Growing up Jewish in Los Angeles, where it’s regularly sunny and warm in December (notwithstanding the deluge they had earlier this week), Christmas was just as far away and make-believe as the thought of snow falling… it was all something I saw come to life on television once a year, but it had nothing to do with me.
It seems to have become increasingly difficult over the past few years for people to understand that Christmas is just another day for me. I’m sure their confusion has something to do with the gradual secularization of the holiday. A recent column in the Globe and Mail almost made me feel like a sourpuss for not adorning my home with holiday twinkles – come on, everyone’s doing it! Seriously, you’re telling me you don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas? Really? Um, what about the first six letters of the word? Ring a bell?
In case you’ve forgotten, allow me to remind you of what Christmas is all about, which I learned from none other than Charlie Brown’s all-knowing friend, Linus:
Really, I assure you, I’m no grinch – I adore the spirit of the holiday. Like every other TV-addicted North American kid, I grew up cheering on Rudolph when all those other mean reindeer wouldn’t let him play their reindeer games. I was hypnotized by the magical transformation of “Frosty the Snowman,” and wept big camel tears when the manger caught fire in the “The Little Drummer Boy.” If Christmas had any religious overtones for me, it was the fervor with which I looked forward to these TV shows each year.
As for that jolly fat bearded man in the red suit, well, when you’re four, it’s awfully hard – and not necessarily essential, in my opinion – to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. My mom must have been thinking the same thing while we were standing in line waiting for my turn to sit on Santa’s lap at The Broadway in Century City. Being the precocious child that I was, I certainly would have explained to Santa that I celebrated Chanukah, and I’m sure he’d have responded in a lovely and respectful way (after all, his agent was probably Jewish). It seemed obvious to both of us that Santa wouldn’t be sliding down my chimney because, you guessed it, we didn’t put up Christmas lights, the whole point of which was to let Santa know which roofs to land on and which ones to skip. Fair enough – we had our own gift-giving holiday. But boy oh boy, was it ever a thrill to meet my first real live celebrity.
I’ve had a handful of encounters through my life with “real” Christmas celebrations, which I’ve always approached with the interest of a cultural anthropologist. When I was about ten, my best friend Clare invited me to her house to help “trim the tree” with her family; the sheer fun of hanging ornaments and stringing lights and tinsel is still a cherished memory for me.
I’ve even gone to Midnight Mass, twice. The first time was when I was an exchange student at Hebrew University in the early 1980’s. The director of our program took a group of us students to a church in Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab town a few miles west of Jerusalem. The basilica, which was run by a French order of nuns and priests, was built during the Crusader period. My strongest memory is of the priests walking down the aisle waving canisters releasing an aromatic smoke – was it frankincense and myrrh? To this day, whenever I step into a church and recognize that scent, it reminds me of that night. The next morning, I wrote in my journal:
“Even though it was dark (we got there at 11:30), I could tell it was a beautiful cathedral, inside and out. I had trouble seeing, being seated in the aisle behind the pillar, but I think I caught the general gist of things. The music was absolutely gorgeous. Listening to the harmonies gave me shivers; even though I’d never heard any of them, they sounded familiar. It was neat seeing people take Holy Communion. I wish I understood more about the Christian religion. Maybe someday I’ll take a course in it, or maybe I’ll learn from a real live person.”
The second time I went to Midnight Mass was in the early 1990’s, with my best friend who was also Jewish, just because we were curious and thought it would be a fun thing to do. We picked out a Methodist church in West Hollywood, and I sang the alto parts on all the Christmas songs I’d learned from years of school choir. I do love Christmas music.
As an adult, I’ve gone over to friends’ homes for a meal on Christmas now and then, though more often than not I’ve gone out to movies and eaten Chinese food (how stereotypical, I know). The first time I woke up on Christmas morning in a house with small children opening presents under the tree (just like in the movies!) was just four years ago, when I was on a holiday staying with friends. I was a bit blown away by the sheer number of gifts that everyone (including me) received – it was a display of gross abundance, but that’s part of the holiday for some too, I guess.
Last year, I celebrated Christmas at my sweetheart’s parents’ home, where there was no tree and no pile of presents – just a quiet day full of long walks and jigsaw puzzles and lovely music and hot chocolate. It was my favourite Christmas so far. This year is more typical for me – quietly watching the rest of the world hustle and bustle to get ready for their gatherings, and appreciating the rituals in my own life. Tonight is Christmas Eve, yes, and it’s also Shabbat, so I will welcome that special day with the lighting of candles and a reflection on the gratitude I feel for my life.
For the record, I have no problem with Christmas lights and decorations. In fact, I absolutely love the brightness they bring into this darkest time of the year. I love the holiday cheer, I love the eggnog, I love the smell of pine needles, I love all of it. Most of all, I love not just the idea, but the actualization of peace and love and good will to everyone. I love that all year round, not just now, but we all need a reminder now and then – thus the reason for ritual. Christmas is a beautiful holiday, and I am happy to share it when invited by those who celebrate it – it’s just not my holiday, and that’s just fine by me.