I Hate Christmas
I’ve tried and I’ve tried. But no matter how hard I try, I still hate Christmas. I hate Christmas because it turns me into a raging Scrooge beneath my candle-lighting, cookie-baking, feast-cooking, present-wrapping exterior. I hate Christmas because, like an old love affair where passion has turned to venom, Christmas broke my heart.
Growing up, my typical Christmas went something like this:
A gray day, I wake up — “Hoorah, it’s Christmas!” — the only nod to the season the undecorated pine branches on the mantle, gleaned from the scrap pile of the local Christmas tree lot. “They bring the smell of the forest inside,” my mother says. My father is silent. He doesn’t believe in celebrating Christmas. But my sister Jessica and I do — we’ve looked forward to this day for weeks. I open my single gift from my parents, a dress to wear to today’s family party. We hurry to get ready. We’re running late — combing out snarls and dressing up, our outfits vetted by Dad, and now we’re running later — presents to label, my mom still in the bathroom, Jessica snarls at me, I snarl at her, “Girls! Cut it out!” Dad yells, silencing us; he rarely yells. Grim now, we hurry to pack the gifts in the car. We drive, we drive, we drive.
But now! We’re at our cousins’ house, redolent with nutmeg and breakfast bacon and the glittering, blinking tree, a mountain of torn, colorful wrapping paper. “Hooray! Merry Christmas!” My parents fade into the background. As we walk into the mass of partying relatives, like in The Wizard of Oz, we shift from black and white to brilliant Technicolor. Hugs and kisses, music, laughter!
“Come look at what I got!” The forced march to admire the cousins’ gifts from their parents: their new Hi-Fi system. The waterbeds. The Easy-Bake oven. The yard-long stockings that have barfed up fine chocolates, tickets to the ballet, silly putty, and jewelry. Yep, they’ve had quite a party, while we were snarling and unsnarling at home.
“What did you get?” My cousin asks me.
But it’s chocolate, cookies, candy canes, hot cider! We carol around the neighborhood; “Hark the Harold Angels Sing,” “Christ the savior is bo-orn!” My dad plays the banjo but won’t sing the word “Christ.” Jessica and I stand in the front, and we know all the words to every song.
Dinner: turkey and ham. More music! Pie and ice cream! And finally, the gift-giving circle. The “elf,” the youngest cousin, delivers gifts to each of us. My family certainly puts the “Materialism” in “Dialectical Materialism.” I have a present from each relative: books and games and jewelry and candy. Jessica and I have stockings to open, too, from my aunt and grandmother. I love the gifts; I love this warm, loving party, where I truly belong. The presents pile around me. Then I see my dad sitting silent outside the circle and I feel a little nauseous, guilty for enjoying myself. Perhaps I am the only one who sniffs a whiff of pity for Jessica and me, with our austere parents and our unfestive house.
Finally, the presents from me. Since each relative gives me and Jessica gifts, we need to give each relative a gift. But buying gifts is consumerist and meaningless, my parents say. People will value homemade gifts more, because they show true effort and true love. This has translated to true hours of slave labor for Jessica and me.
The years of school pictures pasted onto craft paper with macaroni decorations were the easy years. There was the year of the pomanders, cloves stuck in oranges tied with ribbons to hang in the closet to keep away the moths; Jessica and I poked cloves into oranges until our thumbs bled. The playdough snails and people (hair pressed through a garlic press); the yarn mini-pompoms; the mice magnets made from felt and walnut shells.
This year is the Year of the Bottle Dolls, and I cringe as each relative opens their tissue-wrapped present. The family, what with girlfriends and boyfriends and babies, now numbers well over twenty. Twenty-three Bottle Dolls has equaled hours of putting yarn hair, faces, and clothing on bottles. My relatives smile politely and thank me; I’m not fooled, I twitch with shame in my seat. Who the fuck wants an old Sprite bottle with a paper head, yarn hair, and a paper skirt decorated with marking pens?
“Goodbye! Goodbye! Merry Christmas!” The party winds down. As we help clean up, scattered among the partially eaten pieces of pie, I find four discarded Bottle Dolls abandoned by relatives who’ve already left.
“We can mail them,” Mom suggests.
“No, Mom. Just forget it,” I say. We pack up the car, drive silently home to our grim, grey house, and Christmas is over.
I hate Christmas. Bah, Humbug. I am marred by these ghosts of Christmas Past, and though I try — I really try — I really wish the calendar went directly from the fourth Friday in November to New Year’s Eve.
Yet, if you visit our house this holiday season, you’ll eat sugar cookies, admire the menorah next to the Buddha next to the… yes, next to the Christmas tree. On Christmas morning we’ll open our yard-long stockings, filled with chocolate and savory delicacies and tickets to jazz. And we’ll open gifts. My parents will come over for dinner.
And Annie, I hope, will have a total blast.
How did I get from there to this? Stepping into a ready-made family — my husband Bill had two teenagers when we got together — I bowed to their traditions. Bill had always celebrated Christmas, tree and all. His parents, a rare Jewish military family, frightened by the Holocaust and local anti-Semitism, tried to assimilate as much as possible. Bill loves the spirit of Santa, of joy and gifts. He believes in Santa, and so did our daughter Annie until she was nine.
Bill felt strongly pro-Christmas, and though I’m troubled both by consumerism and about Jews celebrating Christian holidays, I didn’t want to react like my dad. My ambivalence translated to indecision. Since I didn’t know what I wanted, I let Bill take the lead.
So we have a Christmas tree, and I struggle. Like my mother, I love the way pine branches bring the smell of the forest inside. Its glimmering lights at night remind me that the world will soon turn back to the light. The pair of white doves that graced my grandparents’ Christmas tree clutches the top. And because we come from Jewish roots, we celebrate Hanukkah, too, though I barely know how to sing the prayer.
I still wait for an epiphany (Epiphany – noun; 1. in literature, a sudden, intuitive realization; 2. the Twelfth Day of Christmas); if I’ve had one already, it’s this:
I hate Christmas, but I relish the components we’ve brought home and made our own: Eggnog. Christmas carols. Presents. The visual cacophony of the Christmas tree and the Hanukkah candles blazing next to the Buddha on the mantel, and baking cookies into the night with friends, and the joy of spending too much money. The delight and wonder on Annie’s face on Christmas morning.
I hate Christmas, and it’s an old hate, one I’m deeply bonded to. But far more than I hate Christmas, I don’t want Annie to.
9 replies on “I Hate Christmas”
I have lots of Jewish friends, and because they all have kids, they ALL celebrate Christmas.
I have a well developed anticipation for each next installment in your series. This one struck me with sadness, mostly.
The image of the poor unloved bottle-dolls has stuck with me all day. What a barren feeling, to have nothing to bring to the feast. I’m pretty sure Annie doesn’t hate Christmas, or Hannukah, or Buddha-day either. It’s all about the Santa Claus spirit of magic, generosity and wonder, and I think your house is full of it.
I have issues with Christmas too, and childhood memories of the holiday that are also difficult, although in a different way. I, too, want my children’s memories to be better than mine. Things got better once I had kids, but the Christmastime sadness can still crop up, and I try to schedule my meltdowns so as not to upset the kids. But Christmas can break my heart.
Good luck this year & every year.
My husband’s family are do it yourself gift givers. I have been the one who brings the store brought gifts over and have received the handmade items. This year I am trying to do it myself too! I made some flavored vinegar and it was supposed to sit in the window for two weeks in the sun – well, the garlic has turned green so these gifts are unusable. My kids ate the cookies I was going to give them. I could go to Michaels and pick up a craft, but that means I am supporting corporate strip-mall America……phoooey! I think we all need to find our own meaning to the holidays….and accept those around us as they do their thing. Easier said than done, but so necessary for my own heart.
Thank you for outing the inner scrooge. I grew into adulthood hating the obligation and consumerism of Christmas. Raised Catholic, but not at all religious, I was torn by the way we were taught to celebrate ‘holy’ days. So now that I have a son, I wonder about creating tradition for him. I want magic and tradition and fun, but I want it to be like yours, with all the traditions that matter to me – and possibly to my son. To give him choices and a whole world of different kinds of reverence to choose from. To care about sacred things as much as he does a pile of presents. Thanks for inspiring me to be my own Mistress of Magic and creating the holidays the way I want to! Your words gave me permission to be hesitant and curious, and do it anyway for the kids. I love your column!
Re: the comment above: I’m Jewish, I have kids, I don’t celebrate Christmas, and I know lots of people like me. I also know Jews with kids who celebrate Christmas, because their partner is not Jewish, or simply because they want to. What is most important, it seems to me, in this holiday morass, is finding a way to celebrate that you can be at peace with, whether it fulfills your own desires, meets your partner’s needs, or makes your children happy–ideally it will do all three!
Another great column, Ericka, and the first positive image of Jewish Xmas assimilation I’ve read. Our Xmases featured trees and presents, but largely bewildered me and my siblings — after all, we were Jewish, what were we doing celebrating Jesus’s birthday? My parents were never articulate enough to provide an adequate answer — now, after almost half a century, you have stepped up and and opened my mind. Thank you!!!
I’ve been mulling this column over in my mind for a week now — and now I sit in my mother’s Florida home, missing the big feast in New York but not the squeamish weirdness around the gift-giving process. I, too, connected to the story of the bottle-dolls: I’ve also endured those homemade gifts, anonymous to the gifted and only half-meant by the giver, that can sometimes make Christmas morning a humiliation feel like the embarrassed climax of a situation comedy.
How do we tear our most cherished rituals from the shadow of class? We can’t – and that’s the paradox we all live with.
Peace on earth, and hoping for it; peace between us, too. That’s what this is all for – isn’t it?
Thanks for sharing your struggles on this, in your usually vivid telling,