Thursday, December 24, 2009

I am a Secular Christmas Dropout!

Riding down in the elevator of the new Science Center, on my way for coffee while Tuvia finishes up his day at work, I read the sign: "Science Center closes at 3 p.m. today in honor of the holiday!" In my head, all I can think is, How weird that this has become just another day for me.

It's so weird, every time Christmas rolls around, to think that I used to be a huge fan of Christmas. I loved the songs, the trees, the lights, the celebration. I never really took the idea of it being the birthday of Jesus to heart, because I knew my history and I knew my religion. Regardless of this, in my parents house Christmas was the kind of day where everyone sat back and watched TV, played with the new gadgets and gizmos, and ate Christmas classics. Oh, and we also gorged on cookies. My mom was big on cookies during the holidays, and she usually sent my dad into work before and after Christmas with tins full of confectionery goodies: No Bakes, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Chinese Chews (now that I think about it, the name is kind of inappropriate), those cookies she made with the cookie gun that had all sorts of shapes, like Christmas trees and snowmen and snowflakes, as well as fudge and lemon cookies and every other kind of cookie her little hands could make. We'd chow on Chex Mix (homemade, of course), and watch whatever happened to be on television. New video games were torn open and inserted, played for hours. I remember one of my favorite gifts of all time was this nifty Crossword Puzzle thing, where you turned the knobs and you'd get a new game each time. I got my share of Barbie dolls and art supplies and books and definitely pajamas, too. But the aura of the day was beautiful. It was relaxed and casual and a day where we wouldn't do anything -- after all, you couldn't, because everything was closed. Sometimes we'd have to run out to Walgreens for batteries or milk or green beans, but really the only reason to go out was to look at the lights.

I still love the lights, of course. But only the white ones -- the colorful mess of wires and lights that ends up on some people's houses leaves me feeling queasy. There's something universal about the lights of the holidays (the white ones, anyway).

Now? Chanukah came and went, and each day was just another day, aside from the lighting of the Chanukiah and the opening of a few presents. It wasn't one day of extravagant present-opening or gorging on sweets. Chanukah just isn't set up for that, and it wasn't meant to be. In fact, I'm not sure that there *is* a holiday set up in the Jewish calendar that can compare to what we've turned Christmas into. And I'm okay with that. At the same time, the nostalgia that I feel for Christmas concerns me sometimes. It feels wrong or inappropriate. I bob my head to Christmas tunes in the store, and while sitting at the dentist yesterday (Christmas music blaring despite the fact that most of the dentists at this particular location are Jewish) my feet were tapping to the classic Christmas carols of my youth. At one point, I was busy singing those songs in choir and in class. What a different world I lived in!

I imagine if I lived in Israel, the feelings of Christmas would fade over time, and I probably wouldn't even long for the lazy days of mom's cookies and bulk gifts and cheesy, old Christmas ornaments. Did I mention the tree? My mom loves her tree -- it was her prized possession, always. Every year she struggled to get us to help her put it up, and begrudgingly we would always help her. Now? Mom doesn't have anyone to help her. She managed to get my little brother to help this year (with the help of his girlfriend). She sent me a photo of one of the ornaments, a very old one that she has put on the tree since the 1980s. It's a mirrored one, much like all of her early ones (the entire tree is white/silver with a few hints of color here and there), and her comment with it was "Did you know that one of the mirrors was a six pointed star....we must have know way back then that it would represent you :)." My mom, as always, has brilliant insight into these things.

At any rate, I just wanted to share some of my thoughts with you all. Very stream-of-consciousness here, so I apologize if it's unreadable. I'm just trying to figure out the emotions at this time of the year. It's impossible to wash them away, or to even wish them gone. In fact, I think the fact that I have positive memories of that time of my life is good -- Secret Santa, ornaments, mom's green bean casserole and Chex Mix, the constant gift of flannel pajamas -- they're all a part of who I was and inevitably will shape who I become. Plus, I think they give me particular insight into what it means to be a Secular American (Jesus never existed in our Christmas, period). Someday, when I have kids, I think I'll be able to explain things better because of my experiences. Let's just hope that they develop a sense of worldliness like I have, so that when Christmas time rolls around they will neither long for it nor disparage those who celebrate it.

If you're in the mood, read a very emotional Christmas Day post from 2007, or about Nittel Nacht, the traditional way Ashkenazi Jews spend (or don't) Christmas Eve!