling a few shopping bags full of dresses, skirts and blouses home. So, if a classmate happened to ask what I had received for Christmas, it was a no brainer to say those clothes had been under the tree.
This tactic worked well until fourth grade.
That year, long before diversity became every school’s mantra, my class made Christmas ornaments. Bright white Styrofoam spheres were passed out, along with sequins and pins. But when I proudly brought the decoration home, my mother had a fit. She even called the principal to loudly complain that not everyone at the school had a Christmas tree, and not everyone celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, thank you very much.
Now even my teacher knew how different, and somehow, how ashamed, I felt.
The years passed and I left home for college, joined a circus, returned to college and snagged a journalism degree, then moved to New York City to write. With the eyes of an adult, I could now see that for millions—perhaps even the majority of Americans—Christmas wasn’t about any particular religion (although for millions of others, including my Christian husband, it is). Rather, it was much more of a time to reflect, and act on, good will, peace and kindness.
Still, it somehow didn’t feel right to buy a Christmas tree.
But it was also pointless for me to have a menorah since I hadn’t been inside a synagogue for decades.
Then—and this took a few more years—I had an epiphany.
I realized that even though I’d felt like an outsider for decades, I still longed to feel the sweetness and joy of the season.
And now, I could. Yes, there was finally a way to be okay, even happy, when Christmastime rolled around.
I could create my very own holiday template, and with it, my very own holiday traditions.
One of the first things I did was buy a tree.
By then, I had also learned how the Christmas tree came to be—and that it had absolutely nothing to do with the
birth of Christ.
In fact, bringing nature inside has long been part of a Pagan, pre-Christian ritual that saw its adherents garnishing their homes with evergreen shrubs. (Cutting down entire trees would have been considered far too destructive to the beauty of nature—which this early religion was devoted to.) Indeed, one way of recognizing the important mid-winter holiday was to display the scrubs, which often included decorating them with bits of glass and metal. It wasn’t until centuries later that Christians added a baby in a manger and stamped the celebration as theirs.
Eventually, too, I baked cookies, but not every year and not nearly in the quantities my mother had. Sometimes I even put a string of outdoor lights around my doorway. With the wisdom and self-confidence that comes with age, I knew that this act had nothing to do with worshipping a man born in Bethlehem. But it had everything to do with saying the lights simply made me happy.
So it was that by the time I had my baby girl, I knew her December 25 would bear no resemblance to the ones I only wanted to forget.
She would have a big tree, and there would be presents underneath it. There would certainly be many ornaments, including one acknowledging her first Christmas. And there would be lots of photos of her on display, all wearing cutie patootie outfits topped by a Santa hat.
Most of all, I wanted my daughter to experience one of childhood’s very best days of the entire year.
And that was Christmas morning,
She would likely have a hard time going to sleep, restlessly dreaming of reindeer hoofs on our roof. She would definitely wake up very early, and then run to the Christmas tree in the living room. There, she might find a new bicycle, and lots of other gifts lovingly wrapped, waiting for her tiny hands to tear apart.
On my end, I couldn’t wait to watch.
And because of who I am, and where I came from, yes, we would have a menorah.
But it was my turn to do it my way, so that meant that this candelabra would have its own special spot, with small dreidels and a special cloth, festooned with Stars of David, accessorizing the area. There would be full-on Hebrew prayers every evening for those nine days, too, with my daughter lighting the candles every time. I would also learn to make potato pancakes from scratch, served with homemade applesauce and sour cream. Sometimes we would read the story of how Hanukah began. And there would be presents here, too, mostly books.
There are plenty of other folks just like me—people who have mindfully chosen to not repeat the Christmas playbook of their childhoods.
Some prefer poinsettia bushes instead of a tree, while others always give to a favorite charity rather than exchange presents. Kwanza is now in the mix, and I also have Christian friends who believe that celebrating Hanukah is pretty cool, too. It heartens me as well to see many others who define this season as one of community service, and do that walk with grace.
Really, it all comes down to this: you can pick and choose, add and subtract, and create your own December rituals. Make it big, or make it small. Make it traditional, or create a new spin or two.
Most of all, make it fit you.
How did you celebrate the holidays as a child, and how about now? I’d love to hear your stories!