How (and Why) I Let Go of Christmas
Like most people, my teenage years were a time of finding my own identity and questioning my childhood assumptions and values. Included in my rebellion was the most cherished of all memories: Christmas. To my view, the music was cheesy, the gift-giving was shallow and materialistic, the decorations were tacky, and I was never on board with the story of the virgin birth.
It was all a charade.
I loved the smell of the Christmas tree, the beautiful ornaments we hung every year with Handel’s Messiah playing in the background, the homemade cookies we ate on Christmas Eve while drinking eggnog out of special blue glasses that we only used once a year, the thrill of a full stocking on Christmas morning, singing Christmas carols at Mass, and celebrating a baby born to give hope to the world.
Like Charlie Brown, I feared that it was becoming too commercialized, and the hype could be downright depressing, but hating Christmas was my way of not loving it too much.
Of course, my husband, along with millions and billions of other people, doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but I never thought that my children wouldn’t celebrate it. How would I explain that Santa visits their cousins, but not them? What about all the ornaments and Christmas cookie recipes I had planned to hand down? Did I have to stop liking Handel’s Messiah? With baby boys of my own, I now felt the poignancy of the nativity story of a child in a manger sent to solve all of our problems.
My husband was very wise and never laid down any rules such as, “We’ll have a Christmas tree in this house over my dead body.” He just shrugged and told me to do whatever I wanted.
Baking cookies was definitely OK, no matter the occasion. In our modest Los Angeles apartment, though, we didn’t have room for a Christmas tree, and I had no desire to fight traffic and stand in line with a wailing toddler to see Santa Claus.
Of course, we were celebrating Hanukkah, too, and as a new mom, I found that I had neither the time nor energy to “do” both holidays well.
The more I learned about Hanukkah, the more I appreciated the plucky narrative of a people who refused to assimilate with the prevailing culture. We encountered choices, too, as our sons entered preschool, and December heralded a parade of Christmas-themed crafts and parties, and adorable renditions of “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad.”
Then I remembered another aspect of my upbringing that I never imagined would be different for my children.
I grew up in New England and the Midwest, so winter meant snow, and lots of it. One of my earliest memories is of the Blizzard of 1978, seeing snowdrifts over the top of our windowsills. Snow days, snow angels, snowball fights, sledding, and shoveling were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. The first time my two California boys saw snow – in a carefully planned outing to the mountains with borrowed boots and secondhand mittens – they were perplexed.
“What do we do with it?” they asked. My younger son, who was 3 at the time, found a patch of grass where the snow had already melted and refused to budge from it. But we live in Southern California, and although I occasionally long for the unexpected gift of a peaceful snow day, there is no guilt about it. I can share my memories, but I simply can’t recreate that experience for my children.
That analogy was instrumental in sorting out my feelings about Christmas and letting go of my childhood expectations.
We are a Jewish family, and despite its prominence in our American culture, Christmas is as foreign to my kids as snow in Beverly Hills. My boys don’t need to sit in Santa's lap to ask for presents – and they’re already jealous of every gift another child receives, no matter who gave it or why. (We’re working on that.)
On the other hand, it’s OK for me to enjoy the giant Christmas tree in my office lobby every year and to hum along with Handel’s Messiah and the Nutcracker. In fact, I enjoy these things even more because I no longer have the stress of sending Christmas cards and gifts to everyone I know.
And as a Jewish mom, I appreciate the sense of hope that Christmas brings as a reminder of the universal hope that maybe, just maybe, our sons and daughters can be the ones to repair the world.
Susan Brownstein and her family are members of Temple Sinai of Glendale in Glendale, CA.