Monday, December 31, 2012

Shalom, Christmas

Christmas isn’t part of my tradition.  My childhood Christmas memories are of sushi and bowling, Chinese takeout and Frogger marathons.  I grew up in a DC suburb with lots of Jews, so I had plenty of company.  Both of my parents were Jewish; not observant, but Jewish.  We ate bacon with our eggs, and we didn’t join a synagogue until I was 9, but we never had a Christmas tree. 

As an adult, my home has always been a Christmas-free zone.  The kids go back east to celebrate Christmas with Ted’s relatives every year- but in our house, there has never been a tree, lights, or faux melting snowflakes.  Call it indoctrination, but the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School was very firm on this point: Christmas is not a secular holiday.  Most secular holidays don’t have the word “Christ” in their name.  A Christmas tree has no place in a Jewish home.  I’d never really questioned it.

This is the first holiday season that Paula and I have lived together.  A few weeks before Christmas, she asked, innocently enough, “Do you want to get a Christmas tree?”  My flat and immediate “no” caught her off-guard.  Paula hasn’t been to church in decades.  She doesn’t identify as Christian.  For her, and for many Americans, a Christmas tree is a seasonal symbol; it’s Santa Claus and his reindeer-powered sleigh, not Jesus in a manger.  She had some reasonable questions to ask: what exactly do I have against cheerfulness, joy and peace?  (I do have something against them… when they are retail gimmicks… but that was my previous blog post.)

We visited the homes of several interfaith couples during the holidays, and many of them do have Christmas trees.  “We don’t have a Jewish home,” one friend explained.  “We have an interfaith home.”  They belong to a synagogue, their kids go to religious school, they attend services and go on family retreats with the congregation – but in their home, the multiple traditions of their families and faiths are alive and celebrated.  Their tree was beautiful.

Another friend with no cultural ties to Christmas had a different perspective.  “My wife and I are both Hindu,” he said.  “But we have a Christmas tree.  The kids don’t think of it as Christian; they just think of it as where their presents go.”  They are not interfaith, but Christmas is not a tradition of faith for them; it’s an American tradition of gift-giving, one which their children look forward to just as much as Jewish, Christian, and atheist children do.

I respect each of these friends’ decisions.  I love visiting their homes.  I have often caught myself humming “The first Noel” and “Silver Bells” in the car.  Still, I choose to abstain from Christmas decorations.  This year, more so than ever before, I have challenged myself as to why.  Here’s what I came up with:

Reform Jews don’t stand out in America.  We don’t dress differently, we don’t eat differently (unless you count gefilte fish), and most of us only go missing from work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Christmas is one of the few times of year that being Jewish makes me feel different, like a chameleon coming out of camouflage.  This isn’t a negative feeling; I love being Jewish.  In myriad ways, Judaism has influenced my values, my lifestyle, and my ambitions.  As a Jew who is largely assimilated into American culture, Christmas is the one time of year when, with my unlit, treeless home, I stand up and am counted.

But it’s not just my home and my kids’ home; it’s Paula’s, too.  How do I honor the tradition of joy and seasonal beauty that Christmas means to her, if doing so obfuscates my own tradition?  Surfing around the web, I can see we’re not the only ones struggling with this balance.  Interfaith families- and even Jewish families – have landed everywhere along the spectrum.  

The day before Christmas, with the kids back east, I was out shopping for groceries to make a grand Christmas Day meal for Paula.  I had a nagging guilt about the exclusion of Christmas from our shared abode.  On the way home, I stopped and picked up an assortment of ornaments.  I savored the experience; ornaments have always been the piece of the Christmas puzzle I envy the most.  They’re so pretty, and over time, they tell the story of a life: baby’s first Christmas; the one made from pasta and metallic spray paint in first grade; a keepsake from Prague; and so on.

I came home and hung my new ornaments from the lemon tree in our backyard.  They really did look nice.  Paula smiled and thanked me, but I know she was just being polite.  Santa doesn’t often drop the mother lode under a citrus tree.  And with the tree in our backyard, the street view still suggested an undecorated home.  But at least I wasn’t snubbing Christmas entirely.  

Last year, I went to work on Christmas Day.  I was in Tel Aviv, where Christmas is just a regular work day.  Other than the chocolate Santa that mysteriously appeared in my hotel room – an oddity in a hotel that keeps Kosher and has a Shabbat elevator – there wasn’t any indication that December 25 was a special day.  No one had hung snowflakes from their beachfront balconies, no stores closed early – and Israeli children don’t expect to wake up to a mound of new toys, under a tree or elsewhere.  This is really cool, I thought.  For the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by people as indifferent to Christmas as I am.  We lit the menorah at the office, and we had the traditional jelly doughnuts at the company meeting.  I was ensconced in my own tradition.

Except that I wasn’t.  I am an American Jew; emphasis on American.  Christmas is one of the few days that America grinds into low gear, even for most Jews.  Christmas as a normal workday was something I’d never experienced.  And believe me, fight it though I might, my kids expect presents.

This year, at home in San Jose, I ground into low gear too.  I explained to Paula that we must have Chinese food on Christmas Eve; she was all too happy to oblige.  On Christmas Day, we did a jigsaw puzzle.  We made a bag of sandwiches and distributed them to homeless people in the park downtown.  We visited her mom and hosted her sister for dinner.  For one day, the world around us slowed down, and we did too.  It was great- way better, honestly, than being 7,000 miles from home and saying “Merry Christmas” over Skype.

So maybe I wasn’t completely truthful when I said that Christmas isn’t part of my tradition.  I’ve come to look forward to “the holidays” as an annual respite from our busy, overcrowded, overstimulated life.  I’ve absorbed some of the warmth of the season into my own rituals of gift-giving, card-sending, and time off work.  (Yes, we light the menorah – and the kids get Chanukah gifts – but Chanukah gift-giving is really a tradition that grew out of Christmas.)  In a world that glorifies multitasking and often leaves professional women swinging on a pendulum between two outposts of guilt, Christmas is a day when the world around us stops its dizzying spin and we settle into the moment.  

When I am honest with myself, for that, I am truly grateful.

Friday, December 14, 2012


“The holidays” always agitate a certain tension in me.  It’s not so much stress or depression, the usual suspects this time of year.  It’s more that that the holidays pull at me internally, pitting the globally-warmed conservationist I’ve become against my inner child.  One night I can’t sleep because the rising level of CO2 in our oceans is decimating oyster hatcheries; the next night, I’m up worrying about denying my kids the carefree delight of holiday excess.  Inner Child loves the vision of a hearth piled with sparkly gifts, magical in their veil of infinite potential.  Inner Environmentalist knows that the wrapping paper will go straight to the trash, that most toys are less entertaining than the boxes they come in, and that production lines in China are pouring untreated wastewater into the rivers and lakes that serve local communities, too far from American buyers’ eyes to raise any eyebrows.

Is it just coincidence that The Grinch is green?

My kids feel the same tension– Becky, at 10, more so than her younger sister.  They abhor destruction of animal habitat – but they really love their collection of stuffed animals.  They sneer at our dependence on fossil fuel – but boy do they want the Nintendo 3DS.  They may wax poetic about days of yore when all this excess didn’t exist – but since it’s here, it’s hard not to want it.

I didn’t expect the kids to tell me that they want to pass on gifts this year.  My inner child would actually find it somewhat disturbing if they did.  But I also don’t want them to feel beholden to the spell that the retail world tries to cast.  I don’t want to tell them where to land, but I invite them to explore the spectrum between indulgence and abstinence, to sit with the pros and cons.  No matter how shiny and enticing the catalogs are, no matter how bright the smiles of the children modeling with toys and clothes, no matter how resounding the marketing message that money can buy you love, we know better.  Excess yields diminishing returns.  The euphoria of new stuff is fleeting, by design; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t work out so well for the retailers, who want you back next year.  And all of this has a global cost much higher than the Black Friday price tags suggest.

Everyone finds their own equilibrium in this tension.  For us, it is a place in the middle.  After the candles were lit on the first night of Chanukah, the girls sat on the floor in the living room with their eyes covered.  Five minutes later, they opened them to find model horses all around, unloaded from Trader Joe’s bags.  Thanks to Craig’s List, I had scored a collection of them to present as a Chanukah gift.  The fur on their noses is worn, and their saddles are cracked – but for $20, and zero incremental effluent into waterways, the kids enjoyed what felt to them like a bonanza.  For the next few hours, they gleefully welcomed Colonel Mustard, Annie Hall, Vanilla and the rest of their brethren into our home.  (Assigning names seems to be the most fun part anyway.)  No wrapping paper wound up in the garbage that night, but there was carefree excess in the air.  And if they collect cobwebs after their first week… well, no one really feels too put out.

This approach doesn’t always go smoothly.  On night three, I gave each of the girls an envelope.  Inside was a homemade certificate good for one year of horseback riding lessons- an indulgence that will stretch our budget but which I was honestly excited to give them.  I grew up riding horses, and I have long wanted them to share the experience.  Both of them read their slip of paper, looked at me uncertainly, and then dug into the envelope, looking for their “gift”.   Finding only the paper, Becky recovered gracefully, realizing that this was something she should celebrate – but Leah turned and ran to her room, sobbing.  My first reaction was righteous indignation; how could she turn up her nose just because I didn’t include a toy surprise?  What kind of spoiled little brats had I raised here?  But I know that she was only reacting honestly; at five, she is easily fascinated by shiny objects.  It’s my job as her mom to teach her what matters.  It is a lifelong course of learning.  I’m still learning it myself, every day.

So, gifts don’t have to be new, they don’t have to be wrapped, and they don’t have to be things.  It seems simple enough.  But part of passing on a tradition is considering which parts to preserve and which parts to rethink.  As our kids grow up to face challenges that are truly global in proportion, maybe these small invitations to adapt will have cultured an openness to possibility that becomes material to their survival.  It sounds like a leap – but as a wise woman once told me, all things are linked.  I believe it.