So, here’s the thing about Christmas this year … I’m kind of getting into it. It’s weird to be surrounded by a holiday you don’t celebrate, and that is pretty much impossible to ignore. Dare I say, my own odd fashion, I’ve got a bit of empathetic Christmas spirit this year? When I wish people a Merry Christmas, it’s more than an automatic “How are you?” or “Take care!” — I’m finding myself really hoping that they’ll have one.
And a good bit of that is due to you, my readers.
Christmas when I grew up was a Big Deal, but not a religious deal. As I noted, I was raised in a fundamentalist church in which December 25 was not celebrated as the birth of Jesus, because the Bible didn’t say that’s when he was born. My parents, lapsed Catholics, were fine with that, and put on a spectacular, secular, Santa kind of holiday. The ConductMom in particular is a baker and confectioner of remarkable skill, and every weekend and evening from Thanksgiving on she would be in the kitchen, making a dozen or so of the favorites and trying out another dozen or so experiments: cookies, candies, fruitcakes, and more. The day itself was a celebration of plenitude — or crass consumerism, if you’re one of those types, but there was more to it than that. There were secrets and surprises and stories. And prosperity — we lived modest lives by many standards, but better than most of the world, and better than either of my parents grew up with — is something to celebrate, when that celebration is done with generosity and gratitude.
As I got older, traditions changed: instead of leaving milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, we’d go out for a movie and pizza. Or have guests over for eggnog and cookies, and then break out a bottle of champagne after they left, and each have a glass while we opened one, carefully selected, present. (We weren’t being selfish about the champagne; as I mentioned, we attended a strict church and not everyone drank, and those who didn’t generally preferred not to know about those who did.) As I got to be more interested in clothes than in toys, and inherited my mother’s instincts for a bargain (though never, regrettably, her skill with molten chocolate) another tradition emerged: she’d keep some of the Christmas budget reserved for post-holiday sales, and we’d hit the malls together.
Christmas was good, when I was a kid, and a teenager, and even a young adult. I missed out on the official “reason for the season,” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find spiritual meaning in it — if anything, I’m a little bit better at finding spiritual meaning when I have to make it up as I go along. Christmas wasn’t about the birth of the savior for us, but about the ongoing condition of being saved — from poverty, from dysfunction, from hunger, from abuse — and about telling the same stories over and over again every year, about making traditions and keeping them flexible enough to accommodate our changing needs, about measured excess, a little bit of going overboard just for the fun of it, as well as to remind us of the more reliable joys of moderation.
It sounds so Jewish when I put it like that.
Away from my family, that magic faded. I wasn’t a child, or a mother, or a Christian, and thus even before I began my conversion process, Christmas had become the typical adult experience, more about logistics (“Okay, we’ll see your family in the morning, and then mine in the afternoon, but I’ve heard our friends will be in town, so let’s try to sneak off early and go to a bar or something with them”) and obligations (“What should I get for Dad this year?”). Travel arrangements and trying to figure out gifts that would fit a grad student’s budget and also pack well.
Still, the first Year without a Santa Claus was a surprising one. I hadn’t converted yet, but I knew I was going to. I was engaged to and living with Mr. Improbable at the time, and flat-out engaged with and living my dissertation. So on December 25, I got up as I had every morning that week, made myself a grilled cheese sandwich and a sliced apple, and started entering data. Around noon or so, Mr. Improbable said, “So, does it feel weird?” “I feel like the most freakin’ dedicated graduate student in the world!” I yelped. I was entering data on Christmas Day, like a little Cinderella of the social sciences!
After that, my feelings about Christmas continued to evolve. The next year I was very militant and angry about it — get your damn hegemonic holiday out of my face, already. By the following year I’d calmed down a bit, and figured, hey, look at all the pretty lights on the trees and free cookies in the office, and no pressure on me to do much of anything. That’s a bit of all right. We started our own tradition, of a movie and Chinese food with a small group of friends, and that’s been something to look forward to.
But this year … I don’t know. It’s changed. Learning from all of you what you love and dread about the holiday. What it means to you. Knowing that I am in the prayers of strangers I may never meet. Knowing the terrible losses some of you are facing this season, and your extraordinary courage to light a candle rather than to curse the darkness. Seeing from my diverse network of Facebook friends the childlike joy a 30-year-old man can take in the prospect of snow on Christmas Eve, the delight of seeing your child in a Christmas pageant, the pride of creating a beautiful home filled with presents and food and good smells to welcome friends and families. The memories of loss and pain, as well as joys, from Christmases past. The stresses. The difficulties of balancing “Jesus Christmas” and “Santa Christmas.” The extraordinary psychological and spiritual work of those who have needed and managed to break from their family of origin and create a new family, and celebrate Christmas within its loving embrace.
And the tiny joy, for me, of sending a cousin of mine a Christmas present — nothing big, just a couple of novels I think would appeal to him, that are obscure enough he might not encounter them on his own for a couple of decades — knowing that it would be a complete surprise, that he wouldn’t feel obligated to get me anything in return, that we hadn’t set up some kind of tradition where we now have to exchange gifts, inspired or not. Just a little token from the heart, with no strings attached.
Christmas isn’t part of my religion. But it’s part of my culture, and part of my past, and this year, I feel ready to own that, with no betrayal at all of who or what I am.
From the depths of my Jewish soul to you, Christian or atheist or Muslim or Jew or pagan:
Merry Christmas. God bless us, each and every one.