“The only gift is a portion of thyself.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love Christmas: The glittery lights, the heady pine smell on the streets, the sweater wearers. I even like the red Starbucks cups everyone is clutching. I get all mushy hearing carols. New York’s magic gets amped up. Cookies! Rockefeller Center! The tourists, I don’t love them so much. But I understand — they want some of that magic, too.
But, I’m Jewish, so Christmas is not my holiday. Not my catchy music. Not my Hallmark moment.
I did not grow up with a Christmas tree, or stockings hung up in a row. It was very simple, especially to my Dad: “Christmas is Jesus’s birthday. We don’t believe in Jesus.” That was that.
As a kid, I gazed upon my friend’s colorful Christmastime paraphernalia with longing. Being invited for ornament-hanging and hot chocolate-drinking was like winning the lottery. I cradled the glass baubles like precious stones. Eggnog still feels marvelously exotic.
I was the only Jewish girl in the class — ok, it was me and Sarah, and then me and Sarah and Carin, a few Christmases later — but being left out of Christmas felt like some childhood curse. My lack of Christmas was another notch on my “woe is me, I’m so left out” belt. Another way I was inordinately different from my ribbon-wearing classmates. From the rest of the universe, for all I believed.
In a politically correct gesture, we broke up the Christmas carols at school with a Hanukah song and a Kwanzaa song (It’s a Kwanzaa celebration! Feel the power far and wide! It’s a Kwanzaa celebration! Feel a sense of joy and pride!), but none of the black girls celebrated Kwanzaa, and Hanukah, too, felt like a lame consolation prize for sad Jewish children. Has anyone ever genuinely enjoyed playing dreidel?
And then: I came to New York and everything changed. Everyone I talk to seems to have complicated relationships with Christmas. Complicated is the new normal, and that gives me a sense of belonging.
My friend’s Hindu family hangs up stockings because it’s a secular…er, consumerist(?) gesture, not an inherently religious one (I told you so, dad!). I was chatting with the smiley guy from Iran who works at the deli near me today. I asked him if he celebrates Christmas.” Of course. Everyone celebrates Christmas. It’s everyone’s holiday! We go out and have fun!” Fair enough.
Christmas is a topnotch stirrer-upper of feelings, be they wonderful, or excruciating, or anywhere in-between. My friend was looking for places to volunteer during Christmas, and found the spots completely taken. That makes me feel good about humankind.
I’m a believer in tradition. My Christmastime tradition is the Jewish standard… movies and Chinese food with my parents. Sometimes friends come along — Christmas refuges. I love it.
These days, my Mom and I have added a Christmas walk through New York to the festivities. We put on our layers, our coziest boots, and make our way through Central Park to watch the skaters at Wollman Rink, across town to bask in the glow of the tree at Rockefeller Center. After, we’ll dig into Dan Dan Noodles and fat dumplings and salty movie theater popcorn, and I’ll feel the holiday spirit, all twinkly and bright. I hope you feel it, too. Merry Christmas!