For roughly the first half of my life, holidays were complicated for me.
[Quick Note to Readers Outside of North America: The term “holidays,” as used in the United Kingdom — roughly equivalent to the use of “vacation” here in the United States — has, on the contrary, NEVER been complicated for me. Vacations, I don’t hesitate to say, are unequivocally good!]
Using just a small sample of annual holidays, and just from my narrow, American, white-privileged, Judeo-Christian context, either I wasn’t Christian (Easter, Christmas), not Irish (St. Patrick’s Day), not in a romantic relationship and painfully shy with girls/women (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve), not quite Jewish enough (Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, etc.), or — appalled by the genocide committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas — I was vehemently anti-Columbus Day, a vegetarian for several Thanksgivings, super anti-Hallmarkification, etc., and so my relationship to these holidays ranged from apathetic to neutral to repulsed.
Growing up Jewish in America, specifically each year during the month of December, is a major setup for confusion and awkwardness. On one hand, you’re taught that the in-your-face, dominant role that Christmas has in our culture is oppressive to Jews and other non-Christians, a claim with a fair amount of truth to it. On the other hand, those darned Christians and their Christmas traditions — the songs, the TV shows, the gingerbread, candy canes, Xmas trees, Santa Claus, flying reindeer! — they have SO much freaking fun!
Growing up Jewish in America at Christmastime feels like you’re a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth between Envy and Resentment.
That said, while this post is mostly about my experience of Christmas through the 27 years of partnership with my wife, I want to take a moment to state that we always actually celebrated a Hanukkah-Christmas hybrid that we alternately called Chrismakkah or Hanumas — annually lighting the menorah and playing dreidel and eating latkes for eight nights — and for many years we hosted a Hannukah party wherein we’d sit with friends around the table, in the glow of the candles for this winter Festival of Lights, and each person would get a chance to share on the topic of light amid darkness.
Our beloved menorah
The top of our Hanumas tree, 2019
When I met my wife, she gradually transformed the way I viewed the holidays in general, and Christmas most dramatically, just as she transformed other aspects of my worldview, perhaps most significantly by helping me curb my cynicism enough to connect with the simple underlying pleasures of engaging in secular rituals in community with others.
That first Christmas, as if some invisible On/Off switch inside her flipped to “On” the day after Thanksgiving, my then girlfriend/partner was suddenly one of Santa’s elves! She lit up like a Christmas tree, the Christmas music played nearly every day on our home stereo, off we went to the holiday arts & crafts fairs, the choral concerts to hear more carols and other Christmas songs, and back at home, batches of shortbread cookies and toffee were whipped up in the kitchen, her basement studio temporarily becoming an annex of Santa’s workshop.
Every year we’d scheme what to make for or buy for her family members who lived in the Seattle area, we’d load up the sleigh (Honda Civic wagon), drive over the river and through the woods, first to my father-in-law’s house in Woodinville for Christmas Eve, always festively decked out with lights and decorations and a blazing fire in the fireplace and a huge feast, we’d stay the night for The Great Unwrapping: Part One in the morning, THEN…back in the car, across a valley, to my mother-in-law’s in Bothell, similarly decked out, many of the same faces, more Christmas music, another feast, and The Great Unwrapping: Part Two. A massive double-dose of yuletide pleasure!
It was magical, and about 99% of it swept me up in the festivity, the pure fun of it all, ushering in a new understanding of how innocently special and beautiful Christmas could be for many people. Perhaps most strikingly, I was able to see through all but the most extreme commercialism and materialism that had turned me off most of my life, and I learned that the process of gift procuring/giving — simply thinking about what friends and family would like to receive, what would make them happy — can be joyous rather than unbearably obligatory.
That missing 1%? Well, it’s one thing to attain this new outlook on holiday gift giving (i.e. new software), but it’s another thing entirely to always live into it (i.e. for the software to run smoothly on an old system that isn’t wired for it). The new outlook worked immediately and with great success at the many small, locally-owned shops in town, and was especially compatible when perusing the wares of our many local artisans. However, inevitably, in order to buy something in particular for someone in particular, every once in a while, we’d need to join the shopping hordes at one of the big national chain retail stores, at which point my inner Grinch and Scrooge would emerge, occasionally serving up a very unwelcome humbug wet blanket.
All that said, if the Grinch could reboot and successfully operate the new software…
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.’”
…well then, I could at least try harder.
The First Tree
I’ll never forget our first Christmas tree.
It was 1994, and my very own live-in North Pole elf, thoughtfully intent on easing me into the joys of Christmas, suggested that we start modestly, not diminutive-and-sad-Charlie-Brown-tree modest, but I’d estimate that our first tree was barely three feet tall. Likewise, rather than traditional tree ornaments, with their iconic Christmas imagery, we decorated our little tree almost entirely with origami critters that we made ourselves, inspired by our dear Japanese friend Mayumi, as well as a ceramic Hanukkah dreidel ornament gifted to us by my future mother-in-law.
Luckily, we have a precious analog photograph:
Christmas & Offspring
By 1997, our son had arrived, and some of the best parenting/education ideas I came across, from an amalgam of various sources, including some of the work of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf education model, was that children are born with their imaginations fully functioning, wide open to an unfiltered experience of the world, manifesting in a natural sense of awe and wonder and creativity that should be protected and allowed to flow unfettered for as long as possible, safe in the knowledge that there will be plenty of time for these children to eventually be exposed to and absorb more serious academic concepts.
And, though it may sound saccharin and cliché, it is entirely true that seeing Christmas (as with much else in life) through the eyes of a child is to see that awe and wonder in action. Being a parent can be very painful, especially when your child suffers the inevitable bumps in the road of life, but the innocent, earnest love of Christmas traditions that our son exhibited was infectious and joyful beyond description. When you read The Night Before Christmas to your enthralled progeny at bedtime, when you decorate the tree with them, when you take them for their annual sit-down on Santa’s lap, when they open their presents, etc., all of the pain is effectively vanquished.
Now, gulp, 24-years old, his enthusiasm for Christmas may have mellowed a bit, but he still holds and treasures dear memories of Christmas past, still dons his Santa hat unselfconsciously when we go get our tree each year, still cherishes his first eggnog of the season, and he plays a wickedly good rendition of Vince Guaraldi‘s classic holiday tune, Skating, on the piano.
Still Complicated, But…
I’ve already mentioned several times here at The Owl Journal how it seemed 2020’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas would be my last. And yet, Halloween 2021 has now come and gone, Thanksgiving is today, Hanukkah 2021, thanks to Judaism’s lunar calendar, comes VERY early this year, beginning just around the corner at sundown November 28th, and Christmas beckons, nearly a month away, a blink of an eye to many, but to me, sometimes struggling day-to-day to find the will to continue living, it can feel, some days, just out of reach.
So, what do I do?
I do one of the few things left at my disposal, I take a figurative walk down a lovely holiday Memory Lane, and I celebrate the season here in writing, ALS be damned.
Despite the appreciation I gradually gained for Christmas, for many years I very gently enforced a household rule for our family intended to prevent holiday burnout, and the rule was:
NO CHRISTMAS MUSIC UNTIL AFTER THANKSGIVING!
It speaks volumes, then, that this past week, a full week before Thanksgiving, in order to get the journey down that Memory Lane started, a journey that I needed very badly in order to write this piece and to keep my spirits high, much to the shock of my wife and son, at around dinnertime one night I called out:
[Computer], play Christmas music!
To all my readers of various stripes, Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah, Peaceful Bodhi Day, Joyful Yuletide, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!
And since today is Thanksgiving, I feel moved to express my thanks, my deepest sincere gratitude, to my family and friends for all of the love, support, and care that has sustained me on this last long, strange trip. 🙏🏼♥🦉