What happens when you put your Jewish friend in charge of stringing the lights on the tree, is that you get to the bottom and have no way to plug them in. “What I have here in my hand is two female parts, but it seems like I need two male parts,” I called out to my oldest friend. She looked perplexed, herself, having never been the one to do the lights on the tree. The tree endeavor (both selection and installation) had always been the province of her husband, who made a big production out of it with her kids. He had been gone just three months and the whole operation carried a pall of sadness. I was determined to establish a fresh tradition, help her feel confident in her new role and win the day with enthusiasm. The kids had been good sports at the tree lot that morning, although it must have been terribly disorienting to be there without their father. I felt the least we could do was to get the tree going before nightfall. Ultimately, we had to call up our reserves---two effective and creative friends (with four children between them), both Mommies who were responsible for all things tree-related in their homes. Within the space of twenty minutes, those two had stripped the tree, restrung the lights and carefully dotted the whole situation with ornaments. That day, my status as “other” when it comes to celebrating Christmas and participating in the “Holiday Season” took a back seat to being present for a loved one. I returned home feeling decidedly less sorry for myself. Even considering my pattern (like so many American Jews) of feeling a bit left out at this time of year, I had to consider the heartache of my friend and so many others who have lost a spouse or someone close to them, knowing the pain of a loss like that is much more acute during Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and the assorted benchmarks of life.
As much as I have my own issues with the Christmas behemoth, its value as a touchstone for many families in this country is undeniable. It is a marker around which people create important memories with one another. Children experience Christmas as an expression of familial love and have the opportunity to be showered with special attention by parents and extended family. Adults take time away from work to be with their families and reflect. Sometimes people even use the Holiday as a way to process wounds that haunt them from childhood. The corrective experience of making your own Christmas for your own family as an adult must be incredibly powerful on a number of levels.
There still resides inside me, the smart-ass fourth grader who wrote an essay about how the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony was a violation of church and state. This represented my desperate attempt to communicate the plight of the American, Jewish 8-year-old during the Holidays. Back in the 80s, they didn’t really show much of Reagan lighting an obligatory Menorah somewhere or sitting down with his staff for a game of Dreidl. And I likely would have argued that, to be fair, he shouldn’t be publicly participating in any religious celebration. They also didn’t give Chanukah much air-time in the media in general back then, which made it even more critical that I drag my Mom into my elementary classrooms so that she could fry up Latkes on an electric griddle. There is almost nothing more tragic than a bunch of disinterested school children carting floppy paper plates of greasy potato pancakes and dollops of applesauce to their desks to “enjoy.” “Also, we get chocolate coins!” I asserted to anyone who would listen.
While I feel certain that I will be confronted with many uncomfortable conversations with my own children about why we don’t adorn our home or really do anything amazing at this time of year, I also trust that they will find ways to turn their outsider status into something interesting. They might end up with a fantastic sense of humor about it. It might increase their empathy for people that experience actual “other” status (people of color, immigrants, gay families) and who live permanently outside the mainstream.
I will always feel a little twinge at Christmas time. I will try and remind myself that I can appreciate someone else’s traditions and how profound they are without needing to participate myself. We have our own traditions on December 25th– Dim Sum! Blockbuster movies!---and I remain grateful that I won’t need to cling to them like a life-raft, girding against loss.