My family does not celebrate Christmas. Although my parents would have preferred for it to be just another day, it was always clear that December 25th was the day we did not celebrate Christmas. We were Jewish, and had our own holidays. Our own candles. Our own food.
Donna and I acknowledge Christmas two ways: we go to Alexis’s for waffles and Prosecco, and we tip the employees who work in our apartment building. We don’t exchange gifts.
Growing up, I knew of other Jewish families who were just like us, except that they celebrated Christmas as a secular American holiday. Like Thanksgiving. They decorated an artificial tree, ate a spiral sliced ham, and exchanged presents. My parents said it was “A shanda.” A scandal. Jews should act like Jews. Jews like us go to the movies and out for Chinese food on Christmas. Jews like us do their shopping after Christmas to take advantage of the sales.
My parents believed that all Jews, all over the world, were our kin. They divided the world into Jews and everyone else. I feel kinship with a subset of unobservant, over-educated, and under-employed queer New Yorkers. At Christmas, I feel a little at loose ends. I’m missing a party that I don’t want to attend.
My Dad told me that Santa Claus didn’t exist. That parents, aunts, uncles, and grand parents buy all the presents. I understood that my life wouldn’t be any better if we were Christians or if we celebrated Christmas. I’d have to wear a red and green plaid dress with a black velvet Peter Pan collar, tights, and black patent leather Mary Janes. I’d get the same dolls, Nancy Drew books, and a purse. Different wrapping paper, the same problem.
My birthday is the day before Christmas. Every year I had a small birthday party on Christmas Eve. I didn’t like the attention. I suspected they weren’t really celebrating me. They were celebrating who they wanted me to be.
My parents obliquely asked me what I wanted. I was afraid to tell them the truth. I hedged my answers. Asking for boy’s toys would start an argument. I tried to ask for toys that weren’t made specifically for girls or boys, e.g. a Spirograph or Labyrinth. Toys I could play with by myself and still feel like a boy.
On my birthday, and on the first night of Hanukkah, presents would materialize under the piano in the living room. I dreaded opening them up. I couldn’t pretend to like the jewelry box that my grandmother gave me with the ballerina that twirled around to Fur Elise when I opened the lid. Instead, I silently wished for a new baseball glove, a Met’s cap, and black figure skates. I wished I wasn’t a girl.
Birthday gifts are still tainted by association. I have nostalgia for gifts I never received. For something special. Donna tries her best, but it is an impossible task (unless she gets me a Labrador Retriever puppy). The best solution is for me to give Donna a list of the books I want, and for her to select a few to give to me. It takes the pressure off both of us, and I’m not sure Gracie would like a puppy.
I’m glad this year is almost over. I’m looking forward to January, to peace and quiet, to the days getting longer, and to curling up with some new books.
Notes: This article, Why Eating Chinese Food on Christmas Is a Sacred Tradition for American Jews, explains everything you always wanted to know about this tradition. Unfortunately, Donna doesn’t like Chinese food, but she will go out for Thai, Malaysian, and Indian food, so all is not lost.