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.