Coming to terms with Christmas

Growing up, we didn't do Christmas. We celebrated Hanukkah. But then came marriage and a family, and well, how could you deny them Christmas?

By Dinah Lenney

December 24, 2010

Don't you love Christmas? asks my teenage son. This is a time-honored ritual. He starts asking before Thanksgiving, and tortures me straight through to New Year's.

I do not, I say every time. And when he insists, Yes, you do, Mom, you love Christmas, say you do, I stick to my lines. It's not that I object to Christmas, I don't; such a nice holiday, who could object? But it isn't mine to love.

Don't be ridiculous, says my husband. Christmas is for everyone.

Easy for him to say.

Growing up in a town with a church on every corner, we didn't do Christmas. We celebrated Hanukkah, with the restraint befitting a minor Jewish holiday; a simple menorah, brisket and latkes, and — in concession to the season — a few understated gifts. But no decorations — no shiny blue and gold banners, no blue and white lights, no point in competing with all that tinsel. We knew we were Jews. What a relief when the Christmas regalia was finally removed and our house looked like a regular house again, not shrunken and bereft. Until then, we hunkered down and waited out the party.

Christmas Day itself was especially fraught, since I spent it with my father, who had remarried a woman named Noel. "Merry Christmas," he boomed as I came through the front door, then feigned hurt when I rolled my eyes. "That's not very polite," he said. And maybe it wasn't. But I didn't want to play and was embarrassed for us both. I had a photo of my dad at 13, standing over his Torah portion, wearing a fringed tallit. Who did he think he was kidding?

Eventually, I married my own true WASP. Not that he was religious, but Fred grew up with Christmas and all the trimmings. So holiday season '86, the year we were wed, we bought a skinny live tree — as if we intended only to plant it — but in the meantime, why not decorate just for fun; we could dig it a hole afterward. I hung dangly earrings from the branches and strung them with garlands of ribbon, curled with a scissors.

But when Eliza, our first child, was born, I put the kibosh on Christmas festivities. Commendable, I argued, for a Gentile to sit through a seder, but when a Jew takes on Christmas, she's an imposter, a hypocrite. Never mind that Fred had valiantly donned a yarmulke more than once, that he'd been willing to learn the Sabbath blessings (though, if left to his own devices, he still veers off into "Red River Valley"). We are not celebrating Christmas, I said. I didn't care that it wasn't about religion for him, only peace on Earth, Santa Claus and the smell of pine — a whiff of his childhood — in his very own living room. In the end, Fred gave in.

And so that year, just weeks before my daughter's first birthday, we sat around awkward and sad. Fred's parents were dead. My own were on the other coast. Our little girl, impervious to her father's melancholy and my misgivings, played by herself on the kitchen floor. Watching her there, I realized: She was entitled to Christmas. How dare I steal my husband's past from him, her legacy from her? And just like that, I gave up the cause.

Christmas, though, is a slippery slope. Once you've surrendered, you can't just hang a scrawny fir with costume jewelry. You need one of those trees that takes over the living room; you need ornaments to weigh it down. You need lights, stockings, jingle bells and candy canes. Before I knew it, I was making wreaths, decorating cookies, helping the kids write letters to Santa, leaving out milk and cookies, and a carrot for Rudolph.

What are you? someone asked Eliza at her kindergarten holiday party. I'm half Jewish and half Christmas, she said without pause. I had done my job well.

That being so, in recent years, I've reverted to my curmudgeonly ways. With the children older and our family traditions established, I'm free to be the bristly, conflicted, slightly sheepish American Jew I am. The kids now expect me to play cynic and skeptic — hence our routine, Jake's and mine: Mom, don't you love Christmas? he teases. But if I'm a grump, I'm not the Grinch; I'm not about to steal Christmas from them. Hey, I gave it to them in the first place. It was my idea.

And what's my reward? Children — young people, that is — who love Christmas. People, related to me, who revel in the holiday without embarrassment or guilt. And why shouldn't they?

The tree is beautiful this year. Eliza is home for the holidays, our last before Jake too leaves for college. Wish us a merry Christmas, and three of us will return your wishes without ambivalence. I'm the fourth — though I hasten to assure you my ambivalence has nothing to do with your own good time. I want you to have it.

On behalf of my children and my husband, I thank you, and I genuinely wish the happiest of seasons to you and yours.

Dinah Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir" and teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.