I grew up in a liberal, Jewish, highly-educated Berkeley family that didn’t think much of religion. We were, to borrow writer Joanna Brooks’ phrase, allergic to Christmas trees. Stockings and caroling brought on hives. And while my future husband Dan—across the country and unknown to me then—was tearing into a Christmas ham, his house twinkling with lights and good cheer, my family was scoffing at the hoopla while we ate mushu chicken, alone, at the local Chinese restaurant.
This Christmas allergy—a “social allergy with deep historical roots” says Brooks—had a bit to do with the landfill-marked plastic baubles, the feverish shopping, the list of prescribed activities that seemed as spontaneously joyful as the step-by-step changing of a tire. But break through the surface ice and below lay a thick river of fear. Fear that our own Jewishness might get trampled by boots storming a sale, drowned out by the swell of carols, or simply forgotten. Also, Brooks writes, “What is the Christmas tree but the mermaid on the prow of the ship of Germanic cultural conquest.” Yes, that too.
Then I got married to a nice Quaker boy and all Dan ever asked for on Christmas was some eggnog in his coffee. And so passed many a December 25th.
And then, like a rolling snowball that grows and grows, we had children. The children matured. And one day their bright eyes spotted the minivan-sized inflatable Santa on a neighbor’s lawn and the twinkling lights downtown and the tree at the library stacked with candy canes (one of which has been re-hung with a broken neck due to Rose, age 4, frantically biting through the plastic while hunched behind the children’s non-fiction stacks).
And I’m realizing—even if a bit late in life—that when it’s 10 degrees outside and the day is just a just a sliver of light sandwiched between two thick slabs of darkness, I need some brightness. Even if that brightness is the shine of my children’s drool while they ogle the cookies at a Christmas cookie exchange. Even if our clay ornaments came out lumpy and Col, 6, insists on sleeping with his and Rose sneaks nibbles at the salty, rock-hard edges of hers.
Like the Grinch, I’m growing out of my allergy to Christmas. I’m finding there’s room in our house for a small tree decked with the children’s ephemeral art and my paternal grandfather’s menorah. And truthfully? The children seem to think that bending the flaming tip of the Hanukkah shamash candle towards the wick of the next candle in line is at least as exciting as tearing into a present.
And maybe most surprising—given that my Christmases were spent passing egg rolls across a shiny red tablecloth trying to ignore the holiday—is how I’m a little taken by Christmas now. Maybe it’s the kids, the way they love the Jesus story. “Was Jesus born right into the hay? Was there chicken poop around?” Col wonders. And truthfully, even I’m a little in love with that story. Perhaps it’s the mother in me – what Mama hasn’t stared at her spanking new baby and thought “miracle.” Plus there’s that part of the story where Jesus grows up and teaches kids to share toys and use their words and be kind to their sisters.
When your holiday season is a goulash of flavors, none is celebrated perfectly. Sometimes we forget to light the candles until a pajama-ed kid points out the empty menorah right before bedtime. Last year I carried the candles to the menorah while absentmindedly humming “let heaven and nature sing.” And as for the “magic” of Christmas, you won’t hear the clattering of hooves on our propanel roof. There will be no bottomless pile of presents to wade through Christmas morn, no Santa myth to uphold. Presents are opened as they arrive, allowing time and space to digest each one (and a thank you note must be penned by the kids before the next package is torn into). We’ve explained to Col and Rose that Christmas is a season, a season of giving, receiving and egg nog.
It’s funny how having kids forces you to evaluate, well, everything. Even before your kids corner you with delicate questions (“how do you and Daddy make sure you don’t make any more babies?”), there is the task of blending two parents’ backgrounds, visions and philosophies into a stew that is at least palatable, and at best, a mix of sumptuous flavors.
And we’re getting there. Even my non-Jewish husband warbles out the Hebrew prayer with me as the kids light the menorah. We love the pulsing flames dancing as we eat dinner, and the pride Col and Rose take in their very grown-up task of handling fire.
And we love our tree. At Hanukkah dinner last year where we were all dizzy over menorahs, latkes and dreidels, our friend John asked “So…what would you call this tree?” I thought of all the groovy, non-denominational possibilities: the solstice tree, the winter tree, the yule tree, when Dan said decisively, “It’s our Christmas tree.” Which, of course, it is.