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O Christmas tree with a side of menorah

December 18, 2009

I’m looking at this Christmas tree in our living room—this baby white fir just slightly taller than Col—selected, sawed, and dragged like a felled animal through the crispy leaves while winter was still a suggestion. The November ground still dry then, except for a few lean snow shapes stretched in north-facing shadows like sleeping animals.

We stuffed the tree into the Subaru, returned to the forest, made a small fire and watched the sun burst into orange flames over the horizon then ooze into the sharp spines of Baldy peak. (Also, if I remember correctly some female member of the family tried to initiate a little campfire singing until some other, smaller member, always encouraged to be honest, said “can you stop singing please?”)

If you ask Col what he remembers about that late November day, it’s the feel of the handsaw in his 4-year old grip, the metal teeth ripping into the live, grey bark. If you ask Rose, it’s the roasted marshmallows, the gummy remains on her toddler hands, like so much tree sap.

And me? Ambivalence like a sticky place in my own chest.

I grew up in a liberal, Jewish, highly-educated Berkeley family that didn’t think much of religion. We were (to borrow writer Joanna Brooks’ phrase) allergic to Christmas trees. Stockings and caroling brought on hives. And while Dan—across the country and unknown to me then—was tearing into a Christmas ham, his house twinkling with lights and good cheer, my family was scoffing at the hoopla while we ate mushu chicken, alone, at the local Chinese restaurant.

This Christmas allergy—a “social allergy with deep historical roots” says Brooks—had a bit to do with the landfill-marked plastic baubles, the feverish shopping, the list of prescribed activities that seemed as spontaneously joyful as the step-by-step of changing a tire. But break through the surface ice and below lay a thick river of fear. Fear that our own Jewishness might get trampled by boots storming a sale, drowned out by the swell of carols, or simply forgotten. Also, Brooks says “What is the Christmas tree but the mermaid on the prow of the ship of Germanic cultural conquest.” Yes, with family who didn’t survive the Holocaust, that too.

And then I left home and watched my 20-something friends taste the disappointment of their new, anemic adult Christmases, while I smugly continued to scoff at the hoopla and satisfy my late-December mushu chicken craving.

Then I got married to a nice Quaker boy and all Dan ever asked for on Christmas was some egg nog in his coffee. And so passed many December 25th’s

And then, like a rolling snowball that grows and grows, we had children. The children matured. And one day their bright eyes noticed the VW van-sized inflatable Santa on a neighbor’s lawn and the twinkling lights downtown and the tree at the library stacked with candy canes (one of which has been re-hung with a broken neck due to Rose frantically biting through the plastic while hunched behind the children’s non-fiction stacks).

And I’m realizing—even if a bit late in life—that when it’s 10 degrees outside and the day is just a just a sliver of light sandwiched between two thick, slabs of darkness, I need some brightness. Even if that brightness is the shine of my children’s drool while they ogle the cookies at a Christmas cookie exchange. Even if our clay ornaments came out lumpy and Col insists on sleeping with the ones he made and Rose sneaks nibbles at the salty, rock-hard edges of hers.

And like the Grinch, I’m growing out of my allergy to Christmas. I’m finding there’s room in our house for a small tree decked with the children’s ephemeral art and my paternal grandfather’s menorah. And truthfully? The children seem to think that bending the flaming tip of the Shamash candle towards the wick of the next candle in line is at least as exciting as tearing into a present. Last night, after lighting six candles on the menorah, Col stayed at the table, gazing into the light, in a rare, quiet, still moment.

And maybe most surprising—given that my Christmases were spent passing egg rolls across a shiny red tablecloth trying to ignore the holiday—is how I’m a little taken by Christmas now. Maybe it’s the kids, the way they love the Jesus story. “Was there chicken poop in that barn where he was born?” Col asks. And truthfully, even I’m a little in love with that story. Perhaps it’s the mother in me – what Mama hasn’t stared at her spanking new baby and thought “miracle.” Plus there’s that part of the story where Jesus grows up and teaches kids to share their toys and use their words and be kind to their sisters.

How could I not smile every time we pass twinkling lights and Rose shrieks “there’s Christmas!” (Except it sounds like “Dere’s Cwis-a-mas!”). We’ve spent many a frostbitten day inside, gratefully decorating the tree (which still makes me a little itchy), the kids hanging, re-hanging, dropping and breaking their own handmade ornaments. And what’s not to like about packages arriving in the mail, festive potlucks every weekend, and our friend Natalie dropping off homemade sweets at our door.

It’s beginning to look a lot like confusion, and when your holiday season is a goulash of flavors, none is celebrated perfectly. Sometimes we forget to light the candles until a pajama-ed kid points out the empty menorah right before bedtime. Last night I carried the candles to the menorah while absentmindedly humming “let heaven and nature sing.” And as for Christmas, there will be no bottomless pile of presents to wade through Christmas morn, no Santa myth to uphold. In fact, we’ve told the kids, gently, that Santa is not real. This weekend we’ll introduce winter solstice to our kids, maybe build a small fire in the woods and eat chocolate Hanukkah gelt. And there’s the Buddha icons sprinkled about the house that embody reminders to be mindful and kind, a religion I can get behind. Perhaps we should hang a bag of locally-roasted, organic coffee at the top of our tree, or a pound of elk meat and a thimbleful of homemade compost, which in the way of spinning banana peels and egg shells into soil, has always seemed a miracle.

And so like my Jewish ancestors thousands of years ago, we trudge through the wilderness (of holiday season), finding our footing, seeking the light and eating the hell out of some Christmas cookies.

How does your family celebrate?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Ike permalink
    December 18, 2009 8:41 pm

    OK, I admit it-we did try to ignore Christmas back then and we did go to Chinese restaurants because they were the only ones open around Christmas time. Now we are more accepting of all religions that encourage sharing toys and being kind to one another. In November we even took the grandkids on the Polar Express to see Santa and the North Pole and sang carols! Loved your writing and a great new banner (like the snow falling).
    Baba

  2. Jan permalink
    December 18, 2009 11:24 pm

    Well, I must admit that your two cousins in this house were raised with both a Christmas tree and a Menorah. My father was the Doughnut Grandpa and David’s father (Pop) was the Bagel Grandpa, who would never have understood that tree. (Somehow the kids always knew not to mention the tree to Pop!) My Dad was 100% Atheist from a Methodist background so he didn’t care what we did – he was just thrilled to be a Grandpa. We celebrate the season and never the religious part. And Christmas trees smell so good! So does melted candle wax!

    The writing was wonderful, and how did you make that snow fall? Love it.

  3. linda permalink
    December 19, 2009 10:07 am

    “…and the day is just a just a sliver of light sandwiched between two thick, slabs of darkness…”

    Brilliant. Bring on the Solstice!

  4. December 19, 2009 3:08 pm

    We love going to the forest every year to cut a tree. We enjoy being alone in the forest with nature and it’s silence. We bring the tree home and the kids enjoy placing the ornaments that they have collected or made over the years. My husband grew up going to the episcopal church and so he sings in the choir and my children take part in the Christmas pageant. We celebrate the solstice sporadically. We’ve tried to celebrate advent this year, all connected to a nature theme. I hate the commercialism of Christmas and I stay away from all malls. I do however frequent the fabric and craft stores for supplies. I love your writing. I think you would enjoy my friend’s blog..http://theslowcookedsentence.blogspot.com/2009/12/mad-dash-for-menorah.html

  5. December 19, 2009 7:14 pm

    Hi Rachel,
    This is a great post! I love your Christmas /Hanukkah/Buddhist/Solstice celebrations! And I’m glad to hear that your kids don’t believe in Santa….ours don’t either….although Tom’s santa chant is more like….”Santa is a lie.”
    A little bit of everything is nice my friend! Enjoy!
    love,
    sara

  6. December 19, 2009 8:07 pm

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I thought I’d return the favor.

    I love carols and tree cutting, Christmas lights on fresh snow, and smiles everywhere. I also adore playing the dreidel game with my kindergarten class and our old record of Hap Palmer singing about the Festival of Lights. And latkes. I’m contemplating a large solstice fire too. I don’t think you can ever celebrate too much.

  7. December 19, 2009 10:14 pm

    So eloquently written Rachel. Your holiday celebration actually sounds less confusing that most. You should be immensely proud for exposing Col and Rose to the genuine beauty in each of the different celebrations, those kids are very lucky indeed.

    To me, Hanukkah is a tummy full of brisket and latkes. Christmas means time off from school and work, who doesn’t want to celebrate that? And like the good Jews we are, we’ve continued the Belgard tradition of having a big special meal together with family that day (often a replay of Thanksgiving), yum.

    Thanks for your brilliant and beautiful insight.

  8. December 20, 2009 9:46 am

    What a great reminder that everything can come together as one. I feel like this is the best way to show our children that by combining the best of everything important to us, we can find peace within. Happy celebrations!!

    :)Lisa

  9. Steph permalink
    December 20, 2009 12:04 pm

    I loved this one! Funny how having kids evolves us to embrace things that we never before would have imagined embracing! I especially love the idea of putting the coffee at the top of the tree, after all, as parents of young children, coffee is quite the shinning star in our lives these days! I also love the new look of the blog and the beautiful photograph.

    As I write this, Chloe is in the living room, reciting, “Yay Christmas!” over and over.

  10. January 2, 2010 5:20 am

    I’m a “Passover Jew,” the product of a mixed family, a Jewish mother and Catholic father. Ostensibly I am a Jew, but there was really no temple or community in my very small home town, so we went through the Catholic routine. (We used to go to Church in our ski boots so we could drive to the slopes right after mass, which puts in perspective how devout we were.) We checked off all the sacraments and nodded at the Christian holidays, but at the same time lit the menorah during Chanukah and went to Florida to have Passover with our relatives almost every spring.

    Now that I have my own family, it’s the same: practice a bit of everything but with an emphasis on ritual and storytelling more than religion – the story of the faith, sure, a little, but really it’s about the story of how practicing this ritual fits into our family history and our way of celebrating the holiday.

    I loved reading about your patchwork celebrations, singing carols on the way to lighting the menorah, mixing and matching. It seems like you’re creating rich, diverse memories and stories that will help your children grow into tolerant and open-hearted people.

  11. January 3, 2010 2:11 am

    Thanks for your lovely comment on my blog! I’m very flattered because your writing voice flows so beautifully; hope to hear from you again.

    It’s fascinating to hear how your Jewish heritage and your SO’s Quaker background are the starting point of what you’re creating now. My husband’s Jewish, I was raised Baptist (and am African American) but we’re both from the same area of southern California.

    This year, our oldest kiddo is definitely engaged and asking questions about Jesus and his relationship to Joseph and God. And why Mommy believes one thing and Daddy believes another. Poor kid. He’s put most of that in the “file now for understanding later” category of his brain.

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